22 December 2006

Mulholland Drive: narrative in a subjective landscape

There have been moments in life when I’ve been confused, but very few would come close to my confusion during, and after, watching David Lynch’s film ‘Mulholland Drive’. That must have been sometime in 2002 and, honestly, I’m still trying to piece the film/story together… trying to make sense out of my confusion.

‘Mulholland Drive’ is about two beautiful women – Diane and Camilla – both actresses in Hollywood. Or, correctly speaking, the film is about Diane (played by Naomi Watts), trying to make it as an actress, but failing; and about Camilla (played by Laura Elena Harring), succeeding. The entire film seems to be a fantasy, a dream, played in Diane’s mind… which is where the confusion thrives.

Diane (as small-town girl Betty) comes to Hollywood with hopes of becoming an actress. While staying alone at her aunt’s apartment, Diane finds a glamorous but traumatised amnesiac woman, Rita (who is actually Camilla, but since Camilla can’t remember anything, she adopts the name Rita from a Rita Hayworth poster), hiding in the apartment. Diane (i.e. Betty) helps amnesiac Camilla (i.e. Rita) slowly discover her (i.e. Rita’s) true identity and, in the process, the two women become lovers.

Diane’s acting career fails miserably, while Camilla’s succeeds superlatively. Camilla becomes a glamorous celebrity, leaving Diane for another lesbian lover. Unable to take the pain of her failures (in career and in love) and overwhelmed by jealousy, Diane hires a hitman to kill Camilla. Then Diane commits suicide. Camilla escapes the attempt on her life, but the incident turns her into a traumatised amnesiac. Camilla wanders aimlessly for a while before taking refuge in a Hollywood apartment, where she is found by Diane (i.e. Betty).

Got all that? There’s more, of course, but for simplicity, I won’t go into it.

What’s fascinating about ‘Mulholland Drive’ is that director David Lynch has been able to take the normal path of narrative, with its objective reality, and turn it upside down into a subjective landscape. The landscape in the film is a fantasy in Diane’s mind. That is, it’s a view of one of the characters in the film – and that too, it’s a fantasy in a troubled mind. A mind which itself is trying to escape from the reality it cannot cope with. It’s fiction (e.g. Betty being dreamed up by Diane) within fiction (e.g. Diane struggling with her failed acting career and resorting to fantasy), creating a totally subjective landscape.

In ‘Mulholland Drive’, David Lynch presents reality in fragments of fantasies that his characters dream up while trying to cope with the reality of their lives. The film viewer has trouble identifying with this. If the characters in the film are unable to differentiate between fantasy and reality, how can the film viewer?

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