Point of No Return

Mulholland Drive is Lynchs best since Blue Velvet

Mulholland Drive parts the veil on a totally cracked, utterly convincing world with David Lynch its brooding demiurge. A Denny's-like restaurant on Sunset Boulevard fronts the abyss: "I had a dream about this place," a smug young creative type explains to someone who might be his agent, even as his nightmare begins to unfold. Crazy!

Fashioned from the ruins of a two-hour TV pilot rejected by ABC in 1999, Lynch's erotic thriller careens from one violent non sequitur to another. The movie boldly teeters on the brink of self-parody, reveling in its own excess and resisting narrative logic. This voluptuous phantasmagoria is certainly Lynch's strongest movie since Blue Velvet and maybe Eraserhead. The very things that failed him in the bad-boy rockabilly debacle of Lost Highway—the atmosphere of free-floating menace, pointless transmigration of souls, provocatively dropped plot stitches, gimcrack alternate universes—are here brilliantly rehabilitated.

What was it that Dennis Hopper called Dean Stockwell in Blue Velvet—one suave motherfucker? From the absurd midnight automobile accident on the Los Angeles road that opens the movie and gives it its title, Mulholland Drive makes perfect (irrational) sense. Lynch's outlandish noir feels familiar, and yet it's continually surprising, as when a bungled assassination turns into a Rube Goldberg mechanism involving two additional victims, a vacuum cleaner and a smoke detector, or a scene begins with an abrupt eruption of pink and turquoise and a studio rendition of the Connie Stevens chestnut "Sixteen Reasons (Why I Love You)."

The narrative, such as it is, commences when a lush brunette of mystery soon to be known as Rita (Laura Elena Harring) dodges a bullet, staggers out of her crashed car, and descends from the Hollywood Hills into the jewel-like city below to find refuge in an empty apartment. She's suffering from amnesia, which makes her the perfect foil for the flat's caretaker, Betty (Naomi Watts), who arrives the next morning—blond, perky, and inanely optimistic—from the Ontario town of Deep River (named perhaps for the sinister dive where Isabella Rossellini made her home in Blue Velvet). Betty is innocently avid to become a star; Rita is forced by circumstance to impersonate one. Their first meeting is a mini Hitchcock film, with the dazed brunette assigning herself a name from a handy Gilda poster.

Where did Rita's suitcase full of money come from? What is the significance of the blue key in her pocket? There's a definite Nancy Drew quality as the naively trusting and ever enthusiastic Betty takes it upon herself to solve the enigma of Rita's identity. "It'll be just like in the movies," she says. "We'll pretend to be someone else." Although Betty is initially a mass of cornball clichés, possibly modeled on Eva Marie Saint or Lynch himself, it unexpectedly develops that she really can act. (So, too, Naomi Watts.) Betty's audition at Paramount, a sensational performance in a tryout worthy of Ed Wood, presents the possibility that everything she has done and will do is calculated for effect. "You look like someone else," Betty exclaims when Rita gets a makeover to more closely resemble . . . her. Thanks in part to that new blond wig, the women get together in a scene that is not only exceptionally steamy and tender but contains what is surely the greatest amnesiac sex joke ever written.

Whatever Mulholland Drive was originally, it has become a poisonous valentine to Hollywood. (This is the most carefully crafted LA period film since Chinatown—except that the period is ours.) The locations are quietly fabulous; there's a museum quality to the musty Art Deco apartment where Betty and Rita live under the watchful eye of a showbiz landlady (Ann Miller). The cloyingly lit nocturnal landscape and splashy glamour compositions seem pure essence of 1958, as do Betty's ingenue poses. The ominously rumbling city is malign and seductive; the movie industry, or should we say dream factory, is an obscure conspiracy. In a secondary narrative, an inexpressive, self-important young director (Justin Theroux) is compelled to endure a production meeting from hell wherein a shadowy cabal seizes control of his movie—but only so that the presence of a single, unknown actress can be dictated by an irony-resistant bogeyman called the Cowboy (Monty Montgomery, producer of Lynch's Wild at Heart, among other credits).

Alarming as the Cowboy is, Mulholland Drive's most frighteningly self-reflexive scene comes when Betty and Rita attend a 2 a.m. performance—part séance, part underground art ritual—in a decrepit, near-deserted, old movie palace called Club Silencio. The mystery being celebrated is that of sound-image synchronization, which is to say cinema, and the illusion throws Betty into convulsions. At the show's climax, Rebekah Del Rio sings an a cappella Spanish-language version of "Crying." She collapses onstage, but the song continues—just like the movie. For its remaining three-quarters of an hour, Mulholland Drive turns as perverse and withholding in its narrative as anything in Buñuel. Similarly surreal is the gusto with which Lynch orchestrates his particular fetishes. In Mulholland Drive, the filmmaker has the conviction to push self-indulgence past the point of no return.

Curiouser and curiouser. From the moment Betty and Rita leave the club, the narrative begins to fissure. Mulholland Drive flows from one situation to the next, one scene seeping into another like the decomposing corpse I've neglected to mention that's at the story's center. Characters dissolve. Settings deteriorate. Situations break down and reconstitute themselves, sometimes as fantasy, sometimes as a movie—which is to say, much of what has previously happened, happens again, only differently. Love is now a performance. Rita reverts to femme fatality. The parental demons return.

Betty's dream becomes a nightmare—or perhaps the previous story was itself only a dream. Not that it matters. Mulholland Drive is thrilling and ludicrous. The movie feels entirely instinctual. The rest is silencio.

Mulholland Drive was directed by David Lynch; written by Joyce Eliason and Lynch; produced by Mary Sweeney, Alain Sarde, Neal Edelstein, Michael Polaire and Tony Krantz; and stars Laura Herring, Naomi Watts, Ann Miller, Justin Therouz, Robert Forester and Dan Hedaya. Now playing at Edwards Rancho Niguel, Laguna Niguel; Edwards Stadium, Long Beach; and Edwards South Coast Village, Santa Ana.

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