Sometimes it feels as though David Lynch is toying with us.
I’ve had this fantasy several times: I’m sitting in a packed movie theater watching Lynch’s latest incoherent, gorgeous dreamscape of a film—having no idea what’s going on, but riveted to the screen—when the reel stops, the lights come up, and Lynch steps to the front of the room, munching on a bag of popcorn and smirking.
“I can’t believe you’re taking this seriously,” he says. “I was just joking. It’s a bunch of random images and characters. I just made it all up one afternoon. It makes no sense. Shouldn’t that matter to you? I can’t believe you pretentious bastards.” Then he throws the popcorn in the air and stalks off, and we all sit there looking at each other.
In truth, it’s clear that Lynch isn’t a prankster. Sure, he’s pretentious and inaccessible, but those are just words to fill the lack of any better way to describe the empty feeling his films leave. Lynch makes pictures that try very hard to affect us on a different level than just about any other prominent American filmmaker. Success in that chore doesn’t seem to be the point.
His latest is Mulholland Drive, a Hollywood-set neo-noir that’s just as incomprehensible and elliptical as everything else he’s made. It’s a 146-minute mindbender, but unlike some of his films (the dismal Lost Highway comes to mind), it also has several edifying assets: a gorgeous look, two compelling leads (who have actual character arcs!) and two of the hotter sex scenes put to film in recent years.
Parts of this film originally were intended for a pilot for an ABC television series, though it’s impossible to tell where he could have intended all of this to go. We start with Betty (Naomi Watts), a perky small-town blonde who arrives in Hollywood to stay in her aunt’s apartment while auditioning for the movies. When she walks in, there’s a voluptuous brunette (Laura Harring) taking a shower. Betty asks her name; the brunette, who has amnesia from a car wreck that occurred shortly before she was about to be murdered, looks at a movie poster for Gilda and impulsively says her name is Rita.
Still with us? It only gets weirder. The appeal of Lynch’s meandering flights of fancy depends on the viewer’s capacity for frustration. Those who demand plot and resolution—that being nearly all of us—will always be left unsatisfied, because Lynch’s trail of breadcrumbs through his garden of images doesn’t fit the conventional definition of a plot, and you can forget any resolution.
But Mulholland Drive has an asset that sets it apart: It’s the most gorgeous film that Lynch and cinematographer Peter Deming have ever made. Apart from the magnetic lead actresses (both relatively new faces; Harring is a former Miss USA), almost every scene is a wonderful photograph of an idealized, sharpened Hollywood that probably never existed except in dreams just like this one.
It’s fitting that Canal Plus, the sometimes-brilliant French production company, fronted Lynch to complete the project as a film when plans for the TV series fell through. This is Hollywood as imagined through foreign minds—the palm-lined drives, art-deco houses and sinister sunshine conjured up by those who didn’t get their first taste of Los Angeles sitting in traffic in front of a Burger King on Sunset Boulevard, listening to Mexican pop music while trying to drive to a Dodgers game. This is the existential version of James Ellroy’s L.A., and it’s wonderful.
Lynch’s red herrings, dead ends and stylistic ellipses make for a great spectator sport, but his terminal inaccessibility simply wears down even his most ardent fans. He likely has filmed a larger percentage of his dreams than any director currently working. In a completely backward way, he might be the most personal filmmaker of our age. He opens his mind to anyone. His highly personal obsessions with archetypal women, dwarves and fire are matters of public record. He doesn’t tell us what he believes; he tells us what he feels.
By the time Rita seduces Betty, we’re so far along in this ride (a mystery develops, then disappears; auditions and rehearsals come and go like phantoms) that even the incredible fatuousness of a lipstick lesbian tryst doesn’t shake us. Mulholland Drive is so beautiful and so self-assured that we go wherever it leads—even when neither one of us has any idea where we’ll end up.
Mulholland Drive (R) HHH1/2 Directed by David Lynch. Starring Laura Harring, Naomi Watts and Ann Miller.