26th May2017

‘Mulholland Drive’ Blu-ray Review

by Rupert Harvey

Stars: Naomi Watts, Laura Harring, Justin Theroux, Ann Miller | Written and Directed by David Lynch


Re-released to coincide with the new Twin Peaks series, it’s apt that Mulholland Drive was originally conceived as a TV pilot. Perhaps it’s for the best it ended up in (relatively) short form. The film, weighing in at 2.5 hours, is an epic mind-bender on its own terms, and there’s barely a wasted frame.

It begins with a car accident on Mulholland Drive. A woman, who will become known as Rita (Laura Harring), survives with a knock to the head. She stumbles away and hides in an empty house. The house belongs to Aunt Ruth, whose niece Betty (Naomi Watts) arrives the next day. She’s come to L.A. with the dream of an acting career. Rita and Betty become friends. But Rita can’t remember anything – not even her real name – and her handbag contains wads of cash.

Meanwhile, a sinister mob is trying to track Rita down. It is also leaning on upstart movie director Adam Kesher (Justin Theroux). Adam is searching for the ideal leading lady for his new movie – and the gangsters have a very specific idea about who should take the role.

As Betty and “Rita” hunt down the latter’s identity, their bond strengthens and their quest darkens. Their shared purpose leads them to fall in love. It also leads them to Club Silencio, where they undergo a mutual revelation. At this point the narrative shatters. Scenes overlap and realities converge; spatial and temporal logic seems to break down and identities suddenly shift. The last half-hour is a surrealist swarm. It’s also the most moving cinema Lynch has ever produced.

Mulholland Drive is a film that invites head-scratching and argument, but in the first instance it’s best to simply surrender. Scrutiny can wait. A neo-noir nightmare, it takes the best bits of Lost Highway’s Mobius strip narrative and Fire Walk With Me’s fetishistic menace, and injects them into a sprawling murder mystery, overwhelmingly woozy in style and labyrinthine in plot. It’s an oubliette of weird encounters, aching sensuality and ravishing melodrama.

The Winkie’s Diner sequence, with its floating camerawork and dream monologue, is pure Lynchian horror, culminating in a well-earned jumpscare. But then, moments later, we’re thrust into a slapstick assassination sequence worthy of The Naked Gun. Tonal gymnastics is a precarious skill, and it’s to Lynch’s credit that he’s able to segue between his genre inspirations without it feeling crass or insincere, or like a series of disconnected episodes. The story is, secretly, entirely coherent.

At first it seems like that story is Rita’s: a life flashing before her eyes in the form of an old Hollywood potboiler. “It’ll be just like in the movies,” Betty insists. The narrative has the air of a half-remembered dream; the fractured structure of a screenplay made up as it goes along. Then something changes and the dream becomes Betty’s. Now, all of the intrigues we’ve witnessed seem like the conjuring of a fevered mind. An obsessive mind.

The camera explores the catacombs behind the façade of the boulevard like a prowling creature. We are guests in the grey area between waking and sleep, and it is painted gaudy and degraded in equal measure. There’s a clue when Betty first visits her aunt’s apartment: she takes a tour and is agape at the alleged loveliness of her new home – even though what we the audience are seeing are creepy shadows and grimy brown walls.

Lynch’s puzzle box is purpose-built to reflect the experience of its characters. Betty is trying to break into show-business, a machine constantly (re)creating its own myths. Showbiz isn’t just about actors putting on plays, it’s about the cult of celebrity. It’s about the uncanny middle ground between on-screen persona and off-screen intrigue. Mulholland Drive is eerily prescient about “reality show” culture. Anyone who’s kept up with the Kardashians may feel the same sense of unease as they wonder which parts are genuine and which are not. Moreover, we wonder which parts the subjects themselves consider real.

The film also mirrors our experience of actively watching film. Suspension of disbelief is a temporary acceptance of a truth different to our own. We accept a fiction as reality for 90 minutes, and then emerge. But when life imitates art – when reality and fiction become indivisible, as occurs in Betty’s mind – truth cannot be apprehended. This is what Betty discovers, and this is what leads her to ruin. The film affectingly plays on our fear of madness; our fear that the meaning we think we’ve found isn’t genuine, but just an illusion.

Mulholland Drive is as strange as Lynch’s strangest work, but not so deep down there is a straightforward and very moving story about a young woman desperate to be loved. Problem is, she’s confusing – or possibly compounding – love and adoration. Through the illusion of Rita, it becomes increasingly apparent that the love Betty seeks is deeper than the superficial idolatry offered by the movie industry. She’s seen the sign in lights but she doesn’t belong there.

This is still Watts’ best performance. It’s a show of astonishing range, as she goes from bright-eyed Hollywood hopeful to wretched love-junkie, and everything in between. Alongside her, Harring captures the seductive elusiveness of a starlet unused to being removed from her precious persona, and Theroux is a deadpan hoot as the smarmy would-be-auteur.

Angelo Badalamenti’s warm synth pads are a perfect match not just for the tender relationship between the women, but for the menacing underworld that lies behind the La La Land curtain. The composer’s shifts from sinister to romantic – from synthetic (phony) to orchestral (real) – are heartbreaking.

David Lynch loves exploring peculiarly American worlds, whether it’s the cherry pie soap opera setting of Twin Peaks, the rolling road trip of The Straight Story, or the apocalyptic L.A. noir of this, his masterpiece. Hollywood loves a mirror. Mulholland Drive may look like a circus mirror, but look hard enough and its reflection is devastatingly true.

The digital restoration and extras bring this re-issue closer to the riches of Criterion’s US Blu-ray. In addition to the extras included on 2013’s region B StudioCanal disc, we also get new interviews with David Lynch, Naomi Watts and Laura Harring.

Mulholland Drive is out on Blu-ray now.


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