After his Oscar-winning Disney departure from new noir, “The Straight Story,” director David Lynch returns to the off-kilter, double fantasies that made “Lost Highway” so maddeningly enthralling.
With “Mulholland Drive,” Lynch finally commits to looking at the corruption of innocence in a blatantly carnal fashion. In the style of a Hitchcock freed of the old Hollywood code, he explores the nature of a sexual relationship between the two female leads, while making a tongue-in-cheek indictment of the fickle Hollywood star-making machinery.
Alteration of conventional narrative structures runs rampant and a coffee shop becomes the node of coalescence for the disparate plot lines. The story operates as if a patron were there, making a surreal assemblage of overheard conversations, mixed in with his touches of twisting pop-cultural allusions to Roy Orbison and other icons of Americana that have become his trademark. Inversions abound: a seemingly gentle elderly couple become sinister devilkin while beaming a cemented denture-toothed grin and a cowboy, looking like a route 66 billboard caricature complete with white ten-gallon hat, is a menacing creature of against-type behaviors.
Betty, a sunny-blond ingenue, arrives at LAX from her idyllic-sounding Canadian town of Coldwater. With dreams of stardom, she has come to audition while house sitting an elegant courtyard apartment for her industry-connected aunt. When she first explores her new home, she discovers a vacant and beautiful dark-haired woman in her shower and assumes that she too is a houseguest.
In truth, she is the amnesiac survivor of a terrible car accident. The mysterious Rita (taken off a “Gilda” poster on the bathroom wall) has no identification in her purse, only a large sum of cash and an oddly shaped blue key. Betty and Rita become friends, go about solving the mystery of Rita’s identity and become lovers in the process. Meanwhile, a hot young director finds his life unraveling as a powerful behind-the-scenes puppet master is determined to force the casting of a particular actress for the female lead of his newest film.
Lynch is consistently assaulting audience presumption. Characters give glances of recognition when they have never met. Timelines are nonlinear. Thirty minutes from the end of the two and a half-hour film, the characters are arbitrarily assigned new names and traits. The reality that we have invested ourselves in is the pea in a mental shell game. Strands of connectivity become the handrails on a spiral staircase of events that lead impossibly upward to the first step – like puzzles from a M.C. Escher drawing. These detours lend the film the episodic feel of a miniseries, which was its intended format before being dropped by network executives, before being later picked up by the French studio Canal for a screen adaptation.
Though you can never pin down what Lynch wants you to take from his films, it seems that is hardly the point. Attempts at positing a solid interpretation game become an exercise in futility, but part of the fun in after-viewing debates. What Lynch is really after might be less complicated -poetic, musical, purely evocative and experienced through recurring symbols with a dream-like coherence. And he willingly sacrifices the explainable to do so.