Mulholland Drive was the first Lynch film I watched after my first time getting through Twin Peaks nearly ten years ago. It was a hot July night and we had just moved into our new apartment — lovely and spacious, in a brick building on a tree-lined street called Old Fort Road because it used to lead directly down the riverbank to the ferry that took settlers to the original trading fort on the north side of the North Saskatchewan River. (Nothing at all like the twisting and winding road that snakes along the top of the Santa Monica Mountains, the road that gives this film its name and its atmosphere…)
I was on summer holidays (the perks of being a teacher) and my husband was out at a work event, leaving me with hours alone and nothing to do. So I popped the DVD into our player and settled in with my snacks. I thought I knew what to expect. I’d seen Twin Peaks; it would be like that, right? But when the film finished, I realized that my equilibrium had shifted ever-so-slightly; totally bowled over, I was completely unable to think of anything else. I tried — so help me, I tried — but after the final credits ran, within an hour, I restarted the film and watched it again. And then I watched it a third time. I was still watching it well into the night when Aidan returned home.
What is it about this film that does this? I don’t know that I can answer that without landing in the cliche. Most people know that Lynch got the idea for it during his Twin Peaks days, and intended for it to be a vehicle to get Audrey Horne to Los Angeles. It was originally commissioned as a TV pilot, and the final act of the film — the big twist — was written and filmed after the project became a film instead. This final act is the destabilizer, the part that causes most people such consternation. It’s beautiful and gauzy in places, reminiscent of the storied Golden Age of Hollywood; it’s gritty too, where you least expect it. There are palm trees and sunshine just around the corner from the places where the darkest fears reside. The whole film is as dark and winding as the road it’s named after, the locus where it all begins.
Mulholland Drive seems (to me at least) to be rather straightforward once you know what it is you’re looking at. The answers are there, in the film and, in this case, in Lynch’s “10 Clues” to help viewers navigate this world, which we’ll talk about in a moment and which will be the focus of this article. In order to properly discuss the film, I will have no choice but to delve into the plot details and particulars of the story itself; therefore, consider this your spoiler warning.
In my view the first two-thirds of the film are some kind of idealized dream world vision of the life that the characters in the last third ultimately led. Of course there are as many interpretations of this film as there are viewers, so your mileage may vary. (And sound off in the comments if you feel so inclined — we here at 25YL are always up for a discussion, as you all well know!)
Here’s the short version, as I see it: Diane Selwyn (Naomi Watts) is a struggling actress at the end of a failed love affair with Camilla Rhodes (Laura Harring). In a moment of despair after learning that Camilla has been killed by the hitman Diane hired, Diane kills herself. In her death throes, the vision of her idealized life appears, in which she has cast herself as pretty and peppy Betty Elms while Camilla becomes Rita the amnesiac. In this world, conspiracies and mystery abound, and every bad thing that has happened to Diane is explained away as the product of someone else’s machinations and not the fault of her own limitations or bad choices.
The film employs many common filmic tropes to get this idea across, but it is still a jarringswitch. Characters you think you know show up with different names and personalities. Realities shift. Conventional linear storytelling is eschewed for time jumps. And, most alarmingly, the largest portion of the film (in this interpretation, anyway) isn’t even real but is wholly imagined by the protagonist.
Lynch’s 10 Clues to Unlocking This Thriller
This is a serious departure for Lynch, who famously avoids discussing his films and their meanings with anyone. But, for the Mulholland Drive DVD release, it seems an exception was made. My assumption is that this is because of studio interference; the film did well commercially and critically, and still routinely comes out near the top of many Best Of lists, but in order to capitalize on the buzz and ensure the widest possible appeal, these 10 Clues were included as a simple insert in the place of traditional audio commentary with the home release in order to avoid alienating home audiences.
Because of Lynch’s distaste for explanation, I have to wonder how many of these clues are red herrings and how many are genuine. Some feel a little too on–the–nose while others are sufficiently open-ended enough to allow for interpretation. My colleague John Bernardy made the observation recently that they seem very much like the instructions Lynch gives his actors on set, as seen in the Twin Peaks: The Return Blu-ray special features. I couldn’t agree more. It seems that there is a significant amount of interpretation required to unpack these clues.
The 10 Clues are as follows:
- Pay particular attention in the beginning of the film: at least two clues are revealed before the credits.
- Notice appearances of the red lampshade.
- Can you hear the title of the film that Adam Kesher is auditioning actresses for? Is it mentioned again?
- An accident is a terrible event… notice the location of the accident.
- Who gives a key, and why?
- Notice the robe, the ashtray, the coffee cup.
- What is felt, realized and gathered at the club Silencio?
- Did talent alone help Camilla?
- Note the occurrences surrounding the man behind Winkies.
- Where is Aunt Ruth?
So how do these clues stack up? Do they help with understanding the film? And what do they actually refer to?
I think they’re worth going through one by one. Shall we?
1. Pay particular attention in the beginning of the film: at least two clues are revealed before the credits. (emphasis mine)
Various interpretations of this clue have led people to assigning meaning to different aspects of the opening sequence. Most people point to the jitterbug contest as one of the clues. This is most obviously a reference to the jitterbug contest that Diane claims she won and which led her to acting and to Hollywood. However, the name “Betty” is overheard in this opening sequence, which suggests that it might be Betty (the innocent alter ego of Diane) who won the contest, which further suggests that Diane might have been making the whole thing up. That Betty/Diane appears as a ghostly and washed out image overlaid atop the jitterbuggers could be seen as a clue that Diane is dead. We also see duplicates of the dancing couples, which could be a clue some have interpreted to mean that doubles or dual personalities/roles will play a part in the film we’re about to see. That the scene shifts from Betty/Diane to a first-person view, accompanied by heavy breathing (which some have interpreted as the sound of cocaine being snorted)is suggestive.Are we are watching things from her point of view? The scene ends with a head falling into a pillow, which might clue us in to the fact that what is coming is nothing but a dream.
2. Notice appearances of the red lampshade.
Red lampshades appear in three places within Mulholland Drive. The first appearance chronologically is during what is called the Byzantine Conspiracy, when Mr. Rocque is trying to summon a woman to him. The call goes unanswered, but we see that the phone is next to a red lampshade. There are several possible interpretations for this, including that the call was meant for the Diane Selwyn, whose decaying body Betty and Rita discover in the Sierra Bonita apartment complex (because we later see a red lampshade next to a telephone in that apartment). It could also be that this phone call is meant for Betty Elms, who — in the fantasy version of her life — is being highly sought out by the Hollywood elite, represented by Mr. Rocque. Another interpretation is that this is a psychological moment of denial on the part of Diane, who can’t bear to answer the phone and reckon with the fact that she is the cause of her misery.
A similar red lampshade is seen in an antique store in the Pink’s hot dog scene with the Betty/Diane lookalike prostitute and the hitman is interesting in this vein. This is a scene filled with red objects, and yet it takes place outside of Pink’s Hot Dogs. That the prostitute in this scene moves away from “pink” and towards reds might be seen as symbolic of Diane’s move away from innocence to sin, possibly even to prostitution herself. That acting is often compared to prostitution might be a link here as well: Diane may feel that she has had to sell herself in order to become a star. She has been used and abused by the Hollywood system, and has fallen to a degraded state that she subconsciously links to prostitution.
The third red lampshade is seen in the final third of the film, when we realize that the ringing phone we saw in the Byzantine Conspiracy scene was, in fact, exactly the same as Diane’s own phone. Is this the same moment as before? Are we just seeing it in context this time around? Possibly. It would be a perfect example of Lynch’s non-linear storytelling. In this scene, she answers the phone and is invited to the party at 6980 Mulholland Drive, during which she is humiliated by Camilla and makes the decision to take out a contract on her life.
3. Can you hear the title of the film that Adam Kesher is auditioning actresses for? Is it mentioned again?
The title of the film is The Sylvia North Story, and we do hear it in the first part of the film during the scene when Betty is taken to meet Adam, ostensibly for her to audition for the lead role in his film. This is after Betty blows everyone away at her audition for Bob Brooker, the audition her aunt set up for her, when we are led to believe that Betty is actually a gifted ingenue talented enough to make waves in this industry. Ultimately she doesn’t get to even audition for the role in The Sylvia North Story. We know that Adam is being blackmailed and that the lead actress has already been selected and Adam has no choice in the matter; we see this pre-selected actress audition here as Camilla Rhodes (Melissa George). It’s clear from the way this scene is shot that Betty and Adam had a connection, and Adam would probably have loved to see Betty audition, and she likely would have blown him away as well, but the behind the scenes conspiracy keep this from materializing.
We hear the title again in the final third, at the Mulholland Drive house party, when it is revealed that both Diane and Camilla auditioned for the role with director Bob Brooker but Camilla ultimately won the role. This startling reversal sheds light on the earlier scene, and is one major reason for people suggesting that the first two-thirds are an idealized portrait of Diane’s life as a failed film actress.
On his blog Reeling Back, Michael Walsh dug up the interesting tidbit that there is a bus in the Snoqualmie valley called the “Sylvia North”; perhaps this is where the inspiration for this name came from.
4. An accident is a terrible event… notice the location of the accident.
The accident that kicks off the central plot of the first two-thirds takes place on Mulholland Drive. This is the same road where Camilla and Adam’s home is, and where they host their party; Rita experiences the hijacking and car accident that drives her amnesia and starts the plot moving with Betty. It’s notable that the car crash happens in the same location as when Diane exits the car and is led through the forest by Camilla to the party. It couldbe symbolic of the “accident” that Diane makes in ordering the hit on Camilla, or the “accident” that was Diane’s acceptance of the invitation by Camilla to the party—both Rita (in the dream) and Diane (in reality) utter the same line when the car stops, possibly further linking the two women with the accident and Diane’s mistakes.
5. Who gives a key, and why?
There are three keys given prominence in the story, but the first is the only one that is truly given: by Coco to Betty when she first arrives at her aunt’s home at Havenhurst. This allows Betty to enter her aunt’s home and meet Rita, who has snuck into the house and is sleeping off her concussion following the car accident on Mulholland Drive the night before.
The second key is found by Betty and Rita at Club Silencio near the end of the fantasy dream, and is soon after used by Rita to open the mysterious blue box that she’s had in her possession since she showed up at Havenhurst with no memory. Betty disappears the moment the key and the box are present in the scene together; Rita disappears when the box is finally opened.
The third key is left for Diane by the hitman as proof that Camilla has been killed. It represents the completion of the terrible deed, and confirmation of the darkness within Diane that allowed the hit to be carried out in the first place.
Since Coco is the only one to actually give anyone a key, it’s worth examining the relationship that Coco has with the girls. She is open and flamboyant with Betty and distrustful of Rita, whom she never meets; she is also sympathetic towards Diane at the dinner party, where it is revealed that she is Adam’s mother and that she doesn’t think very highly of her son’s dalliance with Camilla. Perhaps Diane imagines that Coco is the one giving Betty the key because it mitigates some of the guilt that Diane feels over having Camilla killed. If Coco is even slightly on Diane’s side regarding Adam and Camilla, it stands to reason that she would be a friendly face in the fantasy and that the key, receipt of which was an indicator of an evil deed in the real world, would symbolize something friendlier or at least less hostile in the fantasy world.
6. Notice the robe, the ashtray, the coffee cup.
Several robes are worn by characters in Mulholland Drive. Betty’s Aunt leaves Betty (“Bitsie”) a beautiful robe at Havenhurst, but Betty never gets to wear it; only Rita is ever seen wearing the richly brocaded garment. Betty owns a hot pink bathrobe of her own, which she wears in the rehearsal scene with Rita, whose robe is deep red with black trim. Similar to the Pink’s hot dog scene mentioned above, it seems as though this is another indication that Diane is struggling to reconcile her own innocence (via Betty’s pink robe) and the sinful lust that led her astray (Rita’s red robe.) In the real world, Diane is seen wearing a dingy white robe in her apartment at Sierra Bonita. Not pure white, which might have been another representation of innocence, but dirtied white—Diane has been sullied.
The ashtrays are also notable. There’s the one beside the red lampshade, which is filled with cigarette butts. These are covered in red lipstick, which is makeup that Camilla wears; it’s an indication that Camilla and Diane shared cigarettes in the recent past, or that Diane simply can’t cleaned her lover’s lipstick-stained cigarette butts from her life just yet. The piano ashtray that is collected by Diane’s neighbour is also interesting, but I’ll get to that.
Coffee cups are also plentiful. There are coffee cups at Winkie’s, coffee (espresso) being served to the Italians at the board meeting, and coffee being brewed by Diane at the end of the film.
Which of all of these are the robe, ashtray, and coffee cup that we’re meant to pay attention to? I believe it’s the real world accoutrements in Diane’s apartment. Her dirty white robe, coffee cup, and the ashtray that she gives to her neighbour are all subsequently replaced in the flashback that happens next: Diane is shown topless and wearing jeans, her coffee has become a glass of whiskey, and the piano ashtray is still there, meaning it hasn’t been returned to the neighbour. This could simply be an example of Lynch drawing our attention to the non-linear storytelling, but I also think it’s a reminder to pay attention to what we’re seeing as it’s not always what we think it is.
7. What is felt, realized and gathered at the club Silencio?
The Club Silencio scene marks the high emotional watermark of the film. Betty feels sadness and fear, realizes that nothing is real, and gathers the blue box through which the enigmatic ending manifests. To take this further, Diane seems to feel love for Camilla, and possibly feels guilt over her murder. She realizes that this is the end, and that she and Camilla will finally be joined together in death. Silencio in this sense could be a reference to the eternal silence of death; it is foreshadowing Diane’s suicide in the final moments of the film.
It’s notable here that we might be forced to blur the lines between what we see on screen and what we experience as we watch the film. We’re told that everything is an illusion, that everything is recorded. Does that mean the club is an illusion? Everything in the world of Betty and Rita? The whole film? Are we, the audience, being reminded that nothing we see is real, too?
8. Did talent alone help Camilla?
In the fantasy sequence, Betty sees Camilla Rhodes audition for Adam Kesher, and what she doesn’t know is that Camilla has been pre-selected for the role that she eventually wins in Adam’s film, The Sylvia North Story. This could be interpreted as Diane’s rationalization for why she didn’t get the role when she auditioned alongside Camilla for the role in the real world: a grand conspiracy kept her from booking the role of a lifetime. So, in the fantasy sequence, talent alone did not help Camilla. How about in the real world? We have no indication that Camilla is a bad actress who was helped along the way by outside forces, but we do learn that the director (Bob Brooker, the same director whom Betty auditioned for and impressed in the fantasy sequence) didn’t think much of Diane and that this is why she didn’t win the role in reality. However it’s also possible that Camilla used some other means to get the role, and that this is why Coco doesn’t think very highly of her; we simply don’t know. What we do know is that Diane was jealous of Camilla’s success, and either believes herself to be more deserving of it or believes that the deck was stacked against her by forces beyond her ken.
In either case, Camilla is the girl—whether she’s the girl that the Italians are forcing Adam to hire for The Sylvia North Story or the one that Diane has asked Joe the hitman to murder.
9. Note the occurrences surrounding the man behind Winkies.
One of the most terrifying sequences in any film, I’d argue, to date occurs behind Winkie’s diner. When we first meet the Bum (Bonnie Aarons), it is notable that the scene is the same as what occurs in a dream that Dan (Patrick Fischler) is describing to Herb (Michael Cook). In fact, the reality of the scene in the diner is eerily similar to Dan’s dream, to the point that it may have become his dream by the end of the scene. The lines are so blurred by this point that it’s hard to say.
We see Winkie’s three times in total but only see the Bum twice — once at the end of Dan and Herb’s scene and once at the end when Diane takes the contract out in Camilla’s life. Rita and Betty pore over newspapers in the idealized version of Hollywood that Diane has dreamed up, but they never see the Bum. I think this is important. Facing the evil “in back of this place” is something that Dan has to do; it matters little whether this is a dream or reality, because ether way Dan “dies” as a result of this meeting*.
Facing that evil is not something that even occurs to Rita and Betty when they share a cup of coffee and pore over the newspaper, in the same booth as Dan and Herb had been in, looking for clues as to the circumstances of Rita’s accident the day before. It’s also not something that Diane is able to do when she has her scene at Winkie’s in the last third. We don’t know what this evil represents for Dan, though it’s possible to infer what it means to Diane. Her inability to proactively face this evil in this scene is what unleashes the old couple from the blue box; if Diane won’t face her demons — in fact, if she constructs a whole alternate reality in order to avoid them — her demons will come to face her.
* Much like later interpretations of Twin Peaks: The Return and Audrey’s role as realized in Part 16, does waking up from a dream cause the death of the characters within the dream? Is Dan’s death after seeing the Bum because he has woken up from his dream? That is entirely possible.
10. Where is Aunt Ruth?
In Betty’s fantasy, Aunt Ruth is away in Canada filming a movie. We have no reason to doubt Betty’s account, as this was during a period in time when the film industries of “Hollywood North” in places like Vancouver and Toronto were seeing an uptick in big Hollywood productions being filmed there, and for a fraction of the cost. Aunt Ruth is simply part of this very real-life phenomenon, which was seen by many in the industry as an annoyance at best or a harbinger of things to come (like the decentralization of that “star-maker machinery”) at worst.
In reality, we learn that Aunt Ruth is long dead and that an inheritance from her is what funded Diane’s move to Hollywood from Deep River, Ontario. Betty’s assertion that Aunt Ruth is filming a movie in Canada could be seen as a subtle, old Hollywood allusion to Ruth’s actual death, as “making a movie in Canada” was at one time a euphemism for death.
But then how does Aunt Ruth return at the end of the film? It could be another flashback, to the moment when she left Havenhurst at the start of the fantasy. It could be a flashback even further to a point when she was still living, ten or twenty years before the events of Diane’s last days. It could be the start of the reality sequence, the first person we meet from Diane’s real life recast as Aunt Ruth in the fantasy, but seen here in her actual guise as a real, unnamed person, someone that Diane met and remembered and brought into her dream world as her dead aunt. It’s cryptic and strange and not at all answerable definitively.
So these are the ten clues.
I set off to write this article with the hope of understanding why Lynch included these ten clues in the DVD release. They seemed to be anathema to his way of working; I didn’t believe that they were necessary to fully understanding the film. But as I worked my way through the clues, I’ve come to see that they aren’t as misleading as they once seemed. Are they strictly necessary? No, I do not believe they are. You can watch the film without interpreting these clues, and you could also interpret these clues in different ways. Like John said, perhaps they were intended not as absolute clues pointing us to answers but rather as interpretive clues guiding us to our own ways of looking at the film.
Has this changed my view of the film? No. I still see it as an exploration of the dark underbelly of Hollywood. This isn’t a pretty Hollywood. There’s nothing glamorous about it. But Lynch’s Hollywood is not the Hollywood that we’re sold every February during the Oscars, or the one that gleams and shines under that too-clear sunshine on the Walk of Fame. He has has never been interested in showing us that, unless it’s to contrast the darkness lurking underneath; we should read Betty Elms the same way we read Blue Velvet’s white picket fence; the real story, the heart of it all, is buried underneath, with the bugs and vermin. This is where Diane lives.
“A great actor or actress, they give up themselves and they become somebody else. And everybody, myself included, sometimes wants to get lost and to find themselves in a new world and film gives you that chance to get lost completely in another world.”
Acting, according to this definition anyway, sounds like a form of madness, a kind of schizophrenic fracturing of the actor’s personality; if that’s true, it makes a terrible amount of sense that Hollywood would be a place of madness, and this is exactly what Lynch’s LA trilogy, and specifically Diane’s story in Mulholland Drive, explore. Diane absolves herself of any blame for her misfortune as she dies, even if only in the fantasy world of her own creation, because it’s the only way her madness allows her to find peace.
I’ve been to Los Angeles three times since seeing Mulholland Drive for the first time, and each time I’ve managed to find my way to Mulholland Drive. Sometimes it’s accidental, and other times it’s deliberate. Stopping at the lookouts along the way, I’ve seen Hollywood to the south and I’ve seen the Valley to the north, in daylight and moonlight. I’ve sped along its sunlit curves in the heat of a Southern California afternoon, and slowed to a crawl in the dead of night because I thought something was keeping pace with my car on the side of the road. I’ve never stumbled across an amnesiac fleeing the scene of a car accident, nor have I encountered a mysterious woman beckoning me into the woods with the promise of deadly mystery and intrigue. But being on this road makes me feel, every time, as if that’s possible.
Hollywood is the place where dreams come true, but — at least in Lynch’s hands — it is also the place where dreams become nightmares.