Mulholland Drive (2001): David Lynch’s Masterpiece, Starring Naomi Watts in Career-Making Performance

The two seemingly contradictory strands of David Lynch’s visionary cinema, the dark, seedy underside and the sunny, gleaming surface clash and converge in “Mulholland Drive,” a darkly humorous film noir that registers as a summation work at midpoint career.

This visually menacing, highly entertaining horror picture, which deconstructs Hollywood as the dream factory and land of opportunity, continues to explore such Lynchian obsessions as good versus evil, dreams versus nightmares. A follow-up to the 1999 Cannes-premiered “The Straight Story,” which earned Lynch the label of “the Jimmy Stewart from Mars,” Mulholland Drive belongs to the same universe of “Blue Velvet,” Lynch’s undisputed masterwork, and Lost Highway, his flawed but still engrossing noir.

Theatrical prospects are good for a hallucinatory, mysteriously bizarre film that will satisfy Lynch cultists with its surreal qualities, but will frustrate many critics and sharply divide viewers.

Painstakingly detailed mise-en-scene, ominous menace that permeates every frame, and big set pieces, that don’t always connect logically but are nonetheless striking in their own right, are the defining characteristics o Mulholland Drive, a film that couldn’t have been more different from Lynch’s last feature, “The Straight Story.” Thematically and visually, this picture slightly recalls “Lost Highway” in that it also deals with dread (real or imagined) and is also divided into two disparate plots, that run parallel and may or may not be connected. Like that 1997 noir, Mulholland Drive also begins with a speeding car and a fatal crash, this time in the Hollywood Hills.

In the first scene, which is Lynch’s homage to “The Postman Always Rings Twice,” an attractive woman (Laura Elena Harring) about to be killed, miraculously emerges out of an accident when the Cadillac she’s in gets smashed by some fast-driving drunk hoodlums.  Shocked by her survival, she goes downhill and sneaks into a West Hollywood apartment, about to be vacated by its old tenant going to the airport.

Second story strand depicts the arrival in L.A. of Betty (Aussie Naomi Watts, in a brilliant performance), a young, wide-eyed and grotesquely cheerful blonde, full of high hopes to make it big in Hollywood. Those who know Lynch won’t be surprised that Betty checks into the same apartment where the mysterious woman is hiding.  The naive Betty is, of course, a slightly older version of Laura Dern in “Blue Velvet,” and the other woman, who’s now amnesiac and can’t remember her name, brings to mind Isabella Rossellini’s victimized chanteuse in the same film.

The visual contrast between the women, one blonde and innocent, the other darked-haired and sexy (who adopts the name Rita from a Rita Hayworth poster), not to speak of the motifs of duplicity, voyeurism, and double identities, also recall Lynch’s 1986 masterpiece.  The small-town America locale in former Lynch movies is now replaced with a shady Hollywood and sleazy Sunset Boulevard, where a third character is introduced. Adam Kesher (Justin Theroux) is a young, hip director who’s informed by his investors, the Mafioso Castigliani brothers, that against his will he have to cast his movie with an actress named Camilla Rhodes. The only way to do this overly familiar scene in a Lynch movie is as broad parody, and indeed, in a deliberately paced act, the helmer imbues it with an absurdist tone, culminating with a view of a wheel chaired-bound midget in the midst of a huge room, who may be the real boss.

Adam’s bad day gets worse, when he returns to his lush home, only to find his wife in bed with their gardener. After taking revenge by smearing pink paint on her jewelry, he’s kicked out of his house. In a later sequence, which contains the movie’s most memorable line, Adam is told by yet another menacing man, Cowboy (played by producer Monty Montgomery) that his only choice is to cast Camilla in the coveted role. Says Cowboy: “You will see me one more time if you do good. You will see me two more times if you do bad.”

Most of the first hour is devoted to Betty’s efforts to help Rita retrieve her memory–and identity. After some rambling, Rita utters the name Diane Selwyn and a telephone number, and the duo, in a parody of private-eye movies, begin their search until they land in an apartment, only to find there the stinking corpse of a woman. Upping the ante, and possibly borrowing from Bergman’s Persona, Rita cuts her long hair and dons a short blond wig a la Betty.

A bizarre, intimate yet also ambiguous, friendship evolves between the women, who soon find themselves sexually attracted to each other. Here too, enfant terrible Lynch undercuts the overtly erotic and voyeuristic scenes with a preposterously funny dialogue.

Using the doppelganger motif, in the last hour, the two women change identities: Betty is now Diane, a tough and bitter down-on-her luck actress, who’s insanely jealous, personally and professionally of Rita, who’s now Camilla, the glamorous actress.

Interpretations will vary regarding the second part, in which Lynch is back to his mind-twisting tricks of his TV series “Twin Peaks,” particularly the last episodes. Do these scenes represent an alternate reality with new characters, or do the two strands represent the duality of La La Land as, on the one hand, the eternally sunny and blue-skied land of opportunity, and on the other, a dark and sinister environment where innocent dreams are crashed and naive souls are corrupted (noir’s unique domain).

Either way, harsh critics need to be reminded that Lynch’s narratives are seldom neat and tidy and that coherent storytelling has never been his forte. Nonetheless, even by his own standards, Mulholland Drive’s script is particularly loose and frustrating, a possible result of the fact that the project was initially conceived as a TV series, but then ABC rejected Lynch’s pilot, handing it over to Studio Canal.

After 25 years of moviemaking, critics and viewers may have to accept the Lynchian sensibility for what it’s worth, perhaps even evaluate his with a different, non-narrative set of yardsticks. What’s exciting about the good Lynch movies is that they continue to confound expectations, that they avoid repetition and bizarreness for bizarreness’s sake. By now, it should be clear that there isn’t one way to read Lynch, that his work is rich and complex enough to elicit contradictory reactions.

In “Mulholland Drive,” a vintage Lynch movie, viewers may wonder whether a scene is funny or malignant, realistic or surreal, naive or knowing, emphatic or inhuman. The answer, of course, is all of the above.