Mulholland Dr. Ė A Little Blue Box of Truth
There are four layers of reality in David Lynchís Mulholland Dr., three of which are clear by the end of the movie, but because of the way the narrative is structured, those layers are not always clear while they are happening, forcing us to make sense of the movie only in retrospect. (This reminds me of Roger Ebertís axiom that is not what a movie says thatís important, but the way it says it.)
What seems to be the "real" reality is that Diane Selwyn, obsessively in love with movie star Camilla Rhodes, arranges to have her killed. There are suggestions that this obsession has grown in the last three weeks since her roommate (and perhaps former lover: notice the similarity between the ex-roommate and Rita) moved out (and perhaps their relationship ended). Two detectives are looking for Diane. The blue key given to Diane by the contracted killer is sitting on her coffee table, a reminder of what she has done. With visions of her parents haunting her, and consumed by guilt, she commits suicide.
Her back story can be guessed by some of the details from the two realities Iíll call her waking fantasies and her dream fantasies. Dianeís waking fantasy is that she is an actress whose affair with Camilla is ending as she looses her to Adam Kesher (I suspect she only knows their relationship via the tabloids and such). The third reality, Dianeís dream fantasies, take up most of the film; here she is Betty and Camilla is Rita.
Some of Dianeís back story is told to us, or at least suggested, in these two fantasy worlds. In both fantasies, she comes from Deepriver, a small town in Ontario where, according to her waking fantasy self, she won a jitterbug contest and, based on this small success, came to Los Angeles to become an actress with money her deceased aunt left her. From her monologue in the party scene, we can guess that she flopped at an early audition, an audition which Camilla won, and this most likely led to her obsession with Camilla. From her humble apartment, her bad teeth and the depths of her desperation in the real world, we can assume she did not succeed at any future acting attempts, if there even were any.
In Dianeís waking fantasy, some of these issues are resolved. For example, in this waking fantasy, Camilla, her friend and lover, helped her become a successful actress after her botched audition. In her dream fantasy, many more of these issues are "fixed" or at least dealt with.
We actually begin with a brief happy dream in which Diane recalls the jitterbug contest she won back in Deepriver. We see her, flanked by her parents, smiling and accepting the applause. Then she wakes, and finding she fell asleep sideways, across her bed, she moves to her pillow and goes back to sleep and dreams the main dream of the film.
This dream fantasy is filled with film cliches, especially from film noir. There is the attempted murder and the accident, resulting in a beautiful damsel in distress with a mystery who is also an amnesiac. Thereís the innocent, wide-eyed girl from the country who makes an immediate splash in the movie biz, the helpful aunt (like a fairy god mother), and dark, unseen forces which are conspiring against the girl. And so on. Even much of the dialog is so corny and tired that the lines sound not like real dialog, but like movie dialog. (Examples are Dianeís conversation with Irene at the airport and Cocoís lines, like "Everyone calls me Coco.") The only twist is that our hero is a woman, although, just as in all good movies, our damsel in distress still falls in love with her protector and savior, and, despite the sexual twist on this theme, even that scene is staged with an eye on Hollywood clichés (i.e. the offer to share the bed with the damsel who just happens to sleep in the nude).
There is a reversal of fortune in the dream which is the opposite of the real world. Here Rita (Camilla) needs Betty (Diane), not the other way around. Here Betty is the actress. Here Irene and her male companion (really Dianeís parents) are super supportive, suggesting that her real parents are not, or at least would not be if they knew what her life was like (this comes to a head at the end of the film). We can march through much of the dream fantasy and map it on to the real Dianeís life like an analyst. For example, Rita looks more like Dianeís ex-girlfriend than she does as Camilla; she also looks more like Betty/Diane; with the addition of the wig, she looks even more like Betty/Diane; and the Camilla in the dream also looks like Betty/Diane. All this is evidence of Dianeís identification with her idol, typical of her kind of obsession. She wants to be Camilla Rhodes.
Also notice how out of character Betty is during her audition. This is the crucial moment for Diane, at least in her own mind. Her obsession, her placing blame on others for her failures, began with this one failed audition, and so, in her dream, she turns it around and makes it a huge success. Before and after sheís the innocent Betty - before, her reading with Rita is clichéd and poor, probably close to what she did in the real audition (in the real world), and after she is so naïve she is easily suckered by the agent and her assistant.
(This movie is so rich you can go on looking at details and seeing how they fit reality, or reflect Dianeís damaged psyche, nearly endlessly. Iíll be leaving out a lot as a result Ė you feel free to go on and have fun on your own. This parenthetical is also a good time to note that there is a ton of pairing of opposites in the movie, which I think is a formal device, although just as enjoyable to ponder as the essence of this essay is. For example, at the beginning of the big dream Rita walks straight down from Mulholland Drive leading to all sorts of good things for Betty/Diane. Near the end of the film, Diane and Camilla walk straight up from Mulholland Drive, leading to madness and death for Diane. Because Lynch avoids normal narrative structure, I think he needs to include these sorts of formal devices to keep the movie from spinning into chaos; to me it makes it more like music!)
There are also parts of the dream reality that are hints to us (and reminders to the sleeping Diane) that this is a dream. Some are cute and coy, such as Betty saying she feels like "Iím in this dream place" when referring to L.A., or when Betty dials Dianeís number and says to Rita, "Itís strange calling yourself." (She means to say that it must be strange for Rita to be calling Diane, who may be herself, but of course Betty is the one who is Diane.) Others are less obvious. Why does Betty shake during the late night theater show? Because the theme of the show, that it is all an illusion, strikes at the heart of her psyche. Not only is the reality in which she is watching the show a dream, but her whole world is built upon illusion. Notice also how this shaking and Dianeís shaking while masturbating are similar. This suggests that as she masturbates, Diane is coming in and out of her waking fantasy just as the wall goes in and out of focus, and as she sees the wall, and therefore cannot see (in her mindís eye) her fantasy with Camilla, she is forced to face the truth which must cause her great pain, just as it did in the theater. (She also shakes several other times in the apartment in the "real" world, after seeing the key. Remember the entire dream takes place after she has gotten the key back from the hit man, presumable the same night during which she is dreaming.)
What remains to be explained are the scenes of the dream fantasy which seem to have no connection to Dianeís problems or to Diane at all. For example, whatís with the mob-like figures who pull the strings in this dream Hollywood? I would suggest they one of the ways Diane deals with failure. There are unseen, powerful forces which are actively preventing her success (and promoting Camillaís) and keeping her from her love. Who becomes a star? Whoever "they" decide is "the girl." The outrageousness of these characters and the amount of energy and time thatís expended just to give one part to one woman can only be labeled paranoid. Adam, the director, tries to fight them. But "they" can take away your money and find you at an anonymous hotel. When Betty walks onto his set, he already knows who will play the part, but Adam keeps looking at her; in Betty/Dianeís mind, she is the one Adam wants, just as soon as he sees her (another movie cliché), and she would have had the part if not for these powerful forces.
Dianeís competency-challenged assassin for hire also figures into her dream, and his "difficulties" could suggest her fears for a botched job (did anyone else get hurt?). But his efforts to get the Black Book are so extreme it is also safe to assume that Diane values it highly. What could be worth killing two innocent witnesses for? Whatís in the book? All the important names and numbers, just like any black book. It suggests, again, that Diane blames her failures on others, in this case on her lack of connections, a problem she solves in one fantasy by having an aunt in the business and in the other by having a successful actress as a mentor and mate.
The most bizarre of the scenes from Dianeís dream which do not focus directly on her is the dream within the dream of the gentleman at the Winkies who sees the horrible face through the walls. In this fellowís dream, his friend is standing at the register, the position the dream-teller is in when Diane makes the contract with the hit man. So the feeling of dread is really hers, with the man from Winkies standing in for her.
And what about the monster with the terrible face, who we later see with the blue box? And, the big question, what is in the blue box?
The answer for the two questions is the same. The face is the face of Truth, as is the box. In the film, blue equals Truth (and red is deception and lies and dreams - untruth). Perhaps playing on the expression "you canít face the truth," the man at the Winkies canít face the truth that his dreams try to tell him, because, just like Diane (whoís dreaming all of this), the truth is too painful for him. And the truth is also in the blue box. The blue keys are the keys to that truth. The first, Ritaís, ends the dream, forcing the dreamer back to reality. Betty disappears before the box is opened Ė she cannot stick around to see the truth expose her fantasy world. Rita disappears when the box is opened because she is a falsehood, she doesnít exist in the real world, at least not like this. The second key, the one which the hit man gives Diane (so itís really the first key she sees, the one that suggests the second one in the dream) is the truth of what she has become, how far she has fallen since coming from Deepriver, Ontario. Her parents, representing the values she grew up with, her true self before all the madness, come to "get" her from their home in the blue box; they are a kind of truth also. They are unleashed on her to show her clearly and starkly (as only a parent can) what she is. Notice that as, presumably, the police knock on Dianeís door (one kind of authority figure) her parents slip under it (another authority figure). Like the man at the Winkies who dies at the sight of his true face (really Dianeís true horrible self), Diane cannot face the truth of what she is and so ends her life.
The opening image, of Diane with her parents, is mirrored at the end after her death, but now Diane and Rita, with blond wig, are shown. This was the reality Diane hoped for when she came to L.A.: to eventually be applauded there, to win awards, with a lover beside her to support her. Her inability to give up this dream is at the center of her self-deception. Because this didnít happen, it must be someone elseís fault, because she is the jitterbug champion.
These three realities, the real world and Dianeís two fantasies, interact in many other ways, which, as I stated above, are too much to cover in detail. But there is a forth reality in the movie, and that is the reality that is not the movie. The last images of the movie are from the theater, reminding us that films are all illusions Ė there is no band! there is no Diane! Ė and that we should live our lives in the real real world. Lynchís narrative structure obscures the truths of the story, reinforcing the point. Just as Dianeís fantasies are filled with stereotypical movie dialog and conventional plot twists, just as she identifies with the movie star Camilla to the point of obsession, just as she loses everything trying to be a Hollywood actress, we too live in danger of seeing ourselves and our lives in relationship to the powerful fictions of the movies and celebrities. The movie becomes a cautionary tale. Tune out the media; try, instead, "silencio."