Over the years, I have desperately sought to make sense of the madness that is David Lynch’s Mulholland Drive. Sometimes I would get frustratingly close to what I perceived to be its true “meaning”—the person behind the dumpster represents the crisis of homelessness in Hollywood, or, wait, no, they represent the obscured lines between nightmare and reality, or wait—only to realize I was right back where I started.
The truth of the matter is, if you’re anything like I once was and you want nothing more than to figure out what this audacious two-and-a-half-hour descent into madness and absurdity really means, you’ll inevitably run into a number of people who will essentially tell you the same thing: It’s not a movie that’s meant to be understood. And sadly, because of this, Mulholland Drive remained more or less meaningless to me for years. That is, until I discovered the 20th century post-structuralist philosophers.
Indeed, don’t interpret this confession to mean that there is nothing at all to be gleaned from Mulholland Drive. No, quite the contrary. It’s simply the case that the contents of the plot are largely inconsequential. In a film where symbols and plot points are never really defined, and therefore become a string of Rorschach tests, the only thing we can successfully amass meaning from is the method with which the story is told. In his essay series Course in General Linguistics, early structuralist philosopher Ferdinand de Saussure explains that “in language there are only differences,” by which he means that it we can only understand what a symbol is by understanding what it is not. And if we were to apply this ideology to Mulholland Drive, it would suggest that we can only really understand the film by first understanding that we can’t derive any logical meaning from its plot.
Mulholland Drive follows Betty (Naomi Watts), a fresh-faced aspiring actress who arrives in Hollywood one sunny morning to take a stab at becoming an actress. When she gets there, she encounters Rita (Laura Harring), a mysterious woman straight out of a noir who tells Betty she was in an accident, but can’t remember anything beyond that. So Betty makes it her mission to help Rita solve the mystery of her past, and on their journey the two encounter the dark underworld of Hollywood.
Despite starting off as a genuine, straightforward mystery, the closer Betty and Rita get to what they perceive might be the “truth,” the more absurd things get. A cowboy ominously walks across the frame. A singer falls unconscious at a nightclub, but her singing continues. These are the moments when those naysayers would whisper in your ear: Don’t try to understand it! Let the weirdness wash over you! But what if the only way to really understand Mulholland Drive is to first understand why it is so imperative for it not to make sense in the first place?
And this is where we must make an inquiry into Mulholland Drive’s storytelling methods. At the forefront of figuring out the ways in which we communicate meaning were structuralist philosophers in the 20th century. In their inquiries into semiotics—the way we interpret signs and symbols—these philosophers suggest that it is impossible to describe something without detracting from its true meaning.
In Course in General Linguistics, de Saussure argues that, “Whether we take the signified or the signifier, language has neither ideas nor sounds that existed before the linguistic system,” which is to say that communication is based in using signifiers to get closer and closer to a definition. In “Cogito and the History of Madness,” philosopher Jacques Derrida critiques Saussure’s argument, warning that attempting to describe the indescribable in the first place can run you into trouble. Derrida coined the term différance, which combines a French homonym that means both “to defer” and “to differ” in an effort to highlight a dissonance between the sensible and the intelligible. He explains that “the subject, and first of all the conscious and speaking subject, depends upon the system of differences and the movement of différance, that the subject is not present, nor above all present to itself before différance, that the subject is constituted only in being divided from itself.”
This “system of differences” indicates a chain of signifiers which act as placeholders for the actual definition of a word that can ultimately never be reached. The “subject is not present,” points to an inherent dissonance between definition and symbol. Recall Mulholland Drive’s blue box. Clearly, the box is more than just a box, and it probably represents consciousness. But symbolizing something as potent as consciousness with something as inconsequential as a dull blue box only underscores Derrida’s argument on the difficulty and absurdity of defining anything using a symbol.
Okay, so we’ve got our crash course in post-structuralism down. But what does all of this have to do with Mulholland Drive? How does it change the way we read the film? The problem with reading this film in the first place is that it is filled with characters that go to great lengths attempting to describe the indescribable—just what Derrida warned against. Take Dan (Patrick Fischler), for example, who delves into a monologue at Winkie’s Diner in an attempt to explain an absurd dream he had. When the dream finally materializes in the form of a soot-covered being peeking out from behind a dumpster, we can’t help but feel that we’ve traveled even further from the truth. The reveal isn’t satisfying because it doesn’t make sense. Perhaps this figure means something to Dan, but it doesn’t mean anything to us, just as it is a well-known fact that dreams are always meaningless to the people we tell them to. A similar viewing sensation comes about as Betty and Rita painstakingly strive to solve a mystery that frustratingly follows dream logic itself. By creating a film that, for the most part, follows dream logic, Lynch attempts to bring us even closer to understanding the indescribable—an act which, ultimately, only leads us further away from doing so.
The mystery of Rita is underscored by a blue key she finds in her purse after her accident. Betty imagines that, if they can just find whatever that key unlocks, it will instantly illuminate the mysteries of Rita’s past. But every time they get closer to that truth, something happens that muddies the narrative the two thought they’d started to discern. Take, for example, when they are served at Winkie’s Diner by a waitress named Diane. The name sparks recognition in Rita, who makes the association with the name “Diane Selwyn.” So they seek out Diane in the phone book only to find her dead. They have made a discovery, and yet this discovery doesn’t bring them any closer to the truth. When, later that night, Rita insists they go to Club Silencio, it is an idea that is totally divorced from the discovery of Diane.
Things only get more indecipherable for Betty and Rita when they go to Silencio. While there, Betty finds a blue box that matches Rita’s key. At home, they open the box together, and their storyline abruptly ends, and we never see those characters (in that form) again. And here lies one of Mulholland Drive’s greatest mysteries—if not its greatest mystery—what’s in the box? No one seeks the answer to this question more fervently than our two protagonists. But when the opening of the box unexpectedly ends the mystery storyline and, effectively, wakes Betty up into her “real life,” where she is a jaded woman named Diane, it becomes clear that the box is likely a stand-in for the mega abstract: Consciousness itself.
Rita and Betty’s attempt to define consciousness ultimately ends up bringing them further from any kind of truth. If the first two acts of Mulholland Drive are framed as a semi-straightforward, dreamt-up, absorbing mystery plot taken out of a noir, then the final act is the nonsensical, dismal nightmare of real life. In the final act, Betty (Diane) is catapulted back into “real life,” tormented by the fact that her lover Camilla (Rita) is with another woman. It becomes evident that Diane took a hit out on Camilla because she couldn’t handle her own jealousy. By blending a noir A-plot with an absurdist B-plot, Lynch subverts the classic noir arc, which often ends with a bleak comment on futility. Indeed, Lynch’s noir doesn’t end with a comment on the hollowness of life, but rather the hollowness of communication.
But this isn’t a story about a resentful lover, nor is it a film that applauds who can best fathom its dream logic. No—this is a film about the perils of attempting to comprehend the incomprehensible. Diane committed a crime against her lover, and the first two hours of Mulholland Drive are a representation of her attempts to find a deeper meaning in her sinister actions. But by looking for this meaning, she only abstracts her own actions and turns them into dreams. Like Derrida warned against, she looked at what she did through the lens of what it is not—a narrative about two women trying to solve a mystery. But she’s not the only one attempting to solve a mystery. Ultimately, by obscuring the meanings of Mulholland Drive, Lynch forces us all into the shoes of poor Dan at Winkie’s Diner. And if we can only understand why we shouldn’t attempt to approach the dumpster in the first place, then maybe—just maybe—we’ll be on the right track to understanding the film.
Aurora Amidon is a film journalist and passionate defender of Hostel: Part II. Follow her on Twitter for her latest questionable culture takes.