Coming Undone: A Rip in the Fabric(ation) of Mulholland Drive
How does one interpret David Lynch’s Mulholland Drive? How do two? After
watching Mulholland Drive, one feels as though startled out of a dream. Indeed, it has all
the qualities of a dream; it is beautiful, hypnotic, and indecipherable. Desson Howe, of
the Washington Post, maintains that the film is nothing more than an “extended mood
opera, if you want to put an arty label on incoherence.” Yet, here we are, a pair of
interpreters collaborating in an attempt to solve the film’s intricate riddle. The question
is, will this quest for clarity be in vain? Viewing Mulholland Drive as a psychoanalytic
text, we may yet discover the method to Lynch’s madness.
In order to analyze Mulholland Drive effectively, we must divide it into two parts:
Part A and Part B. We might very easily view Part A—the first two thirds of the
movie—as a dream sequence. In effect, Part B—the final third of the movie—logically
follows as the original “reality” from which the dream has arisen. “In Freud’s theory,
dreams are distorted manifestations of unconscious desire that can only be understood
dialectically in relationship to the waking life of the dreamer” (Taubin 54). Therefore
Part A ( Diane’s dream) incorporates her anxiety about having had Camilla killed in Part
B. Diane projects herself onto the character of “Betty,” using the dream as wish
fulfillment. Keeping Freud’s theory in mind, a brief synopsis will be helpful for further
interpretation. However, due to the inverted nature of Lynch’s narration, we might
benefit from examining the final third of the movie first, as it is, temporally, the logical
beginning to the film.
A blue latchkey lays on Diane’s coffee table, as she sits drinking her coffee. It is
the only thing in the room that is rich in color, and it signifies the death (a murder,
contracted by Diane) of her former lover Camilla (a successful Hollywood actress).
Diane refuses to look at the key, though its presence is obviously making her anxious.
Wracked with guilt, she eventually shoots herself, falling onto to her bed, head hitting her
pillow. Here, we have come full circle—the film ends with the same sequence as the
opening credit sequence (in which an unknown figure falls onto a pillow, breathing
Thus we are brought to the “beginning” of the movie, and the two thirds that
follow becomes a dream sequence in which Diane’s desire to be with Camilla is
manifested through traditional Freudian wish fulfillment. Diane knows that Camilla has
been killed, but her desire to have a functional and happy relationship with her overrides
that knowledge. Stephen Hunter of the Washington Post backs this dream/reality
reading, stating that in Part A:
What we are seeing is a hysterical, booze- and drug-blasted fantasy-dream
in the mind of a suicidal, down-at-the-heels lesbian named Diane (also
played by Watts), who has been jilted by her lover, a more successful
actress, who is in turn about to marry the director (Justin Theroux). So
[Diane] has hired a killer to kill her ex, and the arrival of a blue key
signifies that the job has been completed. Diane, in the wake of this
stunning news, has been re-imagining the affair, but in her incoherent
state, she idealizes her memories: She sees herself as perky and plucky
and cute and she sees "Rita" as helpless and needful, and she sees the two
of them on a yellow brick road to love and security… Events from her real
life, thinly disguised, taken out of chronology and context, rearranged over
an idealized psychic dreamscape…
Diane projects Camilla into Rita, the helpless victim who is easily dominated by Betty
(Diane’s own ego-projection). Thus, Diane’s desire to be in control and to sustain a
relationship with Camilla is evident in the relationship between the dream-characters
Betty and Rita.
It may be helpful to refer to Freud’s theory from The Interpretation of Dreams to
establish a base for this interpretation. Freud refers to dreams, saying,
They are not meaningless, they are not absurd; they do not imply that one
portion of our store of ideas is asleep while another portion is beginning to
wake. On the contrary, they are psychical phenomena of complete
validity—fulfillments of wishes; they can be inserted into the chain of
intelligible waking mental acts; they are constructed by a highly
complicated activity of the mind.
The plot (I’m using this term loosely) then unfolds as a dream-reality; a complete
fulfillment of all of Diane’s wishes. A perky blonde named Betty (who is now a stand-in
for Diane) steps onto the Los Angeles scene with aspirations of becoming an actress.
Betty arrives at her Aunt Ruth’s apartment to find a sultry brunette in the shower who
calls herself Rita after the actress in the Gilda poster in the bathroom. Almost killed last
night by a hit, Rita has escaped—due to a surprisingly fortunate car collision. Now an
amnesiac, she has taken refuge in Betty’s aunt’s conveniently empty apartment.
The girls bond and Betty is driven to help Rita remember her identity. There is a
Nancy Drew quality to Betty, but underlying that innocence is her need to investigate
Rita; if she can help Rita find her identity she will gain power over Camilla in a way that
Diane never could. Betty goads Rita into playing detective and pursuing leads, saying
“It’ll be just like in the movies,” and “We’ll pretend to be someone else.” Lynch is
playing on the fact that, indeed, this is a movie and the actresses are acting out a
prescribed role. Both of these statements are supposed to clue the spectator in on the
artifice of Hollywood—which Betty appropriately refers to as a “dream-place.” Because
Betty says these things, and because Naomi Watts over-acts Betty’s character on purpose
(a device that Lynch uses throughout Part A), the spectator is prepared to realize that, on
many levels, Betty’s world is nothing more than an dream.
While the girls are out searching for clues, the Castigliane brothers are coercing
Adam (Camilla’s real-life director fiance) to put a certain actress in the leading role of his
movie. His life made a living hell though their scare tactics, Adam is effectively
“punished”—not for the above reason, but, ultimately, because he stole Camilla from
Diane. Further, Adam’s capitulation in casting the “designated” actress, serves as
another element of Diane’s wish fulfillment: Adam and Betty share a gaze when she
happens onto his set after auditioning. The viewer notices this chemistry, and realizes
that Betty would have gotten the part had the mob bosses not intervened—another
convenient validation of Diane’s fragile psyche.
The plot progresses, including more detective work, a steamy sex scene between
Betty and Rita, an late night excursion to Club Silencio, and the discovery of a
mysterious blue box. Rita opens this box with her blue key (found in her purse after the
car accident) and we are jolted into a different perspective. Once through the blue box
the narrative is unclear. In the words of Martha P. Nochimson, “Time and space have
come unglued.” (Nochimson 43) The colors have changed, along with the identities of
Rita and Betty. Everything has become darker and despondent, foreshadowing the
destructive end of the narrative.
We have to this point explored how Mulholland Drive operates as a reality/dream
dichotomy in which Diane’s wish fulfillment is carried out through a fantasy world:
might we now explore in more detail the consequences of this reading? Shoshana
Felman, in “Renewing the Practice of Reading,” notes that to psychoanalyze a text (what
we have essentially just performed on the film text of Mulholland Drive) is inevitably to
implicate oneself in that interpretation. She writes:
For the activity of reading is not just the analyst’s, it is also the
analysand’s: interpreting is what takes place on both sides of the analytic
situation…The unconscious, in other words, is not simply that which must
be read but also, and perhaps primarily, that which reads… What this
implies most radically is that whoever reads, interprets out of his
unconscious, in an analysand, even when the interpreting is done from the
position of the analyst.
If we consider this parallel between reading and psychoanalysis, then it becomes less a
matter of what the interpreter says about Mulholland Drive: instead, we might ask, what
does Mulholland Drive say about the interpreter?
In order to psychoanalyze Diane and identify her dream as a typical Freudian
wish fulfillment we must first convince ourselves that the “dream” actually is a dream.
Thus, the critic’s own wish fulfillment (to prove the self-contained nature of Betty’s
“dream”) mimics Diane/Betty’s own unrelenting belief in the artifice of Hollywood, her
own “dream-place.” In other words, in order for the literary critic to sit comfortably in
the psychoanalyst’s chair, the patient on the couch must have dreams that (while drawing
from the “text” of that patient’s real life in complex ways) are easily separated from the
reality that informs them.
Felman points out that “The analytic reading is thus essentially the reading of a
difference that inhabits language, a kind of mapping in the subject’s discourse of its
points of disagreement with, or difference from, itself.” We find this notion of
“difference” put into more concrete language by the theoretical concept of the “suture”
which Mike Hartman explicates well in his own Lynchian essay “Lost Highway: Lynch
and Lacan, Cinema and Cultural Pathology”:
With Lacan, the term suture denotes the “conjunction of the imaginary and
the symbolic” (14). With respect to the Lacanian registers of the
imaginary, the symbolic, and the real, suture thus refers to the stitching of
the representational registers, with the seam closing off the real from
reality, closing off the unconscious from conscious discourse… the
ripping open of that seam consequently has to result in a problematization,
if not complete undermining of identification. This de-suturing then
draws attention to the fabrication of the illusion of whole-ness of both
spectator and the movie.
Thus, a psychoanalytic reading of the film conveys its own “dream” of a binary
coherence based on the stability of both the literal suture (that simultaneously connects
and differentiates dream and reality) within the movie, and the less tangible (though
perhaps even more crucial) suture between film and critic. Therefore, in order to tear the
“seams” and perform a deconstructive reading of Mulholland Drive, we must
simultaneously “de-suture” the film critic as well as the larger movie culture in which she
is produced as an identity formation.
In this context, Mulholland Drive certainly resists the reality/dream dichotomy
just as much as it enforces it. This is most clearly demonstrated in the actual linear
division of dream and reality, a division blurred at best. After their sexual encounter,
Betty and Rita lie asleep in bed. Betty is awakened by Rita shouting the word “Silencio”
in her sleep, and promptly wakes Rita up. Rita urges Betty to “go somewhere with me”
and the two women take a cab to a theater where they watch a bizarre spectacle, discover
a mysterious blue box, and return home. In the bedroom once more, Rita notices that
Betty has disappeared (she walks quickly out of Lynch's frame) and uses her blue key to
open the blue box. The camera pans into the darkness within.
While this moment is the most logical “suture” between the dual realities (as it is
followed by a different set of characters and a completely different cinematic tone) it is
not the only moment that suggests division. When Betty and Rita enter the cab, there is
an unexplained visual and audio distortion that the original psychoanalytic reading fails
to take into account. The space between this distortion and the opening of the blue box
thus becomes the site of deconstruction, where what the critic views is both dream and
reality (or neither/nor). In his article “Welcome to L.A.,” Philip Lopate discusses this
very ambiguity between the “dream” and “reality” sections of the movie: “The two
stories appear to have been folded into each other, in a Mobius strip, with some details
overlapping and some not.” In fact, we can not at all be certain that the “suture” between
dream and reality (and by implication, interpreter and film) is where we thought it was—
if it is present at all.
Of particular note is Betty’s physical appearance inside the cab following the
momentary distortion. While Betty and Diane are both played by Naomi Watts, Lynch
has taken measures to distinguish each character by her physical features. Therefore,
Betty almost always appears on screen with her hair held neatly back by a barrette and
her face fresh and clean. Diane, on the other hand, is shown with dark circles beneath her
eyes and her hair in a wilder, feathered hairstyle hanging down in front of her face.
During the cab ride, Naomi Watts resembles the latter description more than former,
causing us to question which character, Betty or Diane, is riding in the cab with Rita
(who could just as easily be “Camilla” by that point.) Moreover, when the women leave
the cab, the movement of the camera becomes shaky and the sound becomes eerie and
somewhat distorted—a phenomenon entirely absent from the supposed “dream”
section—suggesting that this scene does not fit neatly into any reality/dream binary.
What occurs within the theater, however, is perhaps the strongest indication that
the border between “real” and “imaginary” is osmotic, at best. If, temporally, this is the
place where the seams have torn, then it is quite appropriate that within this rupture we
see the fantastic charms of artifice (the foundation of Hollywood) exposed for what they
are. “No hay banda!” (“There is no band”) declares the master of ceremonies, who
assures the audience that what they are hearing is merely a tape recording. A musician
walks out on stage, appearing to play a muted trumpet. He takes the trumpet away from
his lips, but the music continues. A woman, heavily made-up, walks to the microphone
and sings a mournful song in Spanish. We watch her sing for a couple of minutes and,
despite what we have just seen of the “trumpet player,” allow ourselves to believe for a
moment that it is really she who is singing. Of course, we discover that this too is merely
an illusion when she collapses mid-song; the disembodied voice plays on (tape-recorded)
while her body is dragged backstage.
Thus, what takes place in the open “seam” (the action between the two possible
‘cuts’ between sections) literally enacts that rupture. As spectators, we rely on the
coherence of the spectacle as a finely formed illusion. By separating body from voice,
instrument from note, signifier from signified, Lynch exposes the art behind the illusion.
He is, in fact, doing nothing less than demystifying Hollywood.
It is, of course, this mystifying power of Hollywood that is at the core of the
movie’s conflict. Camilla’s successful incorporation into that “dream place” is an ideal
that Diane cannot reach. Diane, trapped in the harsh reality that she is a failed actress and
aware she lead a painfully realistic life (complete with ratty bathrobes, disagreeable
neighbors and morning coffee), forms her own binary opposition to Camilla and we could
easily make an analogy between her and the final third of the narrative. Camilla, the
embodiment of a “dream” realized, functions in contrast, informing the spirit of the first
two thirds with their almost overbearing artifice.
Yet even this distinction (like the distinction between the Part A and Part B) is
ultimately ruptured; we cannot ignore the instances where the two women’s identities are
blurred, complicated and multiplied. Rita (Camilla, recycled) comes to us already as a
blank character: “I don’t know my name.” By the end of the movie, we have identified
her as Rita Hayworth (the name taken from a mirror image of a Hollywood poster),
Camilla Rhodes (from the latter half of the movie), a nameless accident survivor (our
introduction to her), and the actress Laura Elena Harring (most literally). At the same
time, we cannot help but confuse Betty with the countless other attractive blondes that
proliferate on screen: the Camilla Rhodes of the first half, the diner waitress (who is
named Diane, then Betty); the druggie prostitute; the Diane of the second half; and
perhaps even Naomi Watts herself. And finally, of course, Rita whose blonde wig makes
her a twin of Betty while their mirror images reflect back at us.
In an especially interesting moment, Coco walks into the apartment, takes one
look at Rita and says “Who are you?” Appropriately enough, Rita replies “Uh… Betty?”
Though her response is literally a call to her friend, Rita’s answer foreshadows the
confusion of identities between the two friends—a confusion simultaneously enacted in
the two-part structure of the movie itself.
Lynch ultimately expresses this idea in a single shot in the middle of the movie.
Betty and Rita have just made love, and the camera spends several seconds lingering on
their sleeping faces. It is a profile of one woman’s face combined with the full-on view
of the other’s face (an image itself repeated from Ingmar Bergman's Persona). However,
what the spectator sees first and foremost is a single female face, broken down the center.
This fissure is, of course, what separates Betty from Rita.
A line where two faces meet to form one coherent “whole” face: might we not
compare this to the theoretical “sutures” that we previously applied to the structure of the
film itself? If we have established that Camilla’s realization of the Hollywood dream is
aligned with the artifice of Part A, and that Diane’s disappointment is aligned with the
latter more “realistic” Part B, then it becomes evident that the suture that joins their
separate faces is simultaneously stitching Part A and Part B together. This stitching,
however, tears the moment Rita utters the words we are to hear at the nightclub:
“Silencio.” At this word, Betty’s face flies up into the frame, and the illusion of
coherence is broken. Appropriately enough, this sequence occurs directly before the
women’s excursion to the bizarre deconstructive theater spectacle where Betty and Rita
(now both blondes) are barely distinguishable from one another.
Why this eerie blurring of identities? Recalling the central conflict of the
movie—which is, ultimately, the desire of two women to become movie stars—it might
be productive to refer to Anne Friedberg’s essay “Theories of Cinematic Identification.”
Friedberg discusses the ways in which the spectator incorporates the cinema into his or
her own psyche: “If the subject is constituted in a series of identifications which force
similarity, identification is one long structural repetition of this denial of difference, a
construction of identity based on sameness” (41). The nebulous identities we encounter
in Mulholland Drive certainly constitute a “structural repetition” that is, in the end,
“based on sameness.” What is interesting, however, is that Friedberg’s principle—
usually applied to the spectator’s relationship to cinema—is here operating within the
plot of the film itself. Thus, when we watch Mulholland Drive, we are not merely
observing a love affair of one woman with another; we are observing (and perhaps even
enacting ourselves) that strange love affair between the spectator and the screen.
Identifying herself with countless other female images, Betty (or Rita, or Camilla, or
Diane) can ultimately be anyone—and in effect, she is no one.
Thus, throughout the film we continually find ourselves in the midst of the search
for “the girl.” After all, the only clues to Rita’s identity are the pouch of money and the
blue key she has with her—the very things that prove that she no longer exists. “Could be
that someone’s missing,” ruminates the detective at the beginning. And of course, there
is that other phrase we can’t seem to escape: “This is the girl.” But which girl—when no
one can be pinned down to a concrete self? When no female is more than a
representation of a representation? Thus, as the disembodied voice tells us on the other
end of the phone line, the “girl” in Mulholland Drive is never really there, a presence that
fills the movie while remaining perpetually “missing,” an ever shifting signifier of a
And if we view Lynch’s shot of the single female face, broken down the center, as
a metaphor for the structure of the film itself, then what are we to make of the fact that
“the girl is missing?” What, ultimately, is the critic to make of a movie so fraught with
contradiction, a movie that resists focused interpretation and exploits each attempt at
Mike Hartmann claims “Suture thus prevents the subject from losing its status as
a subject, prevents it… from falling into psychosis.” In the absence of any kind of
distinction—Rita/Camilla from Betty/Diane, dream from reality, Part A from Part B—
Mulholland Drive ultimately both dissolves and transgresses the boundaries of subject
construction. Not merely between the represented characters within the film text, but
also the boundaries without: between critic and film, between would-be analyst and
textual analysand, the former in each case “losing its status as a subject” in the
interpretive relay. Indeed, in conclusion one might argue that the only effective critical
interpretation on this movie will be one that demonstratively “fall[s] into psychosis,” an
interpretation that performs the same formal rupture that Mulholland Drive itself
performs, allowing itself to be fraught with the same anxieties and contradictions; a
reading split by two separate critical voices—two women, perhaps, blurring now into