Mulholland Drive: Destructive Worlds of Fantasy and Reality on the Winding Roads of Lynch Angeles

mulholland drive pretend

Spoilers galore below!

Mulholland Drive

Unlike Lost Highway in which we are transported into the protagonist’s fantasy halfway through the film, Mulholland Drive places the spectator straight into the fantasy world of its protagonist Betty/Diane. The first two-thirds of the film plays out as the storyline of Rita who has amnesia, the spectator accepts this as the norm until the narrative preconceptions are undermined in the latter part of the film, revealing that ‘it is all Diane’s dream fantasy’(Mactaggart). Roger Cook addresses this issue of narrative subversion, noting that if a viewer ‘wants to make sense of the film… they must discern… a cohesive narrative… in the diverse, seemingly disjunctive story lines’. To achieve an understanding of the narrative, the viewer must repeatedly ‘take a second look’, and this is no more true than with the opening images of the films, which only retrospectively makes sense to the viewer once the film has ended.

Diane’s Dream

The film begins with images of several pairs of swing dancers on the screen wearing bright colours and moving in and out of silhouettes and the frame. There is then a double exposition of Betty (Naomi Watts) onto this image, drenched in light and bookended by what are presumably her parents as applause is heard. Following this is a descending point-of-view shot into a red pillow whilst heavy breathing engulfs the soundtrack, we are then transported onto the winding roads of Mulholland Drive.

The entrance into Diane’s dream fantasy- Mulholland Drive (2001)

In hindsight, these shots become signifiers of our descent into Diane’s dream fantasy through her subconscious. The double exposition of her into the swing-dancers is referenced later in the film when she talks of a swingdance contest she won when she was younger; and the red pillow returns in the latter third of the film when we see Diane sleeping on it in her apartment. The opening images of the film offer no narrative context to a first-time viewer, but with a second viewing in light of the rest of the film, the relevance of the images come to the fore.

The first image is Diane’s dreams of stardom and success; the second is our descent into her dream; and the third is the beginning of her dream narrative on Mulholland Drive. From the offset, Lynch has disrupted narrative conventions, offering alien images that only add cohesion to the plot in the wake of further analysis. The beginning of the film has created a narrative where ‘the relationship between what we see on the screen and our perceived knowingness… as an audience is constantly undermined’ (Mactaggart).

The opening images of the film signal ‘the viewer’s passage into the Lynchian dreamscape’ (Lemztner), and by being placed straight into this dreamscape narrative from the start, the viewer is in a constant state of limbo in regards to what is real and what is not. These introductory images fade seamlessly into one another, signifying that this dream will take place on the winding darkness of a road. Like the “Lost Highway” of Lost Highway, the road of “Mulholland Dr.” offers a route for the dark fantasy narratives of its protagonist to play out. The dream is cemented, from the start, on Mulholland Drive, expanding the road-map of Lynch Angeles.

The first two hours of the film play out like a dream, Lynch’s familiar double exposure editing returns throughout Diane’s dream fantasy, each shot seamlessly leading into another. The most telling example of Lynch’s incorporation of double exposure to cement his dream narrative, comes in the transition between the scenes of Adam Kesher (Justin Theroux) driving along Beverley Hills drive and Betty/Diane sitting on her couch in her aunt’s house. A subjective point-of-view shot looking up at the blue sky and palm trees of Beverley Hills, is transposed onto the image of Betty staring up at the ceiling seemingly in deep thought. This editing of shots creates a narrative flow between the two otherwise different stories. A correlation between the two images becomes apparent as the two flow into one another, as if Betty is imagining/seeing Adam’s story. Lynch’s double exposition of these images reiterates that this is Diane’s dream fantasy: the trees of Beverley Hills signify her projection of dreams of stardom and fame onto the image of herself as Betty.

mulholland drive trees
Diane’s double dream exposition- Mulholland Drive (2001)

I just came here from Deep River, Ontario, and now I’m in this dream
place. Well you can imagine how I feel” – Betty, Mulholland Drive (2001)

Mulholland Drive, like its companion Lynchian road movie Lost Highway, heavily foreshadows and self-references the fact that their protagonist is living in a dream fantasy world. In her first encounter with Rita, Betty describes her joy of being in Lynch Angeles to follow her acting career: “I’m just so excited to be here! I just came here from Deep River, Ontario, and now I’m in this…dream place! Well, you can imagine how I feel’. Betty’s statement is an almost knowing reference that she is in this dream narrative that her real-self, Diane, has created. Her joy at being there also highlights that the whole dream narrative that follows is to pursue her acting dream, dispelling the reality of her failed dreams that we learn in the final third of the film.

mulholland drive dream place
Betty’s foreshadowing of Diane’s dream, Mulholland Drive (2001)

Furthermore, her reference to where her Aunt is and why she is staying there reinforces her avoidance of reality: “She’s letting me stay here while she works on a movie in Canada”. The movie her Aunt is working on in Canada, is the movie that plays out before us, her disappearance has allowed Diane to live out her fantasy and avoid her grim reality of failure. The only instance in which we see Betty’s Aunt cements this interpretation, as she is seen leaving the apartment with a great amount of baggage. Her Aunt has taken the metaphorical baggage of the failure and the guilt of Diane’s murder of Rita/Camilla, and allowed their dream doubles (Betty and Rita) to enter this safe space to explore Diane’s fantasy and avoid reality. Like Fred Madison’s house in Lost Highway, her aunt’s apartment serves as an entrance and safe space for Diane’s fantasy narrative to be explored. Diane’s heavy foreboding is reminiscent of Fred Madison’s tendency to remember things his own way, and these lines only become relevant to the narrative when seen in the context of hindsight.

mulholland drive aunt canada
Removal of the emotional baggage of Diane’s failure and guilt-Mulholland Drive (2001)

mulholland drive aunt baggage

This is the girl.

Accepting that the first part of the film is Diane’s dream fantasy offers some sense of cohesion to the narrative strands of the story which otherwise don’t make sense. For instance, the storyline of the Hollywood conspiracy of the mafia-like movie producers, the Castigliani brothers, who force a certain actress upon the director Adam Kesher by repeatedly saying that “this is the girl” for his next film, and dismantling his life when he refuses to follow their orders. The construction of this conspiracy is a completely hyperbolic re-imagining of why Diane didn’t get the part in Kesher’s film.In the dream, Betty never had any chance of getting the part because of the constructed conspiracy and showed no real interest in it, choosing to help Rita explore her mystery of amnesia. In reality, Diane was looked over for the part in Kesher’s film, forced into a smaller role because Camilla received the starring role.

“This is the girl” conspiracy- Mulholland Drive (2001)

This conspiracy serves as a re-imagining of Diane’s career failures, but also as a vindictive imagining of revenge on the director that overlooked her. In the final third of the film, we find out that the reality is that Camilla has been having an affair with both Diane and Adam. Diane’s discovery of her lover’s infidelity leads her on a warpath of jealous rage, in which she inevitably hires someone to kill Camilla.

The storyline of Adam Kesher and the Castigliani conspiracy offers a three-fold strand of wish-fulfillment for Diane: firstly, an explanation for her failed acting career as being a conspiracy against her; secondly, Adam Kesher’s life is dismantled in front of her, a more
than fitting punishment for his role in Camilla’s betrayal; and finally, she is able to live out her fantasy of a successful relationship with the woman she loves and has sentenced to death. The realisation of Diane’s dream fantasy adds relevance to the seemingly irrelevant narrative, elevating the film into a case study of subconscious psychological suppression through its subversion of narrative preconceptions.


If Betty’s Aunt’s apartment is the safe stage for Diane’s fantasy to play out, then the dilapidated theatres of Club Silencio serves as a stage for Diane’s fantasy to implode. The eerie club has ‘a hallucinatory interior…where reality and fantasy become impossible to distinguish’ (Lemtzner). It is a place where the two worlds meet, exposing Betty’s loss of her grip on the imagined reality she is living in. The out-of-focus camera technique which symbolised Pete’s incoming disruption of Fred’s fantasy/his reality in Lost Highway, returns in Betty’s journey to the club, a subjective point-of-view shot shows a soft-focus cityscape.

lynch angeles
Out-of-focus Lynch Angeles, Mulholland Drive (2001)

The return of this trope from Lost Highway, signifies the impending disruption of Betty’s reality/Diane’s fantasy that will come inside Club Silencio. However, this is not the only returning Lynchian dream trope: as Betty and Rita enter the club and sit down to take in the show, the familiar trope of the red curtains is seen on the stage cementing this space as a place for communication between the two worlds of dream fantasy and reality. The master of ceremonies for the evening steps out from the side of the stage, standing in front of the red curtains and declaring: “this is all a tape recording…this is all an illusion”. After this declaration he raises his hands in the air, swathing the theatre in a blue light and Betty begins to shake uncontrollably in a fit whilst Rita desperately tries to keep her still. Betty’s uncontrollable shaking is her visually being shaken out her fantasy, realising the illusion that is in front of her. Clinging onto Rita, who is an emblem of the fantasy of a fulfilled relationship of the woman she has killed, is the only way she can hold on to her reality for a little longer and avoid Diane’s reality. The performers of Club Silencio have revealed that the whole narrative up till now has been an illusion, and the spectator, like Betty, is about to learn the truth behind the dream narrative. The scene in Club Silencio marks the ‘dissolution of Diane’s dream/fantasy which can no longer be sustained’ (Mactaggart), ushering us into the final conclusion of Diane’s reality.

Club Silencio- Mulholland Drive (2001) – Look at for a cameo from the one and only Laura Palmer, and her friend from One Eyed Jacks, Ronette Polaski at the beginning of this scene.

Repetition of Character

The doubling of characters does not apply directly to just the parallels Betty/Diane and Rita/Camilla, in fact the doubling in character in the film is central to the revelation of the truth of the cyclical narrative. In the final few scenes of the film, we are returned to the black Cadillac driving along Mulholland Drive from the beginning of the film. However, Rita is not inside and there is no car crash, in this reality Diane is in the place of Rita and the car stops so Camilla can lead Diane to Adam Kesher’s dinner party.

All of the characters from Diane’s dream fantasy reoccur at this dinner party and reveal the inspiration for her fantasy. As she sits at the table she talks with Kesher’s mother, who will play her Aunt’s landlord in her fantasy, and recounts the true realities of her failures as an actress who lives in the shadow of Camilla. She looks round and sees the people who will play bit-parts in her dreamscape: a Castigliani brother and the girl he so wants to play the part that Diane wants. Following this, Adam makes a toast to announce his and Camilla’s engagement and Diane snaps her head back distressed as she is beginning to cry, as she does so Lynch jump-cuts to Winkie’s diner where Diane is hiring the hitman to kill Camilla following the heartbreak she has caused her. It is here where she gets the inspiration for her alter-ego Betty, when she looks at the pretty waitress’ name tag thoughtfully.



The supporting cast of Diane’s fantasy, Mulholland Drive (2001)

The seeds of Diane’s constructed fantasy have been sowed in these scenes, revealing the truth behind Diane’s mental state driving the initial narrative. These scenes of subtle revelation tie together the loose threads of the film’s previous narrative, creating a cohesive narrative structure that can only be understood through the context of its cyclical ending. Diane’s reality is inescapable, fused into the fantasy world of Betty. The viewer’s reality and preconceptions of narrative expectation have been shaken and subverted, just like Betty’s reality was physically shaken in Club Silencio.

diane mulholland
Diane’s alter-ego inspiration, Mulholland Drive (2001)

The whole film can be taken as a comment on the grim reality of “the city of dreams”: Betty is representative of the naivety of the dreams of Hollywood stardom; whilst Diane is a result of the grim reality of the place, damaged psychologically and emotionally by its residents.

Both Lost Highway and Mulholland Drive offer cyclical fantasy story-lines which are entrenched into the cinematic landscapes that surround them. Through implementation of foreshadowing and meta-references; as well as pre-established Lynchian dream tropes such as doubling of characters, images of red curtains and double exposition of transitioning shots; Lynch has expanded the boundaries of his opposing worlds of dark and light. The cyclical structure of the films obfuscate further the distinctions between these two worlds, as their protagonists are offered no respite from the grim realities they attempt to evade. This subversion of narrative norms offers no respite for the viewer either, as they are placed alongside Lynch’s protagonists, unable to identify the true narrative of the film until the end. The assimilation of destructive fantasy and reality worlds in the films also displays a quasi-satirical message under the layers of the film: a
damning comment on the Hollywood machine which offers dreams of stardom, but in reality churns up and spits out artists and actresses in a never-ending cycle of sex and psychological torment. Lynch’s companion films of psychological suppression and wish-fulfillment display an evolution of the worlds of dark and light that began in Lynchtown. These binary oppositions have evolved into full-blown narratives which control and manipulate their protagonists, whilst displaying the darkness inherent in the human condition.

Lynch Angeles, like Lynchtown, has a dark side which leaks through the cracks when its central character’s desires are explored.

Texts Referenced

Mactaggart, Allister, The Film Paintings of David Lynch: Challenging Film Theory,
(Bristol: Intellect, 2010)

Lemtzner, Jay R. Ross, Donald R. “The Dreams that Blister Sleep: Latent Content and
Cinematic Form in Mulholland Drive”, American Imago: Psychoanalysis and The Human
Sciences, 2005 Spring, Vol.62(1)

PS. Take a few minutes and enjoy this beautiful cinematic moment, courtesy of Rebekah Del Rio.

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