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“David Lynch’s 10 Clues to Unlocking This Thriller”

From here on out, this discussion will presume a basic knowledge of events in Mulholland Drive. Fire up the film projector now, and as you rewatch Mulholland Drive, keep in mind “David Lynch’s 10 Clues to Unlocking This Thriller”:

  1. Pay particular attention in the beginning of the film: At least two clues are revealed before the credits.
  2. Notice appearances of the red lampshade.
  3. Can you hear the title of the film that Adam Kesher is auditioning actresses for? Is it mentioned again?
  4. An accident is a terrible event—notice the location of the accident.
  5. Who gives a key, and why?
  6. Notice the robe, the ashtray, the coffee cup?
  7. What is felt, realized and gathered at the Club Silencio?
  8. Did talent alone help Camilla?
  9. Note the occurrences surrounding the man behind Winkie’s.
  10. Where is Aunt Ruth?

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Breaking Down Mulholland Drive

People have often noted how Lynch’s films have a dreamlike quality to them, and Mulholland Drive is suffused with that same quality. Yet here it is more than just window-dressing; it is actually integral to the plot of the film.

In a nutshell, according to one popular theory, the bulk of what we see in Mulholland Drive is a dream made up of reconstituted faces and other elements from the life of a failed actress named Diane Selwyn, who hired a hitman to kill her ex-lover, then was overcome by guilt and committed suicide. There is no one right interpretation for a film like this, of course, but littered throughout Mulholland Drive, there are enough signposts to support said theory that it, in retrospect, it seems readily apparent: this is what’s happening in the film.

When he was interviewed at the Cannes Film Festival the year the film came out, Lynch himself reportedly insisted that Mulholland Drive does tell a coherent, comprehensible story. Casual movie-watchers might not have the patience to suss it out with a second viewing, but if you examine the film with the dream theory in mind, bolstered by Lynch’s clues and some other supporting evidence, it actually makes perfect sense. By the standards of a nightmare or drug trip, there is nothing bizarre about it. It is actually somewhat tame. The movie merely plunges us into an illusory world, populated by frightening, soot-covered hobos (where have we seen those before?) and maniacal, miniaturized elderly couples. Not bizarre at all…

One of the hints before the credits that Lynch talked about in clue #1 would appear to be a hint about Diane’s backstory as the smiling small-town girl who won a jitterbug dance contest before packing up her suitcases and jetting off to Hollywood. She was a big fish in a small pond till she got out to L.A., the city that swallows up dreamers. The other clue is especially pronounced, inasmuch as the last thing we see before the title of the film comes up is the hazy POV of someone in bed, their head hitting the pillow.

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What follows next is a dream. While there is no conclusive evidence that I’ve been able to pick up on, we can infer from the general state of her life that Diane may have a drug problem. At one point in the dream, when leaving home for her audition, she says, “Don’t drink all the coke!” It seems like a total non-sequitur. Would she really need to say that to her new house guest, Rita, another adult woman? Maybe this is just the way for her subconscious to sanitize her memories of how her apartment became a drug den for her and her lover. It’s not a stretch to say that drinking coke could be a thin cipher for, you know, doing cocaine.

L.A. was one of the cities most affected by the American crack epidemic of the 1980s and 1990s. So there’s also that to ponder. Or maybe there are no drugs involved, and Diane is just losing her mind like Norma Desmond, the character played by Gloria Swanson in Sunset Boulevard. That is certainly a possibility, too, as Mulholland Drive is in many ways Lynch’s answer to Sunset Boulevard, a classic that proved highly influential on him as a filmmaker.

At any rate, coming down from a high on some substance, Diane slips into a fugue state and forgets herself. Scenes in her dream take on an aspect of wish fulfillment; she imagines a vast web of conspiracy, furthered by mobsters and men in shadowy rooms, all for the aim of installing another actress as the lead in The Sylvia North Story. This is the title of the film (see clue #3) where Diane met her ex-lover, Camilla, in the real world. The actress who supplants Diane in the dream has the same face as the woman who supplants her as Camilla’s lover in the real world.

But Diane wants to forget that. And she especially wants to forget that Camilla is now dead. In the dream, the hitman Diane hired (at Winkie’s, as seen toward the end of the movie) is reimagined as an incompetent whose bumbling actions forestall the death of her ex-lover. In reality, the hitman has carried out his contract and returned the blue key of clue #5 to her apartment table as a sign that it is finished. Their meeting at the diner is also where Diane’s subconscious latches onto the name “Betty” as a name for her dream self. She gets the name from her waitress’s nametag. Through the looking glass, it’s reversed and the waitress is wearing the name “Diane.”

The location of the accident mentioned in clue #4 is the Hollywood Hills. Several times the camera fixates on the lights of Los Angeles, as seen from the hills. These lights have beckoned dreamers for decades.

The place where the accident happens is also the same stretch of winding road on Mulholland Drive where Diane met Camilla in the real world, accompanying her to a party where she had her heart broken; met a sympathetic face who would become the landlady in her dream; and randomly saw a stern face that would become one of the mobsters in her dream. She also sees a certain cowboy there, who promised one of her dream avatars, “You’ll see me two more times if you do bad.” And lo and behold, this is the second time we’ve seen him since then.

The man behind Winkie’s, referenced in clue #9, is meant to portray the evil that festered from Diane’s heartbroken jealousy. The funny thing is, this so-called “man,” who is listed in the closing credits simply as “Bum,” is actually played by an actress named Bonnie Aarons. (Most recently she played the demon nun in The Conjuring 2.) But it is this great evil, embodied by the bum’s dirty visage, which shows up again at the end of the film, holding that same blue key, the hitman’s marker. Effectively this is the key to Pandora’s box. Note how Betty, the more innocent self, disappears, merging with her other amnesiac self, right before Rita uses the key to open the blue box in the dream. This box, with its black window into reality, opens up a world of hurt on Diane, unleashing the forces of guilt on her.

Guilt takes the form of the elderly couple, two figures from her past (which is not so innocent as she would like to remember). The old couple is never explicitly identified in the real world, but we see them by Diane’s side in her memories of winning the jitterbug contest, and in the dream she renders them as the people she met on her flight into LAX. So it is clear she associates them with her innocence, pre-L.A. Their corny interactions with her at LAX are soon undercut by chilling smiles, a sense that something is wrong with this picture.

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That is what is “felt, realized, and gathered at the Club Silencio” (per clue #7). Hollywood dreams and the innate human tendency for self-delusion have put a veil over Diane’s eyes. Movie magic is a trick. “There is no band. This is all a tape recording. It is an illusion.” Diane is slowly waking, once again, to reality; her brain has already begun peeling back the layer of artifice by showing us blonde wigs and collapsed stage performers with voices that continue to sing doomed love songs in Spanish. Rebekah Del Rio’s a capella rendition of “Crying” plays like a funeral dirge for Diane. Rita, meanwhile, retains no memory of herself because she is not herself at all. She is a manifestation of Diane’s subconscious, as are all the other characters in the dream, like Dan at the diner, and the hapless, cuckolded Adam.

All roads (or in this case, conspiratorial calls) lead back to Diane and the red lampshade by her phone. Clue #2 points to a woman in denial, dreaming, refusing to answer the phone because she is unable to consciously come to terms with the murder she orchestrated in the real world. The real Rita, a.k.a. Camilla, was cruel and commanding, a happy heartbreaker who appears to have slept her way to the top (see clue #8). As a ladder to fame and privilege, she is marrying Adam, the director of The Sylvia North Story, but at the same party where he announces their engagement, she is clearly seen kissing another woman.

After the Club Silencio scene, the film shifts from a fugue state, overlaid with a peppy Old Hollywood sheen, to grief-stricken reality. “The robe, the ashtray, and the coffee cup” of clue #6 are all background details that can be used to track the real-world timeline. The ashtray, for instance, is retrieved by Diane’s ex-roommate (likely a lover she met on the rebound from Camilla), but there it is again, a moment later, indicating we have moved backward in time.

In answer to the question of, “Where is Aunt Ruth?” in clue #10…well, Aunt Ruth is dead. Dead, and divested of her Hollywood fortune. At the party, Diane flat-out says that she inherited some money when her “aunt died.” In the dream, Aunt Ruth is “working on a movie that’s being made in Canada,” but the joke in the trade used to be that an actor consigned to Canada was as good as dead. Diane soon joins Aunt Ruth in the afterlife with a self-inflicted gunshot to the head. No more tiny tormentors to guilt-trip her.

Last but not least, if Lynch’s clues were not enough, the dialogue itself is seeded with many hints, which only further compound the convincing case that Diane is dreaming for most of the film. “I just came here from Deep River, Ontario,” she says in her guise as Betty, “and now I’m in this … dream place.” Pause for effect. “Dream place.” Later, when pursuing the mystery of her new houseguest’s identity, she urges Rita, “C’mon. It’ll be just like in the movies. We’ll pretend to be someone else.” Furthermore, the words she says as she picks up the phone to dial Diane Selwyn, her unknown self, are, “It’s strange to be calling yourself.”

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