Grand Unified Theory of Mulholland Dr.
Grand Unified Theory by Robert Giles
Introduction to Reality
The best way to start delving into the mysteries of Mulholland Drive is, at the onset, establish what thie story is about. This, to many, might not seem an easy task for there are a few different ways of interpreting the film and in this lies the brilliance of this cinematic marvel. The following is by no means an official interpretation of Mulholland Drive, but rather the perceptions of one Lynch fan and what he gets out of the fllm and what lies at the heart of its labyrinthine plot.
One might perceive through the way the movie develops that the story is about Betty Elms, a newcomer to Hollywood staying at her Aunt Ruth's apartment while she is filming a movie elsewhere. Betty befriends Rita, the amnesiac victim of a crash crash and apparent attempt on her life. Their developing storyline is important to understanding what is happening, but these characters are not living beings but are parts of a dream taking place in the mind of the story's real protagonist, Diane Selwyn. We are not formally introduced to Diane until the last portion of the film after Betty and Rita return from Club Silencio and subsequently disappear.
Instead of dissecting Diane's dream, which we will get to shortly, I feel it's best to look over the last third of the film that takes place in "reality", then tie together how events, objects and people filtered into the dream. There is an obvious shift in perception when the Cowboy peeks in on Diane and says, "Hey, pretty girl, time to get up." After this the screen goes blank for a few seconds thus separating between the dream and reality. The Cowboy is not really there, but his appearance is important. If you remember, he says to Adam Kesher, "You'll see me one more time if you do good, you'll see me two more times if you do bad." We see him twice in this shot and this second time he looks visibly upset. Diane had a choice and if she had chosen more wisely, we might have seen the Cowboy only once, but she made the wrong choice, which resulted in her suicide and the Cowboy's mournful expression when he closes the door.
Diane then wakes up and hears a persistent knocking at her door. She reluctantly gets up and goes to see who it is. It is the woman from Apt. #12, who had switched apartments with Diane, according to what we are told in the dream when Rita and Betty go to Sierra Bonita. Many speculate that woman #12 was a former lover of Diane's who grew tired of her obsession with Camilla Rhodes and question the logic of the whole apartment-switching concept. Who this person is need not be a concern for her place in Diane's life is secondary and not vital to interpreting the film. The main story is Diane's and her relationship with Camilla Rhodes.
The woman gets her dishes and lamp and before leaving notices her ashtray on the coffee table and retrieves it. On the coffee table is a plain looking blue key. This immediately reminds us of the blue key Rita had in her possession and both keys signify the same thing. It is a simple object but it holds much grief and anguish for Diane. Upon leaving, woman #12 mentions two detectives stopped by looking for Diane. On two occasions, in the dream, we see two men in a car on stake-outs, once a car drives by Aunt Ruth's apartment complex and once a car is parked outside Diane's complex. Diane knows of their existence and are a source of much anxiety for her so they make their way into the dream but in a safer context with no direct contact.
Going in chronological order, these are the events that occured before Diane wakes up. First is the scene in the movie studio with Adam and Camilla working on the scene in the car. The details of Diane and Camilla's relationship are not established concretely so this is left for the viewer to determine. I surmised that Diane Selwyn and Camilla Rhodes met each other during the auditions of the Sylvia North Story. Camilla got the lead part that Diane badly wanted, but nevertheless they became friends and later lovers. Their careers went in opposite directions; Camilla was successful in getting large roles while Diane is reduced to taking the scrap parts Camilla was able to get for her. Diane loves Camilla, but the feeling is not mutual. Again it is up to the viewer to judge the intensity of Diane's obsession, the nature of Camilla's feelings for Diane and how much Diane wanted to be Camilla. When Adam clears the set, Camilla asks if Diane can stay, which Adam permits. Camilla does this because there is something she wants to make clear to Diane without saying it out loud. Notice the glance Camilla gives her after they separate from the kiss, before Adam says, "Kill the lights.". It is clear Adam and Camilla are seeing each other or at least have feelings about each other they would like to pursue.
Next is the scene with Diane and Camilla topless on the couch in Diane's apartment. There is a camera shot of the coffee table and on it is the ashtray the neighbor took with her. This is simply to show the time this is taking place. Other items that are used in the last third of the film are Diane's robe and coffee mug, used to give us just enough to put events in the order they occured. Camilla says they shouldn't see each other anymore. Diane obviously freaks out at the mention of this and implores Camilla never say anything like that again. Diane makes a sexual advance which Camilla refuses. Diane says, "It's him, isn't it?", she means Adam Kesher.
Next up is the brief scene with Diane and Camilla in Diane's doorway where a heated exchange is taking place. Diane is furious that she is being dumped for Adam and kicks Camilla out saying she's not going to make this easy for her.The masturbation scene follows, which you have to admit is pretty powerful stuff. This is also the next scene chronologically and this deduction is made by what Diane is wearing. However, this scene does not need a definite time; the emotions displayed are the real story and in Naomi Watts' brilliant performance we know exactly what Diane is feeling even when she is not speaking. Diane is at the end of a tailspin, the harsh reality of a failed career and losing the person most important to her makes it difficult for her to feel any pleasure.
The phone rings. This is used to move us into the next scene where Camilla calls Diane to tell her of the car waiting for her outside. There is something that happened in between the masturbation and this phone call. It is the dream-like vision of Camilla standing in Diane's kitchen ("Camilla, you've come back.") This is used to show Diane might be missing a few marbles but also represents Camilla returning to invite Camilla to the dinner party and may or may not tell her where the party is at that time. After Camilla's phone call, Diane is next seen cruising along Mulholland Drive. The reprised shot of the street sign could be best construed as explaining this is what really happened that night on Mulholland Drive and brings the film full circle. This is best exemplified by Diane saying a line of Rita's in the limo, the first line of the movie in fact, "What are you doing? We don't stop here." Camilla appears to take Diane on a shortcut walk up to Adam's house. Nothing is said as they walk up the steps, but much is conveyed through the characters' expressions. It's one of the most poignant moments in the film, rich with emotion. Diane is thinking reconcilliation while Camilla is planning to show Diane how it's going to be whether she likes it or not.
Adam meets them poolside and he makes a toast to love. Diane starts getting the idea right away and is then embarrassed for being late. Adam introduces his mother, who in the dream is Betty's landlady, Coco: "Call me Coco, everybody else does." The way in which Coco takes an interest in Diane later in the scene might explain why she was cast in the dream's role of landlady. What follows is Diane's story. She came from Ontario to Hollywood to pursue and acting career, inpspired by winning a jitterbug contest and receiving an inheritance from her Aunt Ruth after her death. She relates meeting Camilla and her effects on Diane's career. When the Sylvia North Story is brought up, there is a segment of dialogue spoken in Spanish. What the basic implications of this is that Camilla did not expand her career by the extent of her talent. This might lead one to question whether her involvement with Adam is motivated by love or something else.
The scene changes with different music and Diane brooding over an after-dinner espresso. She sees a man across the room and he makes some claim on her memory; he appears in the scene of the dream with Adam and the movie personnel, the one who is very choosy about his espresso. His name is Luigi Castigliane and he is mentioned during the Spanish dialogue. Diane makes a connection with him having some power in movie studio decisions. A blonde woman walks up and kisses Camilla. Camilla is merely using her to show Diane that even if she is seeing Adam she can still have a side dish. The blonde actress appears in the dream as "Camilla Rhodes" and is supposed to be cast in Adam's movie as the lead. Seeing her and espresso man so close together is how she ends up becoming the actress promoted by Castigliane in the meeting. As the blonde woman walks out, we see the Cowboy walk by and into another room. This connects him to his appearence in the dream; he is also incorporated into the behind-the-scenes activities when Adam comes to see him at the corral.
Then comes the announcement of what is presumed to be Adam and Camilla's engagement although it is never stated for sure. A noise startles Diane and she turns. Next, we see her in the diner with the hitman. After being jilted by Camilla and totally humilated, she has decided to exact her revenge. She shows the hitman the photograph of Camilla, saying "This is the girl." It looks like the photo of the blonde Camilla from the meeting, but this one shows the real Camilla. She gives him the money and he says he will leave a blue key for her where he said he would. The key represents Camilla's death. While they are conducting their transaction, Diane spots a man standing at the counter who looks over at them. This is the poor gentleman who dies of a heart attack near the beginning of the movie. He is the only witness to the transaction so he has embedded himself in Diane's subconscious. After asking the hitman what the key opens, he only laughs and the scene switches to behind the diner where we see the burned-out bum again, who is holding the blue box. This is a topic that will require more discussion later.
Diane goes home after hiring the hitman. It isn't told how much time elapses, but the next thing that happens is Diane's dream, which is, well, you know, the first two-thirds of the movie. She wakes up, deals with the neighbor, makes some coffee and sits on her sofa staring at the blue key for hours, pondering what she had done. She is responsible for having Camilla killed and is now looking back on her life wondering how she came to this point. It becomes too much for her, a knock comes at her door (the two detectives?) and she runs screaming to her bedroom, going immediately for her gun and shooting herself in the face.
Now you might ask, what about the scorched bum, the blue box and that crazed elderly couple. You can make of them what you will. There are those who take a Freudian approach and say the bum is Diane's superego or other part of the subconscious schematics. Others say the bum is Diane's conscience, guilt or even what has happened to her soul since she came to Hollywood. The bum has the blue box, which contains all the truths Diane does not want to face, the contents of the subconscious. The old couple could be Diane's parents, the old couple she met on her flight to California or my personal favorite, the jitterbug contest judges. There arrival from the blue box is a glimpse into Diane's mind. She is not only guilt-ridden from Camilla's death, but she also has to deal with the disappointment and failures she has endured. The couple is there to drive the point home, which they do in terrifying fashion, heightening the intensity of Diane's suicide. There are spectral mages that follow Diane's death of Diane and Camilla (but in the blonde wig). I don't understand why she is depicted this way, but the shots are meant to juxtapose the tragedy of Diane's death by showing the happiness she had at one time. "Silencio?". Remember when movies used to say The End? I approach it mostly as that. Some may speculate that showing Club Silencio at the end is to make the suggestion that the whole film was illusion. However, I think Lynch makes a clear division between the two areas and uses this ending shot to bring closure to the film and leave the viewer to unravel the mystery of a truly surreal film, unique and brilliant in its construction.
...perchance to dream
So, if you are one of thosr out there who question the entertainment value of a film that is two-thirds dream, let's look at the connectiond between the dream state and reality.
The film opens with the jitterbug sequence. This is an astonishing scene because of its vitality and stunning movement. In addition, Lynch is able to incorporate the concept of the jitterbug contest and also invoke images of the era that serves as the time for Adam Kesher's film. In this sequence is the impetus for Diane's and therefore Betty's arrival o Hollywood. These images are revolving in Diane's mind, along with the elderly couple, representing the disappointment that lay at the end of her relationship with Camilla. The shot of the pillow, in my mind, confirms that she is going to sleep. Diane is going to re-imagine her arrival to Hollywood and embarking on the journey to becoming an actress. When one recognizes the vast and harsh differences between the dream state and reality, they will see the tragedy that lies at the heart of the story.
The dream proper begins with Camilla in the limo riding along Muholland Drive. The limo pulls over and a gun is drawn on her and she is ordered out of the car. Some drag racing teenagers interrupt the execution and Camilla emerges seemingly unscathed from the resulting accident. Therefore, the dream begins with Camilla surviving the hit and wandering down and onto Sunset Boulevard, finally taking refuge outside an apartment complex. When morning breaks, she slips into Aunt Ruth's apartment while Ruth is bringing out her luggage for her trip to Canada. Camilla falls asleep once she feels safe and thinks Ruth is gone and is not coming back.
Next is the confounding Diner scene. I say this, because recently someone asked me, "What's with the guy in the diner who has a heart attack?". I will admit it is a scene that seems to have no place except for the introduction of the bum, who we see only twice more, near the end of the film. The man who is doomed is Dan; he is talking to his friend Herb about two identical dreams he had about this diner. He relates how terrified he is in his dreams and realizes they are about a man in back of the diner who "is the one who's doing it.". Herb gets Dan to go behind the diner to check it out. Once they get to the spot in question, a scorched bum pops out that only Dan can see. The vision is so terrifying he has a heart attack and dies. I mentioned in the opening section that Dan was the only witness to Diane hiring the hitman. Simply put, she kills him off in the dream. Camilla has survived the hit and now there is no way of anyone discovering there was a hit at all. It has been reasoned by some that Dan called the cops and that's how the two detectives started looking for Diane. When Dan is walking by the side of the diner, the camera pauses on the phone and then the door with an arrow pointing to the diner's entrance, which could lead one to that conclusion. I have reached another and it will be brought up shortly.
There is a shot of Camilla before a series of phone calls. This is to establish that she is the girl who's still missing. The last call received on the yellow phone is most likely the hitman who then calls Diane, who doesn't answer her black phone. You recall the same shot of the phone, ashtray and red lampshade before Diane gets the call from Camilla about the car waiting outside for her. No one answers this time, because Diane is not there. There is no Diane, she is now Betty Elms.
The sound of Diane's phone ringing fades into the music accompanying Betty's arrival at LAX. She is walked out to her cab by an elderly couple, whom she met on the plane. They exchange goodbyes and wishes of good luck, then Betty gets in her cab and travels to her Aunt Ruth's complex. In the dream, Aunt Ruth is still alive and is letting her stay at her apartment and has even arranged an audition for her. Once at the complex, she meets Coco, the matronly manager of the complex (who in reality is Adam's mother). Coco shows Betty to the apartment and gives her the key.
I think it is worth noting the slow, deliberate pace that Betty walks through the apartment, one she "couldn't afford in a million years.". Her expression is one of total delight to have such living accomodations. Compare them to Diane's apartment and it gives new understanding to Betty's point of view. When Betty arrives at the sink and kitchen counters, she pauses with a gleeful look, aprroving the kitchen. There is a long static shot of Diane in her kitchen shortly after she prepares the coffee. These are camera shots that made these scenes more alive for me and brought to light the extensive differences between the two apartments.
Eventually, Betty discovers Camilla in the shower, only she is not Camilla. She tells Betty her name is Rita, because she can't remember who she is, using the movie poster for Gilda in the bathroom as the source for the pseudonym. Betty commences to tell Rita she has come from Deep River, Ontario and hopes to become an actress, utterly excited to be in this "dream place." Rita looks as if she is going to pass out and Betty helps her into the bedroom. Rita thinks if she can fall asleep, her memory might return when she wakes.
There are two other storylines going on during the scenes with Betty and Rita and I would like to cover them at this time. First off, the hitman. To further support the concept that Camilla survived the attempt on her life, the hitman is portrayed as incompetent. When sent to kill one person and retrieve a black book (you'll notice he has the book with him when he meets with Diane) he ends up killing three people and a vaccuum cleaner. Later, he is shown questioning a prostitute, trying to find some clue of where the missing girl is.
Secondly, is the Adam Kesher storyline. We meet Adam being muscled by some mob-like figures to cast a girl in the lead role of his new film. Luigi Castigliane, the espresso man, repeatedly says, "This is the girl.". A statement that reaches it's true meaning when Diane slides the photo over to the hitman. Diane has seen what it takes to get ahead in Hollywood, so in the dream, she is imagining some of the mechanics involved in getting roles for unworthy actresses, like Camilla for instance. This also sets Adam, who stole Camilla away from Diane, on route to a very bad day. The studio closes production when he doesn't bend to pressure. He finds his wife is sleeping with the pool man and his money is cut off from him. His assistant, Cynthia, urges him to meet with the Cowboy at his corral, because she beleives he is connected with what is happening at the studio.
Meanwhile, back at Aunt Ruth's apartment, Betty learns from her aunt that there was supposed to be no one else in the apartment and urges Betty to call the police. Betty, on the surface, seems sympathetic to Rita because she was in a car accident, but since Betty is a projection of Diane's mind, Betty also wants Rita all to herself. When she goes to confront Rita, Rita breaks down in tears from her amnesia and tells Betty she doesn't know who she is. Betty suggests Rita look in her purse for some sort of identification. What they find in the purse is a large sum of money in five bundles and a mysterious looking blue key. There is still evidence of the hit on Camilla in the dream, the money Diane gave the hitman and the blue key that signifies Camilla's death. I do feel Diane is recreating her history in Hollywood, living an idealized version of her life. So, Rita is her chance to get Camilla back and Rita's amnesia makes her both vulnerable and dependent on Betty. I follow along with this but what Betty doesn't know is that Rita is also Diane Selwyn's identity trying to emerge through the protective barriers of the dream. Rita having the money and the key first establishes this, the key that will release everything Diane is trying to repress. Rita finally remembers that the car was going to Mulholland Drive before the accident took place. This is the second instance, because Diane was the one who took the limo ride not Camilla. Betty thinks if there was an accident then there woiuld be a police report. Betty says they can call anonymously from a payphone to find out. Rita is reluctant but agrees to call "just to see.".
There is something I noticed when Betty and Rita go to the diner. If you notice, the camera shows them approaching through the reflection of the diner's windows, after a shot of the door with a sign pointing to the entrance, then they approach the phone. This is Dan's perspective walking back to meet his doom in reverse, where he stopped at the phone, then the door. I made the connection that Betty, therefore Diane, and the bum were the same or at least connected on some level, be it personal or psychological. There is even a brief segment of the music from the original diner scene played to support this point. Calling the police reveals there was an accident but no details. The woman go inside to check the newspaper and have a cup off coffee. You'll notice the waitress' nametag reads Diane (and in reality it reads Betty, perhaps the source for the dream alias). This sparks Rita's memory and she remembers the name Diane Selwyn.
Betty looks through the phone book back at the apartment and finds one listing, "D. Selwyn" and decides to call. After dialing, Betty says one of my favorite lines, "Is it strange to be calling yourself?". This is exactly what she is doing. They get an answering machine message, "Hello, it's me. Leave a message." Rita says it's not her voice, but she knows her. Betty thinks even if Rita is not Diane Selwyn, the person on the other end of the line might know who Rita is.
In a later scene, the women are surveying a map of the area. Betty finds Sierra Bonita and notes it's not too far away. Betty says they should go over there and check it out the following day. Rita seems extremely wary of what they might find, but Betty promises they'll be careful. They are interrupted by a knock at the door. Rita is disturbed, wondering who it could be. Betty says not to worry, it's probably Coco. On answering the door, a mysterious woman dressed in black has a warning that someone is in trouble. She asks Betty who she is and what's she's doing in Ruth's apartment. When Betty says she is Ruth's niece, Betty, the woman says, "No, you're not. That's not what she said. Soemone is in trouble. Something bad is happening.". Coco rescues Betty from the confrontation and is bringing faxed pages of script for Betty's audition the next day. Coco assures the woman that Betty is who she says she is and explains what Betty is doing in Hollywood and her relationship to Ruth. Before Coco takes her away she says, "No, she said it was someone else who was in trouble.". This is a moment in the dream where reality is trying to make it's presence known, that Betty is not who she thinks she is. The final shot of the scene, a zoom-in on Rita, who looks terrified, foreshadows some of the events that will take place when we realize what really happened outside of the dream.
From this point on, we'll take the dream in order, because there is more to the next scene, the Cowboy, than simply Adam being forced to cast someone in the lead role of his picture. If you listen to the Cowboy's dialogue, you can hear many things being addressed to Diane, a continuation of the scene with the woman who said she's not Betty. The Cowboy says Adam is anxious to get on with it; Diane seemed anxious to get on with having Camilla killed. A man's attitude determines how his life will be; if Diane wasn't so obsessed she might be able to become the person she used to be. The Cowboy says Adam must not care about the good life; if Diane has Camilla killed then her life will go to hell. Casting Camilla in the lead part, even if it is the blonde one, would symbolize her not having the hit put out on Camilla and Diane could return to the "good life". And finally, "You'll see me one more time if you do good (let Camilla live), you'll see me two more times if you do bad (have her killed).
The following day, Rita is helping Betty go over her lines for the audition. The reason behind showing Betty doing this scene twice can mean many things. Rita's acting ability is questionable if not downright awful. This could be either an indication that Camilla was untalented and therefore needed outside assistance to get parts or it could be Diane's opinion of Camilla's acting ability. There is, of course, a notable difference between Betty's two readings. Later in the morning, Coco comes to the door and asks Rita who she is. Rita calls for Betty, worried that she might be getting Betty in trouble. Coco and Betty talk outside; Aunt Ruth called and wonders who's in her apartment. Coco brings up Louise Bonner, the woman in black with the dire prognostications, and says sometimes she's right and if there is trouble ot get rid of it. Bringing up Louise again affirms that things are not right, the dream is starting to come apart. Betty gives Rita a good character reference and it's clear they are discussing Rita but perhaps Betty doesn't belong in the apartment either. When Betty goes back in, she tells Rita everything is fine and gets ready for her audition.
The audition is one of the most critical scenes as well as one of the most powerful. There are a few times we see Betty displaying qualities of Diane and this is one of them. This is a re-enactment of her audition for The Sylvia North Story, where she met Camilla. The director's name, Bob Brooker, comes up in conversation at the dinner party in the end of the film. Diane said he didn't think so much of her and this could be gathered from the way he talks to Betty after the auditon. Woody, the actor doing the scene with Betty, says he'd like to play it close like they did with the other one, the one with black hair (perhaps Camilla). While auditoning, Betty, instead of backing down, gives into the veteran actor's sleazy way of getting close to the fresh meat in Hollywood. Betty transforms into someone else, truly playing the part and giving us the first glimpse of Diane in the process. Everyone seems impressed with Betty's performance, except the director. She is shown out by a casting agent that the producer invited to watch the audition.
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