Recently selected by 177 critics as the finest film of the 21st century in a BBC poll, David Lynch’s Mulholland Dr. is possibly the crown jewel in a career full of gems.
As Evan Puschak of Nerdwriter suggests in his video “Mulholland Drive: How Lynch Manipulates You” (below), what makes Mulholland Dr. so great is its ability to build off of subverted expectations, something that Lynch has spent his entire career doing. The auteur sets up a very specific view of the world for his audience, slowly inches the rug out from underneath them—then turns the entire world of the film upside down.
Lynch plays with cinematic clichés, devices with which we understand particular emotions due to conventions that we recognize. A slow camera push forward, for example, is an often-used Lynch trope, representing love at first sight. Mulholland Dr.‘s audition scene, in which Betty Elms (Naomi Watts) tries out for The Sylvia North Story turns out to be the exact opposite of our expectations, Puschak argues. We’ve been conditioned to expect a certain outcome—a cheesy performance of already-hokey dialogue—and we go in trying to decipher some meaning to the sequence. Then the raw pull of emotion on display from Watts stops us.
In this scene, we are lured into engaging emotionally with a deliberately artificial scene of an actress auditioning for a scene. By right, this scenario should have no sense of genuine emotion. Yet Betty throws everyone in the room into a trance-like daze, seemingly out of nowhere. Lynch set us up, switched the bait and, as Puschak says, “left us in awe of what happens next.”
In many ways, scenes like this one are a condensed version of the bait-and-switch Lynch perhaps most thoroughly explores in Twin Peaks, both the show and the film. This audition scene seems to rework all of Mulholland Dr., much like how Twin Peaks: Fire Walk With Me reworks and reimagines Twin Peaks the TV show. Instead of providing us with what we expect, or what we are comfortable with, Lynch pushes reality to the forefront in all his work, ahead of simple dream-worlds and fantasies.
In Mulholland Dr., Lynch makes his audiences “privy to the veneer of things,” says Puschak. These shallow perceptions of reality are all we get throughout large portions of the film. The falseness rings unusually true and, the further we get into the film, the more we understand that these are not the result of sub-par acting or directing but, rather, a master manipulator playing on our every emotion. MM
Mulholland Dr. image courtesy of Universal Pictures.