30 October 2017
2001 | Mulholland Drive (David Lynch)
2001 | Mulholland Drive (David Lynch)
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Mulholland Drive (2001) is one of the most important films of the beginning of the new millennium. David Lynch brings all his narrative experiments to their extremes, making the transitions between sequences often confusing and almost irreducible. Nonetheless, the film reveals, in depth, a layer of coherence which not necessarily lead to one unambiguous interpretation.

Trailer for the film

Please note that this analysis may contain SPOILERS If you have never watched this film, please come back after you did – it’s really a film not to be spoiled.

Analytic difficulties.

David Lynch’s Mulholland Drive presents an incredible variety of different visual inputs and complexities. In order to proceed to an analysis it’s necessary, methodologically, to suture two different theories – the cognitive theory and the psychoanalytic one – so that we can reach a sort of hermeneutics of the text.
For this purpose, it’s also very important to focus on some of the passages that most offer the sense pregnancy – they are, at the same time, the most obscure scenes, where the meaning is less clear, and the most intense moments that P. Bertetto defines “points of vibration” (1).
Essentially, what is asked to the spectator (or the analyst) is the reconstruction of the fabula (linear story) starting from the plot (interwoven) and the way the latter unfolds: we realize that the film has two parts – two different blocs treated differently (chromatically-wise or in regards to the costumes or even in the distortions of the framing in the first part and the temporal ones of the second part). In its first part, the film is tendentially linear, while in the second everything becomes chronologically in disorder and in order to reconstruct the real order of the things we need to “point our camera” to the props (key, ashtray).
The distance between the first “universe” and the second one seem to put the two extremes in a binary opposition and before proceeding we have to collocate these two worlds in spheres of coherence.

The symptoms

The first frame after the prologue is the gaze of the camera that, initially off-focus, freely moves towards a pink pillow before immersing itself in the black: the film begins and we are going to Mulholland Drive that is the exact counterpart of the famous Sunset Boulevard – on which road Billy Wilder centred one of his most important films (Sunset Boulevard, indeed) that had at its core the actors’ world and that became a poignant self-reflection of the cinema itself. This reference clearly indicates that this film will also have to be investigated on a similar axis.
Obviously the first image tells us something, but also puts down some questions: there is someone (something) that is going to sleep, but whose gaze is this? On the gaze identity, but more in general (and at the same time in particular) on the identity tout court the film constructs its sense.
The first scene leads to the incident that, metaphors aside, is the classic inciting incident (only not in this “world”) theorised by the American screenwriting professors like Robert McKee (2): “The inciting incident radically upsets the forces equilibrium in the life of the protagonist.” . The incident is something with no return from and it activates the plot of the first part of the film, in particularly the research of Rita (Laura Harring) of her own identity. This also sets up her paranoia (certainly motivated) that someone is trying to kill her.


The drama of the loss of memory (and identity) is sharpened when Betty (Naomi Watts) asks Rita what her name is: Rita is upset and understands she doesn’t remember anything. When she comes out of the shower, in the toilet there’s a poster of Gilda (1946), a film by Charles Vidor that encapsulates the strength of the classic Hollywood cinema in regards to the character introduction and its stars (3). The protagonist of Vidor’s film is played by Rita Hayworth, from which our character takes the name – notably, not from the character but from the actress playing her.

The editing game takes us to the moment in which Rita identifies herself with the star of Gilda through the combination of two frames that reveal the highly theoretical construction of the visuals:
1) The poster of Gilda is framed through a potential point of view shot (we could assume it’s Rita’s, but we can’t know as Lynch didn’t present the space) – it must be seen as a point of view shot though because the angle would be totally unjustified;
2) it’s a frame constituted by an exceptional gaze architecture: the frame that should “classically” follow the point of view shot is the eyeline match shot that shows us the character looking matching the eyeline towards the direction of the observed object in the extra-diegetico and it’s usually a frontal shot. What we find here though is a mirror game: in the smaller mirror on the left we see the poster, whilst in the bigger we see Rita’s face looking in the direction of the poster. But her face is accessible only through the mirror, because Lynch avoids the frontality of the character and we have her on the scenic quinta (OTS). What is clear to a compositions analysis is that the gazes (and the mirrors) are definitely angled in a illusionistic way: Rita in the big mirror looks in the direction of Rita (Gilda) in the poster and it’s only because of the illusion of the mirror game that the gaze can be said to be precisely aimed at the poster (as in an internal framing montage) and as if moreover than the character, the process of identification happens between two mirrors – is Rita a projection of someone else? Is she a mirror for someone else?
Rita’s body indicates that she’s looking out of frame and not to the mirror as it could look like to our first gaze, therefore the mirror game reveal another hidden gaze (unveiled by the zoom towards the mirror) – the camera’s point of view (the zoom as mechanical device as seen in our Shining’s analysis) but also Betty’s as we will slowly reveal in the next few pages: what Lynch is interested in is the identification process that happens during the mirror phase as per Lacan’s theory (4) – this theory has been very often transported into the cinema studies and shed light on the identification process between spectators and films, where the spectator identify both through the to the camera’s point of view and everything inside the diegesi, and with the character.

It’s the camera that through the mirrors gain access to the character and Rita seem to unveil herself, just like Rita Hayworth in Gilda, as nothing more than a fetish, an object of desire and not a subject, but whose? The plot clearly indicates she’s the protagonist, whilst her counterpart, Betty, who helps her in her research and protect her, seems to have minor impacts on the plot itself. Betty seems to live a wide awake dream: she’s an actress looking for success; she has had a perfect casting and is offered the chance to have one for a well affirmed and cool director; she lives in the city of dreams (Los Angeles); and she’s got approval from two old characters at the airport that are obvious substitutes for the parental figures; she also seems to live in a noir or a detective story – a genre so typical of a certain american cinema.
The other characters of the film (the cowboy, the waitress, the director, the killer, Dan and his psychiatrist that at the moment seems to be only an appearance, etc.) are untied from the principal plot at this point of the narrative, if not for an exchange of gazes between Betty and the director Adam Kescher (Justin Theroux) who finds himself forced to choose a certain Camilla Rhodes, sponsored by extremely powerful gangsters, over Betty.

Apartment 1-2

Another visual cue gives us the key for some of the ambiguity and ambivalence: when Betty and Rita are looking for Diane Selwyn’s apartment – in this first part Diane is still an unknown character – their wandering around in the courtyard is dotted by subjective point of view shots of ambiguous origins until they reach the apartment 12 (1 and 2, not a casual number). Their synchronous looks merge into just one point of view shot. The editing for this scene goes as follow: there’s a two-shot of them looking, the point of view, the following two-shot (eyeline match) sees them even in an inverted position. This gaze, merging into one two different gazes, identifies the two woman as one character.

After the discovery of the body of Diane Selwyn, Rita cries and with the help of Betty, she becomes a doppelganger (Lynch!) of Betty, imitating even her hair colour (signalling a very strong reference to Ingmar Bergman’s Persona). On the same night, after Rita is back to her original appearance (the hair colour was only a wig, an illusion), the two characters will have a very passionate sexual intercourse, in which they finally seem to find completeness (although, a mirrored one). Rita then wakes up and in a state of delirium takes Betty to the Club Silencio.

Rita and Betty in Mulholland Drive
The illusion show

At the Club Silencio the image is more and more incomprehensible and becomes a sort of a transitional psychic threshold as pointed out by Bertetto (6) who finds in this scene (and the following transition) the film’s “point of vibration”: a presenter, by the vaguely Mephistophelean look, is introducing a show – “it’s all recorded”, “it’s just an illusion” are lines that underline in an extreme fashion the fictional character of the scene (as strong as a fourth wall breaking). When the singer falls down, fainted, the song continues confirming what the host of the show had said. The event is not live, the woman’s singing is just an illusion. The tear she has drawn on her face is fake, while true are only “the tears and the emotions of the spectators Rita and Betty”. They are in a dark room and live with growing emotions the performance of this love lost dramatically. Bertetto reminds us that “everything is artificial, fake, illusive. Only the perception of the spectator and his emotional reactions are effectual, therefore authentic. Anything else is illusion. […] But a fictional show in which the only thing that are true are the reactions by the spectators is nothing more than a cinema projection”.
Lynch manages to metaphorize the cinema inside the theatre and not the other way around as often happens, and he gets to a paradoxical mise-en-abyme of the cinema mechanism that violently breaks the Chinese boxes (cinema-within-the-cinema) built to finally reveal its essence.
Just like it happens when a dream is about to end and the last pale images of the dream shows shades of unreality between the cracks so much so that our conscience finally interprets these images as elements of a dream (and not reality), breaking our total immersion in it. It’s not even that unusual that some of the elements of the dream are kept, momentarily, into our reality in the first moments just after we wake up.

An illusion that is collocated on a self-reflective level, but also on a psychological one: just after this Rita disappears into the black of a blue box appeared in Betty’s bag inside the Club Silencio (it’s opened by a blue key which meaning and use was totally obscure since now). Betty is the mean for the solution, she’s the bearer of this box.

The remaining “transition” (a slide, a slip, more than a transition) is left to some reality splinters that break into a context that may finally seem real. Betty, who’s now Diane Selwyn – with a strong and extreme conceptual jump – wakes up from a dream that reveals itself as so to the conscience.

The illusion architect

An illusion that is organised by a figure who, in the cinematographic context is the director, but on the psychological level, is Betty (now Diane). Therefore, everything could’ve easily been a Diane’s dream: everything we are shown after this violent sliding would result in a temporal line that Lynch treats as just one flux mixing and juxtaposing flashbacks as linear and chronological images with “phantasmal” (psychological concept of phantom) appearances – what may seem like a pushed attempt to make the narrative mechanism incomprehensible for the sake of it is actually the opposite as chronologically revealed by the details: in fact, by collocating the ashtray on a timeline we realise which ones are the moments before the murder of Rita (who’s now Camilla), just like the blue key signal the accomplishment of the killing. Basically, Lynch deletes the transitions and the chronological order not to make the film unintelligible, but more because the transitions are very often seen as a sign for the spectator to reset his focus and head into the next scene – stimulating more of a surface attention than a proper immersion. Lynch has no interest in suturing the spectator to the screen in a passive way, and requires from his audience more and more attention and focus.

On another level, Diane’s pathology seem to have a very strong effect on the way the film unfolds. The estrangement that in the first part was underlying the location changes with an uncanny way to maintain the spatial continuity (i.e. the editing with Rita’s gazes off frame) but with a feeling of a “manipulated” time transforms itself in this second part in an uninterrupted flux in terms but constantly discontinuous in terms of spatiality and time: the underlying latent content – the dream (the first part) – is paradoxically of easier access than the manifest content – the reality (the second part). This is a very interesting point as it’s a reversal of the usual way the films are: very often the manifest content is prominent and is used to find keys to analyse the latent one – which is often very subtle and hidden from the surface. This reversal really problematizes the concept of reality and what it means – as it always happens in Lynch’s work.

Justin Theroux in Mullholand Drive

If we turn our focus to the other characters that we see in the second diegetic “universe” – that we’re conventionally calling reality – and we put them in a binary opposition (and comparison) with their counterparts in the first part (dream), the mechanisms of desire of the (dreamer-desirer) subject appear a lot clearer as well as the condensation and displacement ones (typical of dreams) do: the director – that inside the dream is powerless against the produces and have to comply with some bigger than him dynamics and has a very complex sentimental life (cheated by his wife) which makes him precipitate in a nervous breakdown (almost childlike) – is in the second (reality) “universe” a hungry and successful man who shows that he can pull the strings and is responsible for the break up between Diane (ex-Betty) and Camilla (ex-Rita); the killer who Diane hires to kill Camilla is in the dream incapable of carrying out even the easiest tasks – which indicates the deep regret that Diane has towards the assassination of her love/hate object and her identification with her that leads to a double death (of the subject and the object of the desire – inscribing themselves to the same “end” and maybe same “identity” once more).

The mirror game

We spoke about how important was the mirror scene and how that worked in regards to the identities of the character(s). It’s all a game of reflections.
The waitress at the Winkie’s that in the dream is called Diane (N. Watts’ name in the second part), in the reality it’s called Betty (Watts’ name in the first part): in the dream part only when Rita sees the waitress’ label (Diane) thinks that the key for her identity is Diane Selwyn (as we understand by the end of the film, rightly so); in the reality part the waitress’ label says Betty and we see it in the exact moment when Diane (N. Watts) commissions the murder of Camilla.

Camilla Rhodes (Rita in the first part) has the same name of the actress that is imposed by the gangsters to the director in the first part. Other than having landed important acting parts in place of Diane, she’s also her lover (the only doubling that is quite similar in both parts – not casually involving sex). The break-up to this relation happens exactly in the repetition of the inciting incident on Mulholland Drive: this time, in Rita’s place there’s Diane/Betty, but the mechanism is practically identical if not for the scene solution: in the dream Rita was threatened, in the reality Diane is taken in the car by Camilla and lead to a restaurant where the director Adam Kesher and Camilla communicate their engagement.

The violent breaking up of the relation, welded to the evident “schizophrenic” state of Diane (who begins seeing strange figures, for instance the cowboy, exiting the restaurant and is reflected in the apparent visual confusion of this part) not only lead to the commissioning of the killing and it shrivels up again until it reaches the inciting incident state again, in opening rupture of the same principles of screenwriting manuals – the same we were talking about in the opening of this piece which ascribe clarity and speed in the exposition of what the inciting incident is supposed to be – and the effects (7) – but also to the definitive polarization of Diane’s world. The threat to Camilla’s life is precisely reflected in the paranoid feeling of Rita in the dream. The dreamer (Diane) obviously knows that the threat is real.

The character(s) Diane/Betty is the architect and the true both latent and manifest protagonist of the film – another thread of analysis could be well directed to the self-reflective status of an actor. In the second part, she’s the character that the camera always follows: her object of desire Camilla, in the dream, becomes what Diane wants her to be – another reflection of herself, also symbolised in the homosexual relation, after she dresses up exactly like her.

Naomi Watts in Mulholland Drive

Diane is hiding during the dream, there’s no need for her to express herself as her motivations are literally staged through the dream mechanism: her “fictional” passivity of the first part is nothing else than a revelation of the dream device. When, in the reality, the substitute for the parental figures (the two old men) break in as a hallucinatory, irrational and censorial of Diane’s behaviour reflections, her schizophrenia and pathological condition are now manifest and Diane herself seems to choose the suicide (foreshadowed by her subconscious by the monstrous figure) and carry out the definitive scrunching up of her Self.

The “monstrous”.

The discovery of the body of Diane (actually in room 17) seem to hurt this analysis, but actually the same identification of the two women under the same gaze makes the condensation of the end of Camilla/Rita hold onto the displacement mechanism of Diane’s body and help the explanation through the Self (the dead character named just like N. Watts’ character) of the definitive resolution of Diane/Betty (who would now become a dead character from the beginning just like the protagonist of Sunset Boulevard).
The monster is a real bridge with some of the deepest parts of the subconscious as it’s clearly noticeable in one of the most famous (probably scariest – it definitely gave me a pure shock) scene of the film: the account of a terrifying dream that a character (Dan) gives to his psychiatrist at the Winkie’s on Sunset Boulevard. The scene is a dream that Rita has, and just like the mechanism of the Chinese boxes that we found in place in the Club Silencio, it becomes a dream within a dream and it’s originating from the “main” dreamer’s mind: Diane. It represents the presence in her (in everyone’s?) subconscious of the monstrous and its uncanniness: what is absolutely scary in this scene is the fact that everything is identical to the way Dan described his dream; he repeats many times the word “face” and, although we’re kind of prepared for a face to appear, when it actually does appear – masterfully staged by Lynch with a fluid entrance, with no human behaviour or steps, as if the actor was on a skateboard – what we see is a “face”, indeed, or something that does look like a face, but it’s at the same time something else which is the exact definition of the uncanny in Freud – something familiar that reveals a strange and unfamiliar aspect(8). It makes the spectator vibrates with an easy and definitely not expensive setup – sometimes if a scene is well thought needs nothing more than the right staging to deliver its load: this scene is constructed by a precise montage and moving point of view shots heading towards corners and the dread feeling is even increased by the sensation that when the “monster” comes out the camera hadn’t even reached the position for the next cut, whilst the spectator is still asking himself if anything is gonna happen after all. Dan has an heart attack and dies there, presumably for the proximity to the subconscious, which is erasing the boundaries between dream and reality – same motivation for the death of Diane/Betty.

The film is a constant return (of the repressed?) in the shape of a (schizophrenic) doubling: a even more detailed analysis could render a better account of all the doubles of the film in view of the exceptional coherence of all the elements and details that in this film that rotates around lines that are not chronological (asynchronous for instance when mind images are merged with reality bits). In the second part there’s a look by Diane to Camilla, the former asks the latter if she’s back and we see that Diane’s look land not on Camilla (as expected) but on herself in a different time. The second part (the reality) basically wraps and surrounds all the first part (the dream) and the final reconstruction of the linear story is possible through the props and details.

Different Paradigms

The beauty of this film (and maybe of Lynch’s career) is in the fact that you can dismantle it and re-construct it under another analytical paradigm -i.e. two parallel worlds, double (triple) dream; absence of any reflection and independence of the two worlds; too strong of a mirror effect and too close identification between subject and object of desire – stars and spectators – until it reaches the fetishism of emulation of look and moves – and it would still probably work!
Lynch takes a theory and he brings it to the extremes: every analytical objectivity is absolutely impossible – after all it’s all just an illusion – and although his seeds are clear in sight it’s only down to the spectator to harvest the field and see what he can make up of it.

In these terms the prologue and the epilogue of the film represent, in their extra-narrative frame position, a phantasmal double of the film itself. They carry with them the double concept of show (fiction) and death: the prologue is the award that Diane won in her hometown for dancing and that convinced her to move to Hollywood in search for success – and the cartoon-y and outline effect offers an asynchronous image of the narrative plot and the phantasmal characterisation of it denoted by the infinite doubling of the couple. The epilogue of the film stages the last and funereal announcement of the Silence that lies on three different levels: 1) end of the film; 2) the feeling of death (and silence as the ultimate existential condition); 3) the silence that the first time as spectators we all fall in the first time we watch this film (ha!).

This film is really one of the most important of the new century and it’s a symphony of details that, reassembled and recomposed and put in resonance with each other, show what a masterful architect of illusions the director is, able more than anyone else to show a glimpse inside the human mind with a complexity never reached before. A masterful discourse on the dream and a stunning contribution (even on a theoretical level) to the cinema.

You don’t know what film to watch tonight? Please have a look at our Film Alphabet page.


(1)P. Bertetto, L’analisi interpretativa. Mulholland Drive, in Id., a cura di, Metodologie di analisi del film, Roma-Bari, Laterza, 2006 pp. 225-226

(2)Robert McKee, Story, Roma, Omero editore, 2010, p. 173

(3)”[Gilda]: the film itself prepares the vacuum that Rita Hayworth fills” in M.A. Doane, Identità e misconoscimento, in Eretiche ed Erotiche, a cura di G. Fanara e F. Giovannelli, Napoli, Liguori, 2004, p.82

(4)”il riconoscimento da parte dello spettatore che guarda un film, è sempre un misconoscimento […]. Decisiva e fondamentale per la «forma di misconoscimento» tipica del cinema è la teoria, sviluppata da Jacques Lacan, sul cosiddetto «stadio dello specchio» […]. Lo stadio dello speccio contrassegna una fase evolutiva del bambino tra i sei e i diciotto mesi di vita. In questa fase il bambino non è ancora in grado di controllare la motilità del proprio corpo […] ma è capace di riconoscere la propria immagine allo specchio.[…] Questa esperienza non si esaurisce però nella situazione in sè, come accade per le scimmie antropodi, bensì significa per Lacan l’ingresso del bambino nell’ordinamento simbolico, ossia nelle strutture sociali. Per un verso, il bambino si percepisce dall’esterno come entità completa e in sè conchiusa; non sarebbe possibile avere questa percezione dall’interno […]. «Il bambino si identifica con se stesso come oggetto» – afferma Metz. Egli si percepisce più progredito in senso motorio di quanto non sia in realtà, poichè è capace di determinare da sè i movimento dello specchio, vale a dire possiede quel grado di controllo che nella realtà manca al suo corpo. […] In tal modo si origina un Io ideale che forma la base per successive identificazioni, oggetti d’amore, appropriazioni ecc. È l’ «autorappresentazione» (l’Io ideale) che viene stabilizzata e fissata da quel punto in avanti, quella con cui confina il soggetto quale Ideale dell’Io (L’altro/L’altra). In questo modello, ogni relazione affettivamente carica si basa quindi su una sorta di misconoscimento proiettivo e narcisistico della realtà – desiderare è sempre il desiderio di essere desiderati da qualcun altro. […] L’identificazione [nel cinema] poggia su una relazione immaginaria simile a quella del riconoscimento di sè nella prima infanzia, sebbene lo spettatore non abbia certo più bisogno che «questa somiglianza gli venga letteralmente illustrata sullo schermo, come avveniva sullo specchio della sua infanzia»” in Thomas Elsaesser e Malte Hagener in Specchio e volto, in Teoria del Film, Un’introduzione, Torino, Giulio Einaudi editore, 2009, p.67

(5)”Il fatto che sembra esserci sempre maggior spettacolo, e quindi più cinema, nella rappresentazione della donna non è senza impicazioni ideologiche. Gilda si sposta nell’immobilità: la donna viene resa in modo improvviso nella totalizzazione del feticcio” in M.A. Doane, Identità e misconoscimento, in Eretiche ed Erotiche, a cura di G. Fanara e F. Giovannelli, Napoli, Liguori, 2004, p.82

(6)P. Bertetto, L’analisi interpretativa. Mulholland Drive, in Id., a cura di, Metodologie di analisi del film, Roma-Bari, Laterza, 2006 pp. 239-241

(7)”di norma il primo evento principale della trama centrale si verifica nel corso del primo quarto della narrazione.” in Robert McKee, Story, Roma, Omero editore, 2010, p. 190

(8)Sigmund Freud, The uncanny, 1919

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