Ranked amongst his finest work, David Lynch's critically acclaimed neo-noir/mystery/psychological thriller/surrealist - whatever you want to label it, you would be hard pressed to find an equal in the year 2001 - had audiences totally puzzled but exhilarated with its nightmarish take on the Hollywood-on-Hollywood movie. Tony Dayoub of Cinema Viewfinder; his excellent film blog that manages to mix reviews and posts on world cinema, established classics, independent film and popular culture with relative ease, check out his latest, excellent Star Trek podcasts for a great example of his versatility, tracks the history of this marvellous film, which started life as a 'TV pilot for ABC' before transcending into 'one of the best films of the decade'.
David Lynch's Mulholland Drive began life as a TV pilot for ABC, the same network which aired Twin Peaks - Lynch's greatest mainstream success. It would be interesting to see how each show would fare in today's television landscape, one where serialized shows like Lost have succeeded, in part because ratings expectations are much lower and cable's serials lead the pack in competing for viewers' attention. In any case, the TV network was not ready for a mysterious drama set in Los Angeles where the central MacGuffin was two women's search for one's forgotten identity. So Lynch did something similar to what he did for the European theatrical release of the Twin Peaks pilot. He fashioned a lengthy ending, tying up the open-ended plotline, and got the rights to release the film theatrically.
Naomi Watts plays Betty, a stereotypical Midwestern woman who moves to Hollywood to become an actress. Naive and overeager, she is determined to prove herself in the corrupt industry town. Meanwhile, a woman receives a head injury in a car accident on Mulholland Drive. Dazed, she finds her way into the apartment that Betty is moving into.
Betty runs across the enigmatic accident victim in her very own shower, a woman struggling to remember her identity who starts calling herself Rita (Laura Elena Harring) after spotting a poster of Gilda in Betty's apartment.
Subplots and seemingly unrelated characters intrude on the central plot. No doubt these were to be coherent subplots on the prospective TV series. One such storyline involves rising movie director, Adam Kesher (Justin Theroux), whose luck turns for the worse after being threatened by two heavies seeking to cast one Camilla Rhodes (Melissa George) as the star of his next picture. These plots would have continued and tied in to the main story had Mulholland Drive gone to series. Instead, Lynch uses them to fold the movie in on itself, tying Camilla and Adam to Rita in the film's climax, bringing up questions of identity and reality versus surreality, themes that recur often within Lynch's work, but are distilled here to their purest form.
One can almost see the invisible line that Lynch draws at the point where Mulholland Drive departs from its relatively conventional TV origins to the surreal realm in which he frequently wanders. It is about an hour and a half in when the movie metamorphoses from a neo-noir Nancy Drew to a haunting exploration of the obsessive ardor Diane Selwyn (Naomi Watts again) feels for Camilla Rhodes (Laura Elena Harring again).
Diane awakes into a nightmare of a life, as if the first part of the film was a desperate dream formed by her fragile mind to put things right in her sad existence. Whereas Betty and Rita make love after bonding over the mystery of Rita's identity, Camilla rebuffs Diane, choosing director Adam instead. The promise Betty displayed as an actress in the first part has evaporated, with Adam giving the lead role in his film to Camilla rather than Diane.
Identities transmute into new ones. The real merges with the surreal in the most necessary way yet for a Lynch film. The director even finds moments to comment on the part he plays as a master of ceremonies in these proceedings, as evoked by the stage magician that helps usher in the tonal shift at the point of departure in the film.
Consciously or not, Lynch refers to other works of his including those that have yet to be: once, when he enlists Rebekah Del Rio to sing her version of Orbison's "Crying" (Blue Velvet's iconic scene where Dean Stockwell mimes to Orbison's "In Dreams"); once again, when the electrical surges of the magic show help to transmogrify Betty into Diane (Lost Highway, Twin Peaks); and finally, when the actress' descent into madness foreshadows the insanity of Nikki Grace (Laura Dern) in Inland Empire (2006).
Mulholland Drive is the apotheosis of Lynch's filmography, transcending its humble TV beginnings to become one of the best films of the decade.