Explained: David Lynch’s “Mulholland Drive”

Mulholland Drive [2001] – ★★★★★

 “So, don’t play it for real, until it gets real”

Mulholland Drive is a mystery film with unconventional story-telling, bizarre scene sequences and some of the most nonsensical film lines ever. The events in the film unfold without any (meaningful) explanation given, with the intention to confuse the viewer, but also with the aim to awe by the end. Overall, branded “the most challenging movie of the year”, Mulholland Drive is fascinating in its inexplicability, surrealism and originality, and probably shines one of Naomi Watts’s best career performances. This post will provide a review and put forward explanations about the film.

Originally envisaged as a TV series, Mulholland Drive ended up as a film not that dissimilar to Lynch’s other movies (The Elephant Man (1980) and Blue Velvet (1986)), but definitely going a step further in its originality. The themes which Lynch explores in Mulholland Drive include the “Fall of the American Dream”, Hollywood corruption, mental illness and sexual exploitation of women. In the film, Lynch emphasizes the banality of Hollywood – the fact that anyone can be anyone, for example, Diane can be Betty, Camilla – Rita, and, also, the fact that, in Hollywood, you can have no past (Gilda). 

Undoubtedly, Mulholland Drive is filled with the sense of unease. Many scenes in this film inevitably give rise to eerie feelings of “something about to happen”, something awful and truly grotesque. This sense of unease is largely due to the outstanding (sometimes hand-held) camera work throughout the film. This inexplicable “strangeness” and magnetic “weirdness” permeating the film holds the audience’s attention, building the tension and ceaselessly fuelling the audience’s imagination. This is Lynch and his genius through and through (see his short film Rabbits, which puts this “strangeness” and “inexplicability” idea at the front). However, it is also too easy to over-analyse this film, and, in fact, if one gets to the bottom of the real story behind the scenes, Mulholland Drive is not that difficult to follow or understand.

Purely as a matter of interest, the film is actually dedicated to Jennifer Symes, an aspiring actress, Lynch’s assistant and ex-partner of actor Keanu Reeves. Symes tragically died at the age of 28 after her car hit the row of other cars not far from Mulholland Drive, LA. 

mulholland drive4


So, what is Mulholland Drive all about? It seems so nonsensical. One view is that there are, in fact, two distinct “realities” taking place in this film. One is Diane Selwyn’s fantasy world, in which she is actually – Betty, a rising Hollywood star. Although some people like to equate the first part of the film with Diane’s dream (for example, as evidenced by the shot of a pillow and some heavy breathing right after Diane’s jitterbug contest), it makes better sense to think of it as Diane’s subconsciousness, creating imaginative concepts and events – the alternate reality created by Diane’s mind to repress certain traumatic events in her life (for example, Camilla appears to Diane after she wakes up for a brief moment in the kitchen). This is Diane’s “dream world” to which she could escape at will whenever she chooses to do so or is forced to. This sounds rather Freudian, but the film does revolve around Freudian concepts, including emphasising the relation between the ego, the id and the superego, and defence mechanisms, such as repression and displacement.  The second part of the film is concerned with real events, and this is the reality.

So, what does take place in those realms?


Here, Diane Selwyn is Betty, an aspiring Hollywood actress who arrives to LA to start her acting career. She settles down in the house of her aunt, while the latter is filming in Canada. In her aunt’s house, Betty finds Rita, a girl who sneaked into the house while it was still empty. Rita, coming to the house after a car crash on Mulholland Drive, is clearly amnesiac, but not seriously injured. Sympathising with Rita’s situation, Betty promises to help her establish her true identity. Rita remembers the name “Diane Selwyn”, and the two visit the house of Diane Selwyn, finding a corpse there. It is clear that Rita and Betty “fall in love”. Betty also seems to succeed in her audition for the upcoming film Sylvia North Story. That means that Betty succeeds in both – getting the love of a girl she has always dreamt to meet – Rita (who is now completely dependent on her) and getting noticed by Hollywood’s most influential people.

Apart from Betty’s “success story”, there is another significant event that takes place in Diane’s “dream world”. This is the story of director Adam Kesher. Adam is in the process of choosing his lead for the film Sylvia North Story. He is seen pressured to choose for the lead the specific girl named “Camilla Rhodes”, but he initially refuses. After declared broke, his production shut down, and after finding his wife in bed with another man, Adam finally picks Camilla Rhodes out of other girls auditioned, by saying: “This is the girl” during auditions.

Other events taking place in Diane’s dream are less significant, including a scene where two men are having a conversation about one’s guy dream at the Sunset Boulevard Winkie’s Restaurant; a scene where Diane’s hired hitman kills another guy for the famous “black book”; and the scene where that same hitman inquires another call girl whether there were any new call girls around, specifically, any “beat-up brunette”. Although these stories seem unrelated to Diane’s story, they are still the product of Diane’s subconscious processes and imagination.


Diane’s actual reality “kicks in” moments after Cowboy says: “Hey, pretty little girlTime to wake up!” In reality, Diane is a talentless girl who travelled from a small town in Ontario to Hollywood after winning a Jitterbug contest, and in the hope of becoming a famous Hollywood actress. Her aunt, who also worked in the film industry, but died, left her a small fortune in her will. While being in LA, Diane met a girl named Camilla Rhodes (Rita in Diane’s “dream world”) during the Sylvia North Story auditions, where director was Bob Brooker. Diane and Camilla soon became friends and lovers. While Camilla got the lead role in Sylvia North Story and her career took off, Diane was not so fortunate, only landing small roles in some of Camilla’s films with Camilla’s help. When Camilla started a relationship with one of her directors, Adam Kesher, she also ditched Diane. After attending Adam and Camilla’s party, where the two announced their engagement, Diane became absolutely devastated and, out of envy, jealousy and frustration, hired a killer, Joe, to murder Camilla. After Diane found out that the killer’s deed was done (and Camilla was dead), she plunged into severe depression. In the end, driven to an absolute despair, feeling hopeless and being afraid for her future, Diane shoots herself dead.

While Diane’s “dream world” seems perfectly flawless in its portrayal of happiness, there are places, people, names and small details that are coming from reality and “frustrate” the perfect balance of Diane’s dream world. It is these pieces from reality that “force” their entry into Diane’s “dream world”, imposing themselves on her carefully-constructed fantasy world. The line between what is real and what is imaginary becomes blurred, resulting in the chaotic fusion of wishful-thinking and the real state of affairs. As Diane incorporates all the characters and details of her real-life into her “ideal” dream world, making it “perfect”, these subjects/objects start to play a different role. Although there are many conclusive explanations for some objects/persons in Diane’s dream, there are some objects, such as the blue box and monster, which can have numerous explanations. 

The reference to a dream or an illusion is made throughout the film, especially in Diane’s “fantasy world”. For example, the man at Winkie’s tells his companion of a dream he has recently had. Betty says to Rita: “I just came here from Deep RiverOntario, and now I’m in this dream place”. Betty and Rita also visit the “Club Silencio” where they are presented with an auditory illusion. Here, there is a hint that what we actually see in this film may be just an illusion.

The Winkie’s restaurant on the Sunset Boulevard is the place which has had the most impact on Diane in her real-life. In her dream, it is here where the two guys meet to discuss the dream. This is where the guys confront “the monster” and one of them dies. Shorty after arriving to LA, this is where Betty and Rita have their coffee. In real-life, it is also here Diane met a hitman and gave him money to kill Camilla. Behind the Winkie’s is the scariest place for Diane, because it is the place where she supposedly finds the key when Camilla is killed (a signal from the hitman to Diane that “the job was done”).

mulholland drive

In Diane’s fantasy, Adam lives in the Park Hotel after being thrown out of his house by his wife. In reality, however, this is where Diane came to live after she began experiencing financial problems (her aunt’s inheritance began to run out). It is clear, therefore, that Diane wanted Adam, who ruined her personal and professional lives, to experience her life of living in poverty, the feeling of not being able to pay the rent on time. It seems that Adam never had to go through this phase in his life, because his mother is Coco, a rich and famous woman in the film industry.

The ominous phase “This is the girl” had a lasting impression on Diane. In real life, it is the phrase that she utters and directs to the hitman at Winkie’s, when she gives him the photo of Camilla. In Diane’s dream world, this phrase is constantly referred to, especially when Adam tries to recast his leading actress.

The director Adam Kesher figures a lot both in Diane’s dream life and in her real-life. In Diane’s real life, Adam is a person who “stole” her lover from her, who made her feel insignificant and who did not recognise her talent. In Diane’s dream, this person is the object of pity: he is declared broke, his film production is shut down and his wife leaves him for another man. This is the fate that Diane wishes this person to have as he ruined her personal and professional lives. Diane’s fantasy world also represent Diane’s wishful thinking that the director (Kesher’s identity here mixes up with Brooker’s) would never have chosen “Camilla” if he was not threatened and was under pressure to do so. Diane wished the director had no choice in picking Camilla, and, secretly, wanted her to play the lead. The pressure applied to director to select the lead also signals that Diane wants to believe that she also had no choice but to select murder for Camilla.

It is clear that Bob Brooker in Diane’s real life is the object of hate. He is the director “who did not think much of her” during her Sylvia North Story audition. In her dream, she made that person an incompetent director, who is controlled by others and only had to say good things about her.

In Diane’s real life, Camilla Rhodes was her lover, the subject of her obsession. In Diane’s dream, identities got twisted-up, and Camilla Rhodes becomes the girl who is chosen by Adam to play the lead in the film, but the appearance of the girl is not that of Camilla, but of the girl who Diane sees kissing Camilla in real life at Adam and Camilla’s engagement party, the girl who “replaced” Diane. Here, it is interesting to note that in Diane’s dream, identities of her and Camilla got reversed. If, in real-life, Diane was “weaker” of the two, passive and shy in their relationship, in Diane’s dream, she is the one who is “dominant”, bubbly and more confident of the two. It is also clear that Diane is not satisfied with her own identity and she wants to be someone else. In her dream, she becomes “Betty”, taking the name of a waitress serving her and the “hitman” at Winkie’s in real-life. Also, as Rita in Diane’s dream thinks she is Diane Selwyn, so, in real life, Diane supposedly wants to be Camilla.

Coco, Adam’s mother, had a tremendous negative impact on Diane’s psyche in real-life. As Coco sees through her at the engagement party in real-life, where she pities Diane for her lack of talent, she also sees through Betty’s lies in Diane’s dream.

In real life, Diane sees Cowboy momentarily during the Adam and Camilla’s engagement party. However, in her dream, Cowboy figures substantially. He is the one who is controlling Adam’s destiny, as Adam once controlled Diane’s fate in real-life. Adam absolutely depends on Cowboy’s decisions. In her dream, Diane wants Adam to experience the same feelings of servitude, powerlessness and humiliation.

The elderly couple in Diane’s mind has a symbolic meaning of people who have faith in her, who believe in her and want for her to achieve success. Naturally, they are also the people who exert the most pressure on her to succeed, thus “terrorising” her in the end in real-life. In real life, they may be the members of Diane’s immediate family, and the people who she does not want to come back to as a failure. In Diane’s dream, they become her travel companions.

Louise Bonner, a person living in the same apartment block as Betty’s aunt, represents the reality which interferes with Diane’s “perfect” world, preventing Diane from completely immersing herself in the pleasure of her illusion. Coco informs Betty in the dream that Louise tells the truth most of the time. When Betty says “My name is Betty”, Louise answers: “No, it is not…not what she said” (presumably Diane’s aunt).

The key has a symbolic meaning for Diane, representing Camilla’s murder, which Diane is responsible for. The key represents the point of “no-return” for Diane. In reality, the hitman says to Diane that she will find the key after the deed is complete. In Diane’s dream, the key is the answer to everything. Rita and Betty find the key in Rita’s bag. My own theory is that the key opens Diane’s own door, and the hitman has it because he has been pimping her all along and therefore has access to her house. The hitman left the key on Diane’s table after he killed Camilla. (Hint: Betty and Rita could not open Diane Selwyn’s door in Diane’s dream, and broke into it via the window/ the hitman in reality did open the door with ease).

mulholland drive

The taste of that espresso, which Diane drunk at Adam and Camilla’s party, Diane did not forget. At that moment in time, she felt awful, absolutely devastated at seeing Camilla happy with another man. Diane felt nauseous at the taste of that espresso, because she was feeling so bad inside. That taste Diane incorporated in her dream: even the world’s finest espresso did not satisfy the businessman in her dream.

In reality, Adam and Camilla’s dinner events traumatised Diane. During that evening she heard a dialogue spoken in Spanish. At that moment, she felt humiliated and “crushed”. In her dream, therefore, Diane wanted to change the negative association she subconsciously accorded to the words spoken in Spanish that she has heard, and, thus, Betty and Diane hear a beautiful, melancholy song sang in Spanish in the dream world.

Some speculate that Diane’s parents died when she was very young, and when she left to live with her grandparents, her grandfather sexually abused her. While being in LA she also went to work as a waitress at a Winkie’s diner to support herself, and then as a call girl with Camilla pimping her to movie executives in exchange for Diane’s small parts in Camilla’s films. Although such speculations can be backed by numerous hints found in the film, there are just that – speculations, and such things cannot be discerned from the film with any reasonable certainty.

In Mulholland Drive, a person’s subconsciousness is on full display for us to see and try to make sense of. This intelligent and thought-provoking film is a real “brain-teaser” where appearances mislead, nothing is what it seems, and reality and wishful thinking intertwine. This film requires patience and love for a good mystery as Lynch desires the viewer to take a second look. However, the film’s inexplicability and “intelligence” should also not be overestimated, and the film should not be over-analysed unnecessarily. It is important to remember that in the end – it is just that – a film, and one of any film’s purposes is to simply entertain. 


9 Comments Add yours

  1. Mark Walker says:

    That is a marvellous dissection there. Bravo. It happens to be a real favourite of mine from Lynch. I can’t get enough of his stuff but this ranks as one of his best. I’d like to here thoughts on Lost Highway sometime.


  2. Brilliant review. Lynch once said ‘I don’t know why people expect art to make sense, they seem to have accepted life doesn’t’ and I think Mulholland Drive perfectly encapsulates that feeling. Again, superb analysis


    1. dbmoviesblog says:

      Thank you! This film is such a brain-teaser, but once you separate the character’s wishful thinking/dreaming from the real life events, it becomes (slightly!) easier to follow. I also like how sometimes and unexpectedly “reality” breaks in and wrecks havoc in Diane’s dreamworld/consciousness. A master-class from Lynch.


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.