I remember being confounded by this film 15 or so years ago. The American Essentials Film Festival was a chance to revisit this David Lynch classic as part of a larger retrospective. It still stands up as a beautifully atmospheric and cleverly crafted film, both echoing and subverting traditional cinematic storytelling.
To recount the plot is almost a disservice to the intricacies of the film and, pertinently, a red herring. Betty (Naomi Watts) is a perky fresh-faced ingenue fresh off the plane from the wilds of Canada and, like so many others, seeking stardom. A dark haired woman is being driven at night along Mulholland Drive above Hollywood. The car stops unexpectedly and the driver pulls out a gun. Two carloads of joyriding youths careen wildly along the road, colliding with the car and killing everyone but the woman. She staggers off, unable to remember who she is, and ends up in the apartment where Betty is staying.
Of course, though, as this is Lynch, nothing is what it seems. We are pulled willingly into a classic private eye film noir movie as the two femme fatales try to solve the mystery of who ‘Rita’, the dark haired woman, is. A parallel story shows film director Adam (Justin Theroux) hounded by menacing mob-like heavies until he agrees to cast an unknown woman as the lead in his next film. There are the usual Lynch oddities – unexplained vignettes, repeated motifs, meaningfully menacing characters, red curtained rooms – all underscored with the eerie Badalamenti drone that makes you feel that evil is just around the corner.
It is only at the end that the real story emerges and all those multicoloured and disparate threads are pulled together. Lynch has given clues to help people decipher the film although it seemed much less complex this time around, perhaps because I was already aware that it contains components of dream as well as reality. I can see why this was a turning point in the international career of Naomi Watts. Apparently she was ready to head back to Australia but was convinced to stick around until the film was released.
What I didn’t know back in 2001 was that this was originally made as a TV series spin-off from Twin Peaks in 1999. Creative differences saw it stall and then two years later Lynch added an ending to tie up the story and released it as a feature film. This explains a lot about the structure and the proliferation of peripheral characters but doesn’t take away from this being an artfully-crafted and absorbing film.
Have you seen this film? Let me know what you think of it, and what your theories are about its meaning, in the comments below.