Can you explain the movie Mulholland Drive to me?
December 15, 2003 10:07 AM   Subscribe

I just finished watching David Lynch's Mulholland Drive, and I'm stumped. Can someone explain to me what that was all about?

I should add that I'm not a huge DL fan - I don't enjoy strangeness for strangeness' sake - but didn't expect to be so utterly left in the dark. Anyone?
posted by widdershins to Media & Arts (27 answers total) 8 users marked this as a favorite
I believe the shorter explanation goes as follows:

"Onetime novelty act now writes, directs on autopilot."

Also, she was dead all along.
posted by textist at 10:12 AM on December 15, 2003

Probably the best banana-peeling of that movie I found was at Salon.

But for all that, I still hated that wretched fucking movie.
posted by Skot at 10:14 AM on December 15, 2003

A wonderful (and helpful) recap and explanation of Mulholland Drive on line here ( - you may need to view an ad to read the article, but the article will explain the film as well as it can be explained).
posted by anastasiav at 10:17 AM on December 15, 2003

Great MeFi discussion here. I'm not generally a DL fan, but I loved the movie (and I found it a lot more accessible than much of his other work). Basically I thought it was a wish fulfillment dream for the most part, as well as being a metaphor about Hollywood (both as it actually is, and as people see it).
posted by biscotti at 10:19 AM on December 15, 2003

I had to read the Salon "muholland for dummies" article to understand what I just watched as well. Highly recommended.
posted by mathowie at 10:20 AM on December 15, 2003

I think that Salon article is old enough that you don't need to subscribe or view an ad.

Here's a briefer attempt at an explanation. Black-on-black text; highlight it to view.
posted by staggernation at 10:21 AM on December 15, 2003

David Lynch is rarely just "strangeness for strangeness' sake". Cryptic and opaque at times, but not meaningless.

Surrealism is primarily about what lies underneath our waking reality, and what those undercurrents mean. When framed as a dream, or the mixing of dream with reality, much of the work makes a lot more sense. Unfortunately, it is a style which lends itself to imitation by those without skill, leading many to believe that it's all just random gobble gobble. But whatcha gonna do?
posted by majcher at 10:40 AM on December 15, 2003

I thought it was about heartbreak, in all its manifestations. Romantic heartbreak, career heartbreak, and how, no matter how often your heart gets broken, it doesn't make sense. I think Lynch is showing someone (Watts) trying to transform her personal heartbreak through things like disguise (she starts as a Hollywood ingenue, but the mask keeps falling, like in the scene with Chad Everett); through trying to make a story/mystery out of it (where she is the innocent, drawn into darker, more powerful circumstances); through art/expression (the movies); and lastly, by dreaming her way out of it. In the end, her heartbreak -- like ours -- is something impossible to understand. Why do we fall in love if heartbreak is such a likely outcome?

I loved it, but one of my best friends hated it. When I explained what I thought it was "about," she said, "sounds like you saw an entirely different movie than I did."
posted by Bootcut at 10:56 AM on December 15, 2003

Response by poster: Ah, thanks all. Both the Salon article and the MeFi discussion were very helpful. Still didn't like the movie much (except for the gorgeous and erotic love scenes), but that's Lynch for you (well, me). I enjoy movies that make you think, but they shouldn't require Cliff's Notes IMHO.

Still, thx much!
posted by widdershins at 11:25 AM on December 15, 2003

widdershins, if you get a chance, hunt down a film by Mr Lynch called The Straight Story. Its a wonderful film for anyone who wants to enjoy Lynch's amazing talents as a film director without "all that weird Lynchian stuff".

The film dramatizes the true story of Alvin Straight, who drove a lawn-mower over 300 miles through the midwest to see his brother, whom he had not spoken with in over a decade. Richard Farnsworth earned an Academy Award nomination for his portrayal of Alvin Straight, and it is easily the most accessible of Lynch's films. Lynch tells Straight's story as a straightforward narrative -- a 'road trip movie', if you will -- with great tenderness and admiration for Straight and his family. As a bonus, Lynch turns the simple midwestern landscapes into a visual hymn to America.
posted by anastasiav at 11:42 AM on December 15, 2003

i second anastasiav's suggestion: you'll really find an appreciation for lynch by watching The Straight Story or for that matter, The Elephant Man, if you haven't seen it already.
posted by poopy at 12:37 PM on December 15, 2003

Ah, thanks all. Both the Salon article and the MeFi discussion were very helpful

you're welcome. but, you know, if you just search Google for metafilter + "mulholland drive", you're going to get what you want

without opening a AskMeFi thread


posted by matteo at 1:18 PM on December 15, 2003

Best answer: On preview: my apologies in advance. This post is lengthy.

Mulholland Drive is one of my favorite movies. I've probably seen it a dozen times since my first post in the MeFi thread mentioned above.

Summed up, the film is the story of a woman (Diane Selwyn) who goes to Hollywood with dreams of becoming a movie star. Faced with the reality of the movie business, she becomes bitter and depressed. When her lover (an actress named Camilla Rhodes) achieves the success that Diane wanted for herself, she hires a hit man to kill Camilla. Racked by guilt at her actions, her subconscious attempts to justify the murder and transpose the responsibilty to other people. Unsuccessful, Diane experiences a psychotic episode and takes her own life.

To me, the best way to understand the film (if you think it's absolutely necessary to do so), is to examine it out of order. Specifically, examine the events from the time Camilla calls Diane about the party until the time the hit man agrees to do the job. Paying close attention to those scenes will give you the clues to understanding the first two hours of the film, as well as the ending.

Unfortunately, Lynch doesn't like his movies to have chapter stops on the DVD, so that's a bit difficult to do, but here are those scenes broken down for you:

A phone rings. Diane, dressed to go out, answers after her answering machine ("Hello it's me. Leave a Message.") picks up.

On the phone, Camilla asks her if she's coming to her party. Diane agrees and gives her the address of 6980 Mulholland Drive.

She gets in a limo and two men drive her down Mulholland and stop at an unexpected place by the side of the road. Diane says, "What are you doing? We don't stop here."

When the door is opened, Camilla can be seen descending through the woods to escort Diane to the party.

Diane is thrilled that Camilla is holding her hand on the walk (she looks at their joined hands and smiles).

Adam exits the house and gives the women champagne. The toast: "Here's to love." Adam's mother, Coco, exits the house and backhandedly insults Diane for being late.

They head inside to eat and Coco further insults Diane with "So you rolled in here from Canada!"

Diane explains her past (she won a jitterbug contest, which led to acting; her aunt, who worked in movies, died and left her some money).

She is asked how she met Camilla and she says "On 'The Sylvia North Story'". The man next to her says, "Camilla was great in that!" (Which Diane takes as "I didn't really notice you in that".) She turns and glares at the man and from off screen we hear a woman speaking in Spanish.

Diane confesses that she wanted the lead in the film but "Camilla got the part. The director [Bob Brooker] didn't think so much of me. She [Camilla] helped me. Getting some parts..."

Coco pats her hand, sympathetically/condescendingly. Diane watches on as Camilla and Adam flirt and laugh/smile at each other.

The screen image dissolves to Diane's half cup of coffee (espresso).

As she takes a sip of her coffee and glances around the room, we hear Adam say "So I got the pool, and she got the pool man..."

Diane looks around and sees a man (lets call him Angelo Digliani, for reasons I'll explain later).

Adam continues, "Sometimes good things happen."

A blonde woman in a pearl necklace (lets call her Pearl to make this simple) approaches Camilla and whispers something in her ear. While she's whispering, they both glance over at Diane, who watches on in horror as the two women kiss--Diane is taken aback and physically recoils. Pearl looks over to make sure Diane is watching.

Pearl walks across the room--Diane watches her go--and disappears out an exit. Immediately, a man in a Cowboy outfit walks out of the same exit and walks past the screen.

Diane gives Camilla a dirty look. Camilla composes herself and turns to Adam. Adam taps fork to glass and, as Diane starts to cry, makes an announcement: "So I guess we've saved the best for last... Camilla and I are going to be..." and he never finishes his announcement.

We cut to Diane and a blonde man in leather jacket sitting in a diner. Through the course of their discussion, we find out that he's a hit man and that Diane has hired him to kill Camilla.

While they're having their discussion, a blonde waitress fills Diane's coffee. We see the name tag of the waitress: Betty.

Diane hands the hitman a photo resume of Camilla and says "This is the girl."

She also gives him a black DKNY bag filled with money. He says "Once you hand that over to me, it's a done deal. You sure you want this?" She replies, "More than anything in this world." He shows her a blue aluminum key and says, "When it's finished, you'll find this where I told you."

She glares at the key, then looks past it, down the length of the diner, where she sees a man (lets call him Dream
Boy), standing in front of the cash register waiting to pay his bill.

Diane looks back at the hit man and asks, "What's it open?" (Referring to the key.) The hitman laughs.

All of the above actually precedes the opening of the film, in "real time." The majority of the film (the first two hours) is actually a dream that Diane has in which her subconscious attempts to make "sense" of the above.

The film opens (post jitterbug credits) with Diane crawling into bed (we don't see her but instead see her bed, and the shadow of herself climbing into it). The dream section ends with a character (the Cowboy) coming into her room and saying "Hey, pretty girl, time to wake up."

In Diane's dream--all of the scenes between the opening and the Cowboy waking her--Hollywood is transformed into an unfair, conspiring world in which true talent is over run by the talentless and strings are pulled by men (the Cowboy and the recluse--both symbols of old Hollywood (think westerns and Howard Hughes)--and the Digliani brothers--a symbol of new Hollywood (think Bob and Harvey Wienstein, who own/run Miramax)) with ulterior and unexplained motives.

Diane's subconscious transforms her from the murdering, conspiring, actress that Camilla "helped" into the innocent, helping, resourceful Betty. In this dreamworld, up is down, black is white, to quote another film.

In the dream, Diane/Betty didn't kill Camilla (Dream Boy in the diner states, "There's a man behind this place. He's the one who's doing it. I hope I never see that face outside of a dream."), but is instead her savior, the one who keeps her safe and helps her find her true identity. In addition, Diane becomes the overwhelmingly talented Bettty (seen in the audition scene with Bob Brooker)--taking her name from the Waitress' name tage--and Camilla becomes talentless (seen in the Kitchen rehearsal scene). A flip flop of what we know really happened ("Camilla was great in that." and "She helped me. Got me some parts...")

Many of the events that happened in the real world (at the party and with the hitman) resurface as symbols or physical manifestations of her inner feelings. For instance, the disgust she feels about Adam and Camilla's affections for one another, which she witnessed while drinking the espresso, appear as the disgust that Angelo Digliani feels at drinking espresso in the meeting with Adam and the other execs. He declares the drink "Shit," and literally spits it out.

The stretch of road where Diane joins Camilla at the party is the same place where the hit men try and kill her in the dream. In fact, Rita/Camilla says the same words to the same drivers when they stop: "What are you doing? We don't stop here."

Diane's "This is the girl" statement about who the hit man should kill is turned on its head into the thing Adam is forced to say re: Camilla getting the role.

The woman speaking in Spanish when the man next to Diane at the party compliments Camilla's performance, becomes the Silencio scene in which Betty/Diane is told that, in a nutshell, most things are beyond our control... until we take them under our control.

Diane's answering machine ("Hello it's me. Leave a Message.") is also heard in the dream, but the characters, and we, assume it's Rita/Camilla's machine. Funnily, Diane/Betty says to her, "It must be weird calling yourself."

Adam's "So I got the pool and she got the pool man" turns into a very odd "reality" in which Adam comes home and finds his wife in bed with Gene, played by Billy Ray Cyrus. (Oddly, this minor character gets two very significant lines, each representing a different side of Diane's inner battle:: "That ain't no way to treat your wife. I don’t care what she's done." And "Just forget you ever saw it. It's better that way.")

The blue aluminum key turns into a puzzle which Camilla/Rita and Diane/Betty spend a great deal of time trying to get to the bottom of. When the blue box is finally opened, it's empty, which recalls the hitman's laughter at her even asking about its contents.

Coco is turned from a character who is both insulting and condescending into a welcoming presence.


Though I normally do not like Lynch's films (I was stunned at how good MD was), to me this film works in many ways. I think it's a terrifically astute representation of Hollywood and how people (especially those with dreams of going there) think it works. It's also a wonderful attempt by someone to show how our "reality" is reinterpreted by our subconcious in order to keep ourself sane. It can be enjoyed by trying to pick apart its bones (as I have tried above and in previous posts) or just watched flat out with no conscious attempt to figure it out.

In addition, the overlying theme (Are we responsible for our actions?), summed up in Adam's understanding of the Cowboy's statement, "A man's attitude goes some ways toward how a man's life will be," is wonderfully pithy and echoes throughout the films many levels.

If anything, the film gets better with repeat viewings. Give it another watch.
posted by dobbs at 1:28 PM on December 15, 2003 [40 favorites]

Unuseful contribution: Friends of mine were 2 of the swing dancers in the title sequence.
posted by turbodog at 2:12 PM on December 15, 2003

Response by poster: dobbs, that is a great summary/explanation and actually increased my appreciation of the movie quite a bit. It was especially helpful that you pinpointed the start and end of the dream sequence - I found your summary to be much more interesting than the Salon article. So OK, I guess there was method to the madness after all. But why make it so damn weird?

Which is my main complaint about Lynch. I loved Twin Peaks the TV series - was absolutely hooked on the first season and was well into the second season before I realized that there were just too many people and events which would never be explained. Too many loose ends for me, I guess.
posted by widdershins at 2:37 PM on December 15, 2003

widdershins, glad you liked it. I actually cut it quite short as the post was ridiculously long. If there's something in particular in the film that's bugging you, send me an email and I'll rattle off what it means to me. (Surprisingly, I've gotten dozens of emails from people since that first mefi thread.)

I agree with you about your "main complaint about Lynch," but I don't agree that it applies to MD. I find that "weird for the sake of weird" to be the case with every one of his other films (except SS and EM). After watching MD once, I felt that I simply didn't get it, and that it was just Lynch being Lynch.

At the same time, I thought Naomi Watts gave one of the best performances I've ever seen. She was phenomanal in the role and I am so happy that it launched her career. I actually rewatched the film just to see her performance, and it was then that I started seeing some of the things mentioned above. In short, if you think it's just weird for weird's sake, give it another view. I think that so many people have difficulty with the film (my roommate hates it and refuses to rewatch it) because it is so unlike anything anyone else has ever made.

Essentially, if Lynch were to make the film linerally, or not "so damn weird," the film would lose many of its layers/levels.

Most people have learned to watch films on a "causal level" -- A happens so B happens so C happens... etc. This works very well when watching typical three act structure movies (the majority of movies HWood turns out fit a three act structure/paradigm). However, Lynch has essentially taken a causal level model and applied it to a character-centred paradigm (what you'll see in one or two act films (Full Metal Jacket, Mean Streets, etc.)). In essence, he gives you scenes which reveal character and through the character, exposes the plot. Usually Hollywood movies reveal character through plot.

I haven't read the Salon article so can't comment on it (I was rather disappointed with the one they did for Memento and therefore passed on the MD one as I thought if they couldn't get that film there was no way they'd get this one). I also shut the Flakmag commentary off after 20 minutes as I thought the two speakers were extremely dry and full of themselves so am not sure if they've got some insights I don't. (I agreed with a bunch of what they say in the 20 mins I heard--the courtyard being a "reference" to Day of the Locust, for instance, and they mention the person behind Winkies is played by a woman, not a man as everyone says, as I did in the original MeFi thread). It may be worth listening to.

There are also many things in the film which I cannot explain at all. The one that bothers me the most is the "truth" behind The Sylvia North Story--in Diane's dream, Adam is directing it. In reality, Bob Brooker directed it (even though in the dream he was casting a different movie). I know a bunch of people who chalk this up to the fact that the film was initially going to be a tv show but the backers backed out after seeing the pilot--they think these things would have been explained in other episodes. I prefer to think that Lynch left them unsolvable, or that one day I'll stumble upon their meanings and think they're as obvious as some of the explanations I currently take for granted about the rest of the film. Fun either way.

The thing to keep in mind is that there could be many different perfectly valid explanations for just about everything in it. Some people think that's because it doesn't "mean" anything. To me, that's one of the things that makes the film so interesting and will ensure that this film, in years to come, will be thought of as a classic, as well as one of the best films ever made about the film industry.
posted by dobbs at 3:21 PM on December 15, 2003

I don't think movies (or any art form) has a "meaning", beyond what it is.
There's this chick, comes to LA, acts, etc., wakes up, is fucked up, cowboy guy appears, ex-lover is marrying ex-director, old people are really tiny ,etc.
That's the movie.
Why make up bullshit "explanations" about it? If you could explain it, you wouldn't need to make a movie about it.
posted by signal at 7:39 PM on December 15, 2003

signal: well done, that's the dumbest thing I've ever read on MeFi.
posted by biffa at 2:21 AM on December 16, 2003 [3 favorites]

the two speakers were extremely dry and full of themselves so am not sure if they've got some insights I don't.

"Dry and full of [our]selves" was not the desired effect -- we were just nervous and had never done it before. We felt compelled to keep talking, to not leave dead spaces, to have something to say to people who were legitimately, you know, seeking answers.
posted by blueshammer at 8:25 AM on December 16, 2003

blueshammer, fair enough. my apologies for my comments. rereading i sure sound snooty or insulting, which wasn't my intention. your commentary flashed me back 10 years to film school and, more accurately, film theory class, which i loathed. this is more a comment on me than on you, actually.

i appreciate your not wanting dead air, though. it's the second quickest way to get someone to turn off a commentary, i think. (right behind "oh, look, that's my cousin in the background" or "X is such a professional and delight to work with...")

i should probably be commending you for even attempting a commentary, let alone one on MD. i certainly wouldn't have the nerve/balls/patience.
posted by dobbs at 11:18 AM on December 16, 2003

I'm not trying to browbeat you into recanting, dobbs. I'm sure we do sound rather stiff and more than a little film school-y. I just wanted, for purely self-linking purposes, to try to re-suade anyone that might have been interested but dissuaded by the ennh review by saying that the wankery tapers off as we get into our groove.

I hadn't thought of the Diglianis as the Weinsteins. That's pretty funny.

I will say, though, that we differ on our interpretations of the Silencio scene. I'll have to watch it again with your interp in mind ....
posted by blueshammer at 12:46 PM on December 16, 2003

blueshammer, not recanting, just feel the wording of my dislike was a little blunt. :)

as for silencio, this is from one of my posts to the original mefi thread mentioned above:

to me the significance of the club lies in the mc's speech. he talks about how what we hear is on a tape. here, i believe, lynch is attempting to show us how two things (what we're seeing (the girl "singing") and hearing (a tape of a girl singing)) can essentially communicate the same thing (a woman is singing). however, one (the woman in front of us) is reality (happening) and the other is an illusion. when the woman collapses/dies, lynch is throwing a wrench in the machine, so to speak. because the "reality" has stopped and the "non-reality" continues, which doesn't make "sense." to me, this is just an analogy for the dream. diane cannot control the dream, and it is not real, but at the same time, it continues on its way, constituting it's own reality, which infringes on her real (waking) reality to such an extreme that she kills herself over the guilt of having murdered her lover.

as the MC says "there is no band, but we hear a band. if you want to hear a clarinet... listen." essentially, this is the theme of the movie and also what the cowboy tells adam ("a man's attitude determines to a large extent what his life will be like.") we can either be in control of our lives or deny the control. diane choses to deny control--for herself, and for others.

it's much more accurate or inline with what i meant above. now you've got me curious about what your thoughts on it are though so i'll probably fire up your mp3s after all.
posted by dobbs at 3:10 PM on December 16, 2003

Well, each of the commentators on that track has his own print version of his thoughts, although there is only so much overlap with the commentary.

My read on it was that it was the great filmed version of Magritte's The Treachery of Images ("This is not a pipe"), and is very much like your take in how it addresses the dream nature of the story -- I hadn't taken it to your "control" conclusion, which I find interesting.

I also consider the English lyrics to the song being sung to be highly revelatory (commentary added):

I was all right for a while, I could smile for a while
But I saw you last night, you held my hand so tight
(which, as you note above, happens in the story)
As you stopped to say "Hello" (ditto)
You wished me well, you couldn’t tell

That I’d been crying over you, crying over you
Then you said "so long," left me standing all alone
Alone and crying, crying, crying, crying
It’s hard to understand but the touch of your hand
Can start me crying

I thought that I was over you
(until we met in this dream and started this relationship) but it’s true, oh so true
I love you even more than I did before
(I had you killed) but darling what can I do (because you're dead)
For you don’t love me and I’ll always be
(alluding to, as you say, the way the dream is wrecking Diane's life)

Crying over you, crying over you
Yes, now you’re gone
(for real) and from this moment on
I’ll be crying, crying, crying, cryiing
Yeah crying, crying, over you
(hence, I'm going to commit suicide)
posted by blueshammer at 3:31 PM on December 16, 2003

old people are really tiny ,etc.

Oh man!
posted by cortex at 4:07 PM on December 16, 2003

blueshammer, i'm wondering if you have a translation of the spanish spoken by three characters at the party (adam is one of them). since it's at the party and so much of the party stuff is significant to the dream, i'm sure the dialogue must be significant, but i haven't a clue what they're saying. any ideas?
posted by dobbs at 4:52 PM on December 16, 2003

You know, I don't. Is it in the DVD's closed captioning? Because I can translate, sorta.
posted by blueshammer at 4:59 PM on December 16, 2003

« Older What cell phone service provider would you...   |   Digital Rebel Lens Newer »
This thread is closed to new comments.