Oscar Blindspots: Mulholland Drive

In the month of May, I’ll be catching up on all the Oscar nominees and winners I have missed from the year 2001

The big advantage of watching a David Lynch movie involves expectations. You know things are going to be weird and there will be some strikingly terrifying imagery. In that sense, Mulholland Drive met expectations, but it still went in magnificent directions.

Explaining the plot gets into an unending quagmire, but the crux of the film involves Betty (Naomi Watts), a wide-eyed wannabe actress who moves into her aunt’s house while auditioning for films. Rita (Laura Elena Harring) is an amnesiac who finds herself in the apartment wiht a bag full of money and a unique blue key. As strange events happen around and to them, the two women attempt to unravel the mystery of Rita’s life while Betty tries to break into Hollywood.

It’s difficult to discuss this film without giving things away, so I won’t make any attempt to do so. Forewarned, SPOILERS AHEAD

The film detours from it’s odd, but still cohesive narrative at the two hour mark. The last 20-25 minutes of the film feature both Watts and Harring playing different characters named Diane and Camilla, who have already been established. Their characters presumably no longer exist, or never existed in the first place. Additionally, the characters are in no way resembling the personalities of their previous characters and have slight visual tweaks to their appearance.

Justin Theroux recurs throughout the film as a young film director named Adam, who is being manipulated by outside sources, while dealing with his wife’s infidelity and lack of money. Because it’s a Lynch movie, it’s not that simple. He’s also covered in paint from ruining his wife’s jewelry and has a busted nose after his wife’s lover throws him out of the house. Despite being the only featured male, the film actively does not care about him and smartly focuses on the two women.

Harring acts as a femme fatale, without the backwards ulterior motives. Her massively expressive eyes and cartoonish body convey much more than just what is on the page. Lynch knows what he has with Harring and utilizes her to the perfect degree. The initial story keeps Harring as an empty page with her amnesia allowing her to have any personality can be put on to her. Once the film’s switch occurs, Harring turns on the menacing charm and weaponized sexuality. The character of Camilla is cruel with no complications, while Rita is all mystery and complexity.

This film was a major breakthrough for Watts, and with good reason. Betty arrives with big eyes and big dreams. Her optimism is met by Rita by a chance encounter at Betty’s aunt’s house. Betty immediately is drawn to Rita and wants to unlock the mystery, while also hoping to land her big break in Hollywood. Watts was a relative unknown when she landed the role, but her sunny disposition and inherent likeability shine as soon as she steps on the screen. Much like Harring, she is dressed very specifically to convey a youthful appearance while keeping a feminine style. Her naivety of the world makes it seem impossible she could be a good actress, until she goes on her audition.

The scene where Betty acts out a scene she has been practicing with Rita puts Watts full talents on display. Betty approaches the act out with trepidation and nothing about this feels right. But, the scene progresses and Betty is doing well. At one point, her acting partner (Chad Everett) hovers his hand on her hip, but she presses his hand on to herself and commits fully to the scene. The scene ends and she receives universal praise and immediately snaps back to the Betty we love and expect. Watts never breaks the characterization and adjusts in real ways despite the film not following the same rules.

The film shift turns Watts into Diane, a struggling actress who lusts after Camilla and feels torn by her manipulations. Watts’ shift into manic madness and desperation feels like she was put into a different movie. The small facial differences Watts employs as Diane prove how much of a grasp she has on both characters, while maintaining the mystery of why they are played by the same woman. Watts’ performance is a towering achievement and one of the best performances of the 21st century.

At other points, there is a man who describes a recurring nightmare to a friend in a diner, mobsters trying to influence the movie business, a bungling hitman and a quietly menacing cowboy who can turn everything right. Some of these events have tertiary connections to the narrative, some don’t. Billy Ray Cyrus also appears in the film as Adam’s wife’s lover, but the casting doesn’t even crack the top 20 odd things in this film.

This is one of the few films enhanced by the more information and behind-the-scenes information you can read. I highly recommend seeking out a number of publications, including Jean Tang’s Salon article, as well as Robert Sinnerbrink’s article from the International Salon-Journal.

Lynch’s film can come across as nihilistic or deranged, but Mulholland Drive feels free of those complaints. Despite the odd imagery, sexual content and lack of structure, his vision feels fully realized. I might not totally understand what is going on, but Lynch definitely does, and that’s all that matters.

Next week: Every British thespian talks over each other in Robert Altman’s Gosford Park

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