Mulholland Drive, like all of David Lynch’s films, is one that has proven to be the subject of almost endless debate and analysis, regarding everything from symbolism to characters to what exactly it is we’ve just seen. Of the many memorable scenes found in Mulholland Drive, one stands out as one of the most impactful moments found in Lynch’s filmography: Betty and Rita’s late-night visit to the surreal Club Silencio. Not only is it the climax for the entire film, but a closer look reveals a profound message about the true magic of cinema.
To start, pay attention to how the scene is set up. From the very first moment we set foot into Club Silenco, there’s a sense of…falseness about it, emphasizing how everything we’re seeing is a performance. Both the Magician on stage (Richard Green) and the audience are practically motionless until Betty (Naomi Watts) and Rita (Laura Harring) are near their seats, as though the performance isn’t meant to start until they arrive. Behind him is one of Lynch’s favorite motifs: bright red curtains, reminiscent of the ones in old vaudeville theaters.
This particular motif is one that appears in almost all of Lynch’s films, each time being tied to some sense of performance or putting on a facade: both the nightclub in Blue Velvet where Dorothy Valens sings and her apartment where she is forced to perform as part of Frank Booth’s psychotic roleplay; the Madison’s home in Lost Highway, where Fred and Renee put on the facade of being a happily married couple to both the police and to each other; and most famously, the Red Room in Twin Peaks, where it feels like everything and everyone is putting on a performance of some level, speaking in half-truths and riddles that we’re left trying to interpret.
Time and time again Mulholland Drive plays with this idea of performances and our perception of them, consistently reminding us that there’s a layer of unreality to everything and that at no point should we really trust what we’re seeing. After the meeting between Adam Kesher (Justin Theroux) and The Cowboy, we cut to what appears Betty and Rita in the middle of an argument over Rita continuing to stay at Betty’s apartment, only for the camera to pan out and reveal a script in Rita’s hands—she’s actually helping Betty rehearse for an audition. To add another layer of unreality, the script that Rita is reading off of is actually the shooting script for Mulholland Drive—the script is visible for several frames, enough that we can see the names of the characters being read for: Betty and Rita.
They wind up laughing over how cheesy the script is, but when Betty is auditioning in the very next scene with that same script, the intensity of her performance makes it feel authentic to a level that’s almost uncomfortable. All the dialogue in the first scene where we meet Betty after getting off the plane is clearly dubbed in after the fact; and not only is the girl who performs “Sixteen Reasons” clearly lip-syncing to the original song, but as the camera slowly zooms out we see that the 50’s attire and setting are just part of her audition on a larger stage.
“No. Hay. Banda!” the Magician tells us, in a way that feels like a modern or postmodern theatre performance. “There is. no. band,” he insists, again and again, speaking not only to the audience assembled in the club but to the audience watching Mulholland Drive. “No hay banda—and yet, we hear a band.” Sure enough, we can hear the instruments being named as though they were present, but the Magician tells us that everything we’re hearing is a tape recording. He keeps up the performance even while telling us it’s all a recording, pantomiming in time to the musical cues, but to ensure that we’re not fooled a trumpet player is brought on stage as we hear the instrument play, only for the notes to keep playing as he holds the trumpet in outstretched arms. Something else to note: the Magician speaks in three different languages over the course of the show, only repeating the important lines in English, in a way that almost feels reflective of how the conversations in Lynch’s films have a tendency to feel like they’re pointing you in the direction of something without giving you the full picture.
Then, at the end of his performance, he holds out his arms and we get another one of Lynch’s motifs, this one a little more abstract: blue flashing lights that come from somewhere off-screen, almost evocative of lightning. This motif tends to appear in Lynch’s later films, and is generally tied to transformation, transition and electricity: the two most well-known appearances of this motif are in Lost Highway to mark the transformation of Fred into Pete and back again (and more subtly, when Alice first appears to signify Renee’s “transformation” into her) and in this scene where it marks the beginning of Betty/Diane’s forced transition out of her dream and into her discomforting reality—as the lights flash and we hear both the sound of thunder and faint, distorted voices, Betty begins to violently shake and convulse: she’s starting to wake up, and the part of her that wants to escape her reality isn’t taking that too kindly.
After the Magician disappears in a cloud of smoke, we come to the real part of Lynch’s gambit with this scene: the night’s main act, Rebekah Del Rio, who gives an absolutely heartbreaking acapella performance of Roy Orbison’s “Crying,” or “Llorando” as it’s referred to here. As anyone who has seen Mulholland Drive will tell you, words fail to describe how transcendent this moment is: Del Rio sings entirely in her native Spanish, but rather than feeling obscured or unclear it somehow has the opposite effect. You can look up the original lyrics after the fact to dissect them and see how they might reflect the story of Betty and Rita, but in the moment that layer of potential analysis is removed and all you have is the emotion behind her voice ringing clearer than words ever could. It’s a performance that moves you to tears, and sure enough as we cut back to Betty and Rita throughout Del Rio’s performance we see the pair of them clutching each other and tearing up.
But, about halfway through her performance, Del Rio collapses on stage—but despite being carried off by the emcee (who we originally saw as the landlord of the apartment building where Adam is lying low) and the man who Adam’s wife was cheating on him with, the song plays on. No hay banda—there is no band—y tampoco hay cantante—and there is no singer either. It’s a moment that shouldn’t be shocking—after all not only did the Magician tell us repeatedly that it was all a recording, the venue itself is called Club Silencio, as in the silence that would be all we’d hear without the tape recording—but Del Rio’s performance is one that is so moving that all thought that what we’re seeing isn’t real goes out the window.
Within the film’s narrative, Club Silencio serves a similar function to the climax of Lost Highway, serving as the point where the world of Diane’s Hollywood dream starts to collapse and she’s forced to wake up to her discomforting reality. We see characters being “recycled” from earlier scenes in Mulholland Drive—interestingly enough, both of them are from the Adam storyline and are never seen by Betty or Rita—and at the end of the performance Betty pulls the mysterious blue box out of her purse and decides to open it when the two of them get back to her apartment, at which point the pair of them vanish and we find ourselves back at the apartment the two of them visited and found the woman’s body, only now it’s Diane, waking up from her drug-induced dream.
But the real meat of this scene lies in the big picture: the Magician is functionally a stand-in for Lynch—he reminds us time and time again that what we’re seeing isn’t real, that it’s all a tape recording, that it’s an illusion. He speaks in multiple languages, because we’re not meant to focus on what he says to try and get caught up in analyzing the words and instead let the emotion of the moment engulf us. We don’t understand it until after Del Rio’s performance, but what the Magician/Lynch is saying basically amounts to “I’m going to show you a magic trick, I’m telling you I’m going to show you a magic trick, I can even tell you exactly how it’s done—but when I do it, it’s going to be so well done that you fall for it anyway.”
He’s correct, and it speaks to the true power of this scene—and, what seems like Lynch is telling us is the true power of film: We can be told that what we’re seeing isn’t really happening, that it’s all the product of someone’s imagination brought to life through actors and artists and computers and cameras, and yet when those moments hit us the emotions they create are no less real, and the impact they have on us is one that can linger long after the show is over. It’s suspension of disbelief in its purest form, close to how the concept was first explored by Aristotle in relation to the principles of theater: we ignore the unreality of fiction in order to experience catharsis.
Think of any number of great or memorable moments throughout cinematic history—the awe-inspiring first glimpse of dinosaurs in Jurassic Park, the joy of seeing Woody and Buzz take flight in Toy Story, the collective cheers at seeing Andrew Garfield and Tobey Maguire return in Spider-Man: No Way Home to name just a few of my personal favorites. These moments might be fictional, but the emotions we experience from them are no less real than if it was truly happening before our eyes. Club Silencio might signify the end of Betty/Diane’s dream of her Hollywood ending, but what we find inside speaks to a truth that goes well beyond Mulholland Drive‘s story: that great films have the power to move us, to inspire us, to make us feel almost…real connections with fictional people and places. It is, in the truest sense of the word, magic.