Mulholland Dr.

People often come to me to complain about not understanding a particular film directed by David Lynch. They reckon that I can explain it to them, since I am a film scholar. My first impulse has been to humbly tell them that I have nothing to say if the problem is stated that way. I do not confuse appreciating film art with deciphering enigmas. But then I point out that apparently their puzzlement did not make the film remote. They seem to have connected with, for example, Eraserhead (1977) in some way. It somehow made sense to them, particularly on an emotional level. So perhaps what is in need of explanation is their reaction to the film and not the film itself.

Lynch’s films belong to the lineage of surrealist cinema, even though he said in 1990 that he had not seen a lot of Luis Buñuel’s films. But he did acknowledge the influence of Jean Cocteu, Man Ray, and Hans Richter on his art.[1] In Lynch’s cinema, the subconscious speaks through a combination of oneiric images and sounds. The intuition and sensibility that preside over the construction of the universe of his films is in line with the rejection of rationalism in André Breton’s manifesto. Yet there is something else.

A narrative film often becomes moving because it is interested in the emotions of characters. We do not feel like the characters, but we do empathise, feeling with them and sharing their feelings, shifting between alignment and allegiance.[2] The focus on characters distinguishes Lynch’s art within surrealism. The influence of dark romanticism and film noir as specific American traditions may explain his peculiar, emotional surrealism. Just skimming through the titles of his films we get a sense that places (Twin Peaks, Mulholland Dr., Inland Empire) and evocative expressions (“eraserhead”, “blue velvet”, “wild at heart”, “lost highway”, even “dune”) are more important than characters. Of course, there is The Elephant Man (1980), but the character’s name is actually John Merrick. The title The Straight Story (1999) relates to the protagonist’s family name as well as to the linear feel of the narrative and landscapes. Be that as it may, when we look at the films, characters are at their centre, beginning with Henry in Eraserhead.

Mulholland Dr. (2001) can be taken as exemplary of the close attention that Lynch pays to human emotion.

Why are we moved by this film? Much like his other works, Mulholland Dr. seems to ask us, first of all, to experience it. If we wish to respect this request, then our analysis should not pierce the mystery or impose strictures of rationality when emotion erupts. It is perhaps a paradox, but one of the qualities that certainly makes the film moving is its ambiguity and the ways in which it dramatises this ambiguity — of the characters about their own emotions and the emotions of others, of the experience and meaning of feelings. Lynch’s cinematic works contain an abundance of scenes depicting characters crying, but in Mulholland Dr. crying takes contrasting forms. Tears roll down Rita’s face and leave a mark, a kind of a wrinkle that turns emotion into a trace. The tears painted on Rebekah Del Rio’s face anticipate the emotional punch of her singing on stage, a playback reshaped into an affecting live performance until she collapses of exhaustion. Both depend on borrowed things, a name and a voice, which are also their own or become their own. Both express who they are in moments of fragility that they cannot fully control.


[1] David Lynch, “David Lynch”, interviewed by David Breslin, Rolling Stone 586 (1990), http://
[2] See Murray Smith, Engaging Characters: Fiction, Emotion, and the Cinema (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1995).