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'Mulholland Drive' Was the Film That Made Me Rethink Cinema

(And convinced me that I was a lesbian for a bit.)

Roisin Kiberd

Roisin Kiberd

Halfway through Mulholland Drive Justin Theroux's character, film director Adam Kesher, is told: "It's no longer your film". The line might as well be directed at viewers, because Mulholland Drive is nobody's film except its own.

Mulholland Drive refuses to explain itself or even follow a single plotline. We're given two fragmented tellings of the same story with sudden character name changes, repeated scenes from different perspectives and incongruous forays into horror and comedy which completely rupture the plot. It feels like the film is fucking with you on purpose.

David Lynch famously declined to explain Mulholland Drive, and refused to release the DVD with chapter divisions to make things any easier. But the wonderful thing about this film – which I first watched as a very guileless, pretentious 14-year-old, is that, even with minimal engagement, it remains one of the most visually luscious, emotionally jarring things you'll ever see. 

You don't need to understand Mulholland Drive to enjoy it. 

Mulholland Drive is a film about cinema itself, set within the industry with Hollywood itself as the villain. Lana Del Rey's videos owe a lot to Mulholland Drive– her David Lynch obsession is what made me give her music a chance in the first place. There's that same Old Hollywood aesthetic, all jewel-tones, velvet and women with broken eyes. The film cycles through familiar noir tropes – the ingenue, the femme fatale, the doomed romance in a corrupt world – but spins them into something newly surreal.

Naomi Watts made her name in Mulholland Drive, parodying her own white bread looks as glassy-eyed cardigan wearer Betty Elms at a time when she was primarily known as Nicole Kidman's blonde understudy. Betty moves into an apartment where she finds an amnesiac brunette (Laura Elena Harring) in hiding after a mysterious car crash. She vows to help find the woman's identity, falling in love with her in the process. As they piece together events, Betty's vision of an idealised Hollywood life begins to strain. Things get stranger, seedier and more disturbing until the plot cannot hold up and apparently turns inside out, beginning a darker re-telling of itself in the final 30 minutes.

When I first saw Mulholland Drive I was desperate to educate myself about cinema. I would go down to my local film rental shop every Friday after school and pick out something from the "independent" shelf (Laser DVD, RIP – long gone are the days where shops keep a death mask of Alfred Hitchcock on the wall and a life-sized Stormtrooper from Star Wars behind the till). That year I'd worked my way through Hitchcock's and Billy Wilder films. Not though Wim Wenders, though – I tried to borrow Paris Texas while still wearing my school uniform and was refused.

When I brought it home, I was nervous that one of my parents would walk in during the sex scenes between the topless Laura Elena Harring and Naomi Watts. At 14, the film left me deeply confused about my sexuality. This may have also been due to a dearth of boys at school and the influence of my other favourite film at the time, Heavenly Creatures, and the few feverish episodes of Fingersmith that I saw late at night on the BBC.

But there were other reasons to watch Mulholland Drive alone and uninterrupted. The film has a drowsy, feline pace which demands contemplation. It follows its own dream-logic and only really starts to make sense after the film is over. The protagonist becomes progressively less reliable until you're left questioning what is past and present, what is reality and what is a dream within a dream. 

Aside from narrating its own story twice, Mulholland Drive is complicated by a series of non-sequiturs – some foreboding, others absurd. Studio execs in shadowy rooms toy with fate. A hapless criminal is foiled by a vacuum cleaner. We see Theroux attack a car windscreen with a golf club and have a standoff with a waxy-faced cowboy. Billy Ray Cyrus makes a cameo appearance, his mullet still intact, as the pool boy lothario who steals the director's wife.

And then there's that scene in Winkies, reportedly modelled on 'Big Boys' diner where Lynch ordered the same coffee and chocolate milkshake every day for years. We meet two men who want to investigate the back of the restaurant. The agonisingly slow, jittery camera leads them outside, turns the corner and fixates on a gurning, androgynous monster who apparently lives in the bins (described in the script as a man, but interestingly, played by a woman). This early scene is where Mulholland Drive sets its cards on the table: the lurch you feel when you see that creature is only a taste of a greater foreboding yet to come. The man says he wants to "get rid of that god-awful feeling", but that god-awful feeling is only about to get worse.

This is also where Mulholland Drive begins to reveal its subtext. Inside Winkies, aspiring actresses do shifts as waitresses, while out in the car park failed ones prostitute themselves. The monster represents the street dweller, the unwashed underside to the Hollywood dream. Further uncomfortable truths start to show through: Betty acts opposite an older, tanned male lead in a spectacularly creepy audition, introducing the possibility of sexual abuse in her own past. A woman performs a Spanish-language cover of Roy Orbison's 'Crying', a single tear glittering on her cheek. But she isn't crying: the tear is drawn on like a gang tattoo. She's not singing either: halfway through she collapses and is dragged from the stage, her voice still playing. 

"No hay banda", says the compere. "There is no band."

Mulholland Drive is a hymn to artifice, but is critical of it, too. Lynch examines Hollywood's underbelly the same way he raked the dirt underBlue Velvet's suburban lawns. He confirms your suspicions that no soul as innocent as Betty's could survive here. 

The film has been interpreted as a radical retelling of The Wizard of Oz, already referenced in Lynch's Wild at Heart, where Betty is "not in Kansas anymore" and in thrall to a wizard's showmanship. And while Dorothy wakes up safely in her bed surrounded by family, Betty wakes up alone to pill bottles and blacked-out windows.

Which is what leads me to see Mulholland Drive as a film about the injustice the Hollywood system inflicts, and to women in particular (timely given the recent Bill Cosby accusations, and others). 

On the wall in Betty's apartment hangs a painting of Beatrice Cenci, a 16th century Italian noblewoman who was the victim of sexual abuse, who died at 22and became a symbol of revolt against the corrupt aristocracy. The singer Rebekah del Rio is billed as La Llorona de Los Angeles, the mythical "weeping woman" who drowned her children for a male suitor only for him to betray her. La Llorona suffers, trapped between the spirit world and the real one, much as Betty finds herself trapped between fantasy and reality. All three are the victims of a patriarchal system: they are seized upon for their youth and looks, then used up and forgotten.

This film's sympathies rest with the disposable women of Hollywood and, to a wider extent, with the marginalised hispanic residents of LA (Del Rio's performance of 'Llorando' is the emotional heart of the film, and Harring's Mexican accent becomes noticeably stronger as the film progresses). Amnesiac Rita says "I don't know who I am", fittingly taking a new name from a vintage poster of Rita Hayworth which reads :"There never was a woman like Gilda". This is quite literally true, because Gilda – and Hayworth herself – were constructions of the studio system, conjured up from cosmetic surgery, corsetry and a woman originally named Margarita Carmen Cansino.

Mulholland Drive is about the loss of self that occurs when you're willing to give anything for your obsession. "This is the girl," the execs say – and that girl will never be you. Again and again, Lynch gives us that nighttime driving shot lit only a few meters ahead. We are feeling our way in the dark and are, ultimately, powerless. It perfectly summons the queasy feeling of life spiralling beyond your control, one I could relate to as a teenager with delusions of some darker other world, but a face too childish to even let me rent Paris Texas.

The most poetic thing about Mulholland Drive, though, is that it nearly never existed, falling prey to the same studio system it criticises. It was intended as a TV series, but Lynch clashed with ABC network executives and the set was shut down – as happens to Kesher's film-within-a-film. Watts and Harring were also rejected, apparently, on the basis that they were too old to be convincing TV stars.

This is what ultimately makes the film so transgressive. It's not the monsters, the topless scenes or the world's most miserable portrayal of female masturbation (a scene that, depressingly, now streams on several porn tube sites). It's that the Mulholland Drive acts as a beautiful, disorientating middle-finger to a system which tried to suppress it. 

​@RoisinTheMirror

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