David Lynch’s Mulholland Drive (MD) is one of the most formally provocative and, to my mind, one of the best films of recent years. Its self-deconstructing narration is one of the finest demonstrations to date of how the defamiliarizing narrative tropes first given currency in the French nouveau roman nearly fifty years ago (although their history goes back to the eighteenth century, even to antiquity) can be creatively absorbed into the vocabulary of Hollywood cinema. What makes MD a more significant work of narrative art than, for example, Memento, whose story is ingeniously told backward, is the deeper implication of its narrative technique in its particular elaboration of the universal theme of secular culture, the deferral of resentment.
MD’s power comes from its thematization of both resentment and its esthetic transformation. At about the three-quarter mark we discover that the increasing strangeness of the narrative to that point reflects its status as a fantasy/fiction of the protagonist. “Betty,” the wide-eyed new arrival in Los Angeles who unselfishly helps the amnesiac victim of a murder attempt (and discovers her sexual attraction to her “innocently” along the way), is revealed as Diane, a disillusioned second-rater who, after living on crumbs from her movie-star lover Camilla’s table, has had her killed when she was about to end their relationship by marrying her director. The fiction sequence is a brief resuscitation of Camilla, whom Diane first sees in an instant’s hallucination before the final long flashback sequence that tells Diane’s “real” story, return from which to reality (and the detectives’ knock on the door) precipitates her suicide. (Some may claim that we don’t really know that the second sequence is any less a fantasy than the first. The important thing is the relationship they bear to each other. Sequence 1 is a fantasy of sequence 2; suggesting that 2 is also a fantasy implies the existence of a sequence 3 that can only be located outside the film.)
But the real turning point of the film precedes the transition from one sequence to the other via the “four-dimensional” little blue box; it is the lip-synced performance, in the context of a casting call for a new film, of a pop version of Jerome Kern’s “I Told Every Little Star” that made a minor star of Linda Scott in 1961. Adam Kesher, the director, has been told by various Mafia-like figures, including the mysterious Cowboy, to choose for the role a certain “Camilla Rhodes” (the name of Diane’s lover in the reality sequence). Although Adam had earlier resisted the idea, the Cowboy’s quiet threat seems to persuade him. After hearing “Camilla” sing this song, he calls over his assistant and says, as ordered, “This is the girl.”
Why this particular song? Kern’s original tune was a duet, sung by a couple in love in a forgotten 1932 musical, Music in the Air. Since the lyrics appear on several web pages, I don’t imagine I can be sued for including them here:
I've told every little star Just how sweet I think you are-- Why haven't I told you? I've told ripples in a brook, Made my heart an open book-- Why haven't I told you? Friends ask me "Am I in love?" I always answer "yes." Might as well confess. If I don't they guess. [Scott simplifies the last line to "If the answer’s yes."] Maybe you may love me too. Oh my darling if you do, Why haven't you told me?
This song stands out among the insipid pop love songs of the era, a surprisingly large proportion of which were sung by women. (Rock ’n’ roll had already begun remasculinizing the next generation of popular music with a vengeance.) In contrast with her sugary-sentimental contemporaries, as exemplified by the other lip-sync from the audition, Connie Francis’ “Sixteen Reasons,” Scott borrows a tune from an old musical that avoids postwar sentimentality and frames it with a little da-de-da riff that undercuts its conventional theme. Scott has a rich, powerful voice and a dynamic, brassy style. Her assertive performance conveys a sense of empowerment; as she sings it, the song could not be, as it was in Kern’s musical, performed by a couple.
There is an unspoken irony behind the pop style of the era that makes it easy to pastiche. The genius of Scott’s arrangement is in using a rhythmic frame to suggest awareness of this irony, telling us that the singer, while expressing a message of inarticulate love, is really in full control. At a time when the female singer typically expressed undying passion for her lover, Scott enhances the power and desirability of her persona by treating the love theme as an object of mere convention. In the context of MD, this gesture takes on a homosexual overtone it did not have in 1961.
“Camilla”’s performance of “Every Little Star” produces the first crack in the credibility of the film’s narration. “Betty” has been invited on the set by a female casting director who thinks she has a good chance at the part. Just after Adam pronounces “this is the girl”–a phrase whose source, we later discover, is Diane’s reference to Camilla’s picture, addressed to the hit man in Winky’s restaurant–Betty stares intensely (we hear the singer/syncer’s “Maybe you may love me too…”); there is an exchange of close-ups with Adam (they are never in the same frame), then an extreme close-up of Betty’s eyes, and suddenly she panics and runs off on a transparent pretext. For the first time, Betty’s action is inconsistent with the fresh and untroubled persona Diane has created for herself. Betty’s look seems to be directed at Adam, but we hear the voice of “Camilla,” whom we have seen performing on stage. In the reality sequence, this scene retrospectively acquires central significance when Diane determines to kill Camilla after catching a glimpse of the unnamed “Camilla” sharing a brief but tellingly sensual kiss with her at the wedding party. Diane has resigned herself to being abandoned for marriage, but not to being thrown over for another woman. In Diane’s fiction, “this is the girl” conflates the two synonymous members of the triangle that excludes her.
The empowerment embodied by the song is that of Diane’s imagination; but its realization on screen by her successful rival is the moment where Diane’s imaginary absorption of her splits apart, recalling (in the story’s chronology) and foreshadowing (in the order of the narration) the crucial moment at the wedding party. The song, a self-contained work of art, cannot be inserted into Diane’s larger work without destroying its autonomy. In the fiction, Mafia coercion forces Adam to choose “the girl.” “Camilla”‘s talent is indeed an illusion, since the song is lip-synced, but in the world of the fiction–as we later learn at Club Silencio–illusion is art itself. Via Scott’s interpretation, the song enacts the protagonist’s empowerment, her mastery of desire, but Diane’s fiction would be fantasy, not art, if it made this empowerment her own. The limits of Betty’s mastery of desire are revealed in the acting sequence that directly precedes this scene; she can act out the past generation’s sensuality with its aging men, but not perform its youthful liberation from desire.
Imaginary empowerment and self-creation are characteristic of the post-millennial or performative esthetic, which attains far greater maturity in MD than in the exhilarating but childish fantasy Run Lola Run (where the heroine gets three chances to save her boyfriend) or in Michael Haneke’s chilling adolescent nightmare Funny Games. Self-performance cannot change the real world, yet it can transform our resentful reality into a spectacle to be shared with others: a work of art. The importance of this transformation is emphasized by the fact that the fiction occupies three quarters of the film; our imaginary experience is above all that of Diane, not that of the filmmaker. To invert these proportions would have been to estrange the audience from the sequence later exposed as unreal. In the brief reality sequence, we recognize many, and in principle all, the elements of this fiction: Coco (Adam’s mother), the Cowboy (a briefly seen guest), the hitman, a waitress named “Betty,” and, of course, the nameless rival who kisses Camilla at her wedding dinner; but it is through the esthetic fullness of the fiction sequence that this material emerges as culture.
The resurgence of the real that begins with “I Told Every Little Star” becomes definitive following Diane and Camilla’s visit to Club Silencio, whose show is a didactic demonstration of the illusory, or simply fictional, nature of all representation: invisible instruments, a trumpeter who lifts his trumpet without stopping the music, and, climactically, a singer who collapses as her song–an Argentinian rendition of Roy Orbison’s bathetic 60s hit “Crying”–plays on. Here lip-syncing, far from a means of avoiding the effort of performance, allows the performer a total identification with the song’s content incompatible with actual singing–the inverse of the Scott/”Camilla” case. The unreality of the real exposed in Club Silencio characterizes the club itself in the economy of the film, since it figures in the fictional sequence yet also in the film’s coda, a shot of the fetish-like woman with blue hair who appeared in the balcony in the fiction sequence. This final scene overlays the club’s symbolic status in the fiction sequence not so much with its reality as with its symbolic status in Lynch’s fiction; return in extremis to the world of (dis)illusion is at the same time an affirmation and a deconstruction of the fiction that is the film itself.
Every important work of art says something specific about its place in the continuum of social relations. MD’s very lack of any reference to historical events is historically significant, and not simply as a sign of the political apathy of the “X Generation.”
Feminism is the purest form of victimary politics. On the one hand, men and women are demonstrably different in a way that “races” or ethnic groups are not; on the other, women’s ability to engage in the social dialectic cannot seriously be questioned. Because gender difference is both biologically real and socially trivial, feminism makes the most fundamental claim of victimization, defined as the denial of human reciprocity.
This claim politicizes all relations between men and women, making them unusable in the tradition of high narrative art. Indeed, politicizing of gender relations correlates directly with the decline of this tradition, given the reliance of civil society, and consequently of literature, on the formation of couples. One consequence of this correlation is the dichotomizing of works that do not aspire to the transcendent reconciliation of high art into separate male and female orientations; the immense popularity of films and video games wholly devoted to masculine aggression is an obvious manifestation. But the dichotomy is asymmetrical. The macho onslaught is infantile compensation for the payment exacted from “man” for his erstwhile unmarked status; the male gender has been cursed with the “white guilt” of the oppressor. One sign of this inversion is the frequent (and to my mind offensive) substitution of “she” for “he” as the neutral gender in academic prose. A more profound consequence is that a cultural work that aspires to the status of high art, particularly one focused on individual lives rather than acts of epic significance, is drawn to the portrayal of exclusively female desire.
MD is a film written and directed by a man that lacks the element of male desire. (Nor can Lynch be accused of prostituting his attractive heroines to the male gaze in a couple of Sapphic love-scenes. The first one of these scenes, which occurs near the end of the fictional sequence, results from the increasing intimacy between the two protagonists; the care taken to motivate it–in contrast with what we may surmise about the real nature of the relationship–makes it impossible for the spectator, male or female, to view it as other than a love-scene.) Only three male characters play significant roles in the film: Adam Kesher, the host of Club Silencio, and, to a lesser extent, the hit-man. Kesher is shown in the fictional sequence as cuckolded by his wife and powerless to select the actress of his choice; in the reality sequence, he is manipulated into marriage by Camilla whose sexual interest is clearly elsewhere. Adam’s fictional moments of independence–smashing the Mafia brothers’ windshield, pouring red paint on his unfaithful wife’s jewelry, talking back to the Cowboy–only set up his final surrender to the necessity of choosing “Camilla” as “the girl”; in contrast, the Club Silencio emcee, the film’s true repository of masculine power, is a “director” who never leaves the stage/set. The power of the hit-man (viewed in the fiction with Tarantino humor) exists in reality only in the service of Diane. The other figures of male power–the Mafiosi, the Cowboy–are one-dimensional caricatures that we interpret in hindsight as projections of Diane’s desire for revenge. In contrast, the fictional sequence includes a number of female figures of power: Aunt Ruth, Coco, the female casting director (who mocks the old male director, formerly her husband), the “prophetess” Louise. If Flaubert’s Madame Bovary (1857) revealed the subversive centrality of female desire in bourgeois society at the dawn of the consumer era, MD shows female desire constrained no longer by male power but by its own triangular structure.
What is original in MD is not its portrayal of female sexuality; this is not a film about lesbianism. What it is about is resentment; Lynch has seen that, today, this theme that has dominated high culture ever since Homer made Achilles’ “wrath” the subject of the Iliad can best be staged in a world of female desire. Far from a concession to the victimary thinking of the postmodern era, the elimination of gender-based victimary politics is what allows us (and here I speak for both sexes) fully to identify with the protagonist’s desire and its transformation in the fictional sequence. The ostensibly postmodern dream-logic is pressed into the service of a logic of desire which is, more than anywhere else in Lynch’s filmography, that of the character rather than the filmmaker. Mulholland Drive represents both its creator’s liberation from the postmodern era and our own.