Mulholland Dr. – five films that haunt David Lynch’s cryptic masterpiece

As one of the century’s best films returns to cinemas, we attempt to fathom some of the cinematic inspirations that might have been on David Lynch’s mind as he was making Mulholland Dr.

Amy Simmons

Mulholland Dr. (2001)

Mulholland Dr. (2001)

In terms of style, theme and structure, David Lynch’s Mulholland Dr. is less a story about dreams than it is about the corrupt, twisted fantasy of Tinseltown. Laid out as a convoluted network of interwoven plots, the film is told through the ruptured fantasies of Diane Selwyn (played by Naomi Watts in a superb breakout performance) who is experiencing a mental breakdown and has resorted to self-delusion in order to cope.

We are initially introduced to her as an aspiring young actress named Betty Elms, newly arrived in Los Angeles, who meets a beautiful amnesic woman, Rita (Laura Elena Harring), who takes refuge in Betty’s aunt’s apartment after a car accident. Assuming Rita must be a friend of her aunt, she allows her to stay. Before long, an intimate friendship starts to blossom, and the eternally optimistic Betty attempts to piece together Rita’s misplaced identity.

A captivating subplot, which is mysteriously and inextricably linked to both characters, then takes over the film, involving film director Adam (Justin Theroux), who is railroaded into casting a certain actress in his new production. Toying with notions of appearance, artificiality and deception, the film’s narrative becomes increasingly skewed and distorted as both women’s personalities begin to fracture and merge.

Part paranoid nightmare, part wish-fulfilling dream, Mulholland Dr. embraces the dark heart of film noir in its outstanding portrayal of Diane Selwyn/Betty Elms’ rapid slide into mania and suicidal despair.

The Wizard of Oz (1939)

Director Victor Fleming

Certain elements from The Wizard of Oz wield an elusive but inescapable influence on Mulholland Dr., as both films share a dreamlike structure that allows for the possibility that certain parts of their plot lines represent altered states. Here the leading characters, Dorothy (Judy Garland)/Diane/Betty, experience a traumatic incident from their dreary and unhappy ‘reality’ and descend into a fantasy world that contains – yet radically alters and distorts – the people they once knew. Additionally, just as the ‘wizard’ in the Wizard of Oz turns out to be a fraud, the magician (Richard Green) at Lynch’s ‘Club Silencio’ later signals to the audience that the performers on stage are an artificial construct, and that everything is an illusion.

Gilda (1946)

Director Charles Vidor

In an early scene in Mulholland Dr., the mysterious brunette (Harring) – having survived a car accident and suffering from amnesia – decides to call herself ‘Rita’, after seeing the name on a poster for the Rita Hayworth movie Gilda. This part of the film chimes suggestively with Hayworth’s constructed identity: she began her life as a naturally dark-haired Hispanic dancer, Margarita Cansino, before transforming into a redheaded ‘American’ sex symbol almost overnight. In this way, Mulholland Dr. evocatively illustrates how the old Hollywood studio system hijacked the identities of its dispensable stars – particularly in a later sequence where ‘Rita’ starts speaking in fluent Spanish as she sleeps and wakes up as another character.

Sunset Blvd. (1950)

Director Billy Wilder

Sunset Blvd. (1950)

Lynch has often cited Sunset Blvd. as one of his favourite films. Like Mulholland Dr., Wilder’s dark melodrama functions as a biting critique of the relentless power of the studio system and how it chewed up and spat out the stars it manufactured. Comparable to Sunset Blvd.’s tragic narrative of Norma Desmond’s (Gloria Swanson) fallen career and subsequent delusions of grandeur, Lynch’s story has washed up actress Diane Selwyn/Betty Elms seeing herself in an entirely fictitious dream world where she remains bright and confident, with a promising future. In each film both women attempt to kill themselves and murder the people they love.

Le Mépris (1963)

Director Jean-Luc Godard

Le Mépris (1963)

From the jitterbug sequence to the car crash, many of the key moments in Mulholland Dr. echo scenes in Jean-Luc Godard’s French New Wave classic Le Mépris. Godard’s film revolves around the making of an ill-fated movie version of Homer’s Odyssey, while Mulholland Dr. focuses on the complications in making a film called ‘The Sylvia North Story’. And Camilla in Lynch’s film recalls Camille (Brigitte Bardot) in Godard’s film: both are seen wrapped in a red towel, and both women transform from brunette to blonde and vice versa. “Silencio” is the last line of dialogue spoken in each film.

Persona (1966)

Director Ingmar Bergman

Persona (1966)

Persona’s influence on Mulholland Dr. is evident, as both films share multi-layered connections between issues of identity, fame, duality and insanity. In Bergman’s sensual psychodrama, a nurse, Alma (Bibi Andersson), takes care of stage actress Elisabet Vogler (Liv Ullmann), who has recently been struck mute. Throughout the film, Alma’s story shares a similar path with that of Betty/Diane in Mulholland Dr., as both blonde characters start out in optimistic and altruistic roles, as they look after a detached, brunette woman. However, their personalities change completely and irrevocably by the film’s finale, in which they are depicted as distrustful, angry and consumed by their own shortcomings.

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