In Dreams

Subjectivity and Allegiance in Mulholland Drive. (Spoiler alert.)

David Lynch’s 2001 film Mulholland Drive tells two stories of Hollywood:  one of success and one of failure — one of illusion and one of reality. Lynch manipulates the depth of information presented in the film, leaving the audience wondering where reality begins and ends. He presents the events of Diane Selwyn’s dream as if they were actual occurrences in the diegetic world of the film. In this way, Lynch encourages viewers to ally themselves with Betty, thus making the film’s final act significantly more powerful.[1]

Like many dreams — but unlike most dreams as shown in film — Diane’s dream does not adhere to subjectivity surrounding the central character. Many scenes that take place within the dream are shown from an apparently objective and omniscient perspective. The scenes involving Adam Kesher (Justin Theroux) or the hitman Joe Messing (Mark Pellegrino) are the most prominent examples of this, but an especially interesting case is the series of brief telephone calls made seventeen minutes into the film.

The string of phone calls begins with Mr. Roque (Michael J. Anderson) and ends with an unanswered phone (the significance of which we learn later). The intercut shots of the characters talking are carefully composed to create an ominous feeling. The shot of Back of Head Man (Enrique Buelna) is composed in such a way as to deliberately hide his face. He sits with the back of his head towards the camera; all we can discern is that he is wearing a suit jacket and that he is in what appears to be a large and opulent room. This shot is reminiscent of many film villains’ shots, yielding a sense of foreboding. We expect this man to appear again later in the film, perhaps to fill an important role. But he never reappears. Similarly, the shot of Hairy-Armed Man (Richard Mead) is framed specifically to hide all but his arm from the viewers as he uses the telephone. The compositions of these shots draw attention to the artifice inherent in filmmaking, which ironically serves to increase the viewers’ belief that they are watching diegetic reality. The style of these shots emphasizes their apparent objectivity, leaving audiences fooled.

Lynch does not completely eschew perceptual subjectivity, however. Throughout the dream, he employs eyeline matches and point-of-view shots for many characters, as when Betty and Rita watch a woman and a suited man carry suitcases into a car from behind a wall (approximately an hour and a half into the film). The use of appropriate subjective shots within a majority of objective ones is quite common in film, and it further enhances the dream’s appearance as diegetic reality.[2]

The purpose of this deception is to encourage the audience to align themselves with Betty Elms (Naomi Watts), the dream version of Diane Selwyn. Betty’s traits are easily and quickly identified:  she is young, eager, optimistic, and somewhat naïve. Though someone like Betty might easily assume the submissive half of a relationship, Rita’s (Laura Elena Harring) vulnerability due to her amnesia makes Betty the more dominant of the two. Despite Betty’s appearance as a “girly girl” (pink cardigan and all) she is the motivating force behind the pair’s investigation into Rita’s car crash, and she displays excellent acting ability during her audition, despite a lackluster practice run with Rita. In terms of screentime, the film aligns viewers with Betty more than any other character, and audiences are encouraged to ally themselves with her as a result of her strengths.

This strong allegiance serves to heighten the audience’s negative emotional response in the film’s final act. Upon discovering Diane, viewers are initially confused. After having spent almost two hours watching Betty and Rita, the audience experiences a severe clash between expectations and (diegetic) reality. The physical differences between Betty and Diane are jarring, despite the fact that Naomi Watts plays both characters. Betty wears clean, light colors for much of the film, and her hair is immaculately groomed. This contrasts with Diane’s ratty clothes and disheveled hair. Diane is also noticeably paler than Betty, a feature that is emphasized by the red lipstick she wears on the film set and at the party at Adam’s house. In addition, Watts plays Diane with much poorer posture than Betty, giving the impression that she has been somewhat beaten down by life. Through a series of brief flashbacks we quickly learn that the differences are extend beyond the physical. We see that Diane is jaded and weak — the complete antithesis of Betty.

The placement of the dream in the film plays a key role in the viewers’ attitude toward Diane. Up until the dream ends, the audience has spent the entire film watching Betty overcome the obstacles facing her (and, to some extent, those facing Rita). Seeing the similarities between the dream characters and the actual ones, viewers’ transfer their hopes from the former to the latter. We want to ally ourselves with Diane, just as we did with Betty. We want to believe that Diane can overcome her obstacles, but soon we discover that Diane is neither a great actress nor a kind person. She is jealous, she is spiteful, and she hires Joe for a shady task — presumably to kill her ex-lover, Camilla Rhodes (Laura Elena Harring again). Once we know this about Diane, Betty becomes nothing more than a pathetic projection of what Diane wishes she could be, at least on a purely rational level. As a result, the dream could not occur later in the film than it does and still perform its function of promoting allegiance with Betty.

Another key element in the formation of the audience’s allegiance with Betty is her relationship with Rita, the dream’s counterpart to Camilla. As stated previously, Betty is the more dominant of the two, searching for answers regarding Rita’s mysterious amnesia. But she is also very caring to Rita, providing her with a place to stay and companionship that culminates in declarations of love. This dream relationship serves two purposes. Initially it further encourages the audience’s allegiance with Betty by depicting her as a caring and passionate person. Later on, however, it demonstrates the extent of Diane’s emotional reliance upon Camilla. Diane wishes that Camilla could need her as Rita needs Betty — both romantically and practically. The extent of Diane’s selfishness is just as disconcerting as the other differences between her and Betty.

Through the same manipulation of story information discussed previously, Lynch also affects our attitude toward Adam Kesher to create a conflict of alignment. Initially, the dream version of Adam appears to be an innocent upon whom bad luck falls for no apparent reason. His film is interfered with by shady studio executives, and his wife Lorraine (Lori Heuring) berates him for discovering her secret love affair. Through our limited alignment with Adam, we can allow ourselves to ally with him. By the time the dream ends, our allegiance has again been manipulated, making it somewhat difficult to accept him as Diane sees him — as a villain who stole Camilla’s affections. This results in a moderate conflict between our desire to see Adam succeed and our desire to transfer our alignment from Betty to Diane.

In the end, though, we still ally ourselves with Diane. We do not condone what she has done, but we cannot shake the feeling that somewhere deep inside her is the Betty that we grew to sympathize with during the majority of the film. We feel that, at one point in the past, Diane might not have been so different from Betty, and when Diane kills herself, we do not mourn her death as much as we mourn Betty’s. By the end of the film, Betty comes to represent the Hollywood dream that originally brought Diane to Los Angeles, and when Diane dies, her dreams die with her.


[1] There are many and varied interpretations of Mulholland Drive’s complex plot structure. This paper uses the most widely-accepted explanation, which maintains that the majority of the film is Diane Selwyn’s dream.

[2] The dream is not without its hints. Certain elements of Mulholland Drive’s mise-en-scène possess a dream-like quality, especially the scenes at the Lost Dude Ranch and Club Silencio. However, surrealism is not unusual in Lynch’s films, and those familiar with his work are likely to see these elements as nothing more than auteur traits upon first viewing.

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