Mulholland Drive: The Tale of Two Movies

So, I can very distinctly remember my first time watching Mulholland Drive. I enjoyed it all the way through, and then the shift happened. My mind was racing, trying to figure out what I had seen, getting really psyched about the possibilities. Soon afterward, I started searching around online, and started reading interpretations, and found out what had happened. Diane had been dreaming, and everything with Betty and Rita was said dream. I was, to say the least, disappointed. It was so simple. Too simple. It was an entirely unsatisfying explanation, and I grew to hate the movie.

When I was doing this research on the film, for whatever reason, I did not happen to stumble on to anything about other possible interpretations. The only things I read said outright: it was all a dream. I felt stupid for failing to notice something that seemed so simple, and I just was not happy with the answer. But without any alternatives, I didn’t think that I was unhappy with the interpretation, but with the movie itself.

This time, watching it, I was much more aware that Mulholland Drive was not so simple, and that there were many competing theories. After watching it this time, I spent several hours pouring over, looking through all the various theories, weighing them, trying to figure out if any of them were persuasive enough to seem to offer the answer as to what happened.

Here’s the thing: the dream theory seems to me the best solution. I think it poses the least problems, and offers a rather simple account of everything that happened. The problem is: it’s just too simple. Mulholland Drive is an immensely complicated film, one which I don’t think Lynch meant to be easily understood. The solution to a film this complex shouldn’t be “it was a dream.” It just feels like cheating.

And some of the other theories offer some interesting possibilities. My friend Stefan believes that the film shows alternate realities colliding. One theory suggests that the whole dream is actually that of Aunt Ruth’s, reliving the various phases of her life (starting as optimistic Betty, becoming the successful Carmilla, hitting rock bottom as Diane, becoming successful again as the casting agent, ending life as a relative unknown Ruth). Another posits that the whole dream is a metaphor for an abortion or miscarriage that Diane suffered. Another theorizes that after Diane committed suicide, the Cowboy gave her a new life as Betty. Many seemed to read much into the relationship between Diane and her neighbor, suggesting that the two were former lovers.

I mulled over these theories extensively. Most of them were quite imaginative, some were even fairly persuasive. But the more I thought about it, I began to question the very idea of parsing out something like Mulholland Drive. While discussing the movie with Stefan, I found myself struggling on how best to talk about the previous Betty section, and jokingly referred to it as “that other movie.” Although I didn’t mean it when I said it, I now feel like that’s just as valid an interpretation as any, that Betty and Diane are in different movies.

There’s really nothing in the text of Mulholland Drive that absolutely states that there’s any connection between the two stories. The audience is merely going to make that assumption, based on the fact that the two stories share the same actors, and some of the same names and themes. It’s natural to make those assumptions, and in fact, it’s pretty difficult to abandon the idea of understanding the relationship between the stories, but I think it might be the only way to not get stuck in an endless series of fan theories, none of which will ever perfectly fit the movie to the exclusion of all other theories. Lynch clearly went out of his way to make a film that is not only extremely ambiguous in its meaning, but one that is open to literally endless interpretation and speculation.

Mulholland Drive may stand as the perfect embodiment of the puzzle film. It presents a complex, ambiguous text that encourages audience participation in trying to solve the mysteries. However, how it diverges from other puzzle films is, for lack of a better term, its amount of replay value. Most puzzle films require a little legwork to sort out the syuzhet and figure out what the true fabula is. Mulholland Drive, somehow, manages to present a syuzhet from which one could draw virtually any fabula. No fabula is the correct one, but there really aren’t any wrong guesses either. Instead of the riddle of the standard puzzle film, Mulholland Drive is instead a lateral thinking problem.


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