A review requested by Gabe P, with thanks for contributing to the Second Quinquennial Antagony & Ecstasy ACS Fundraiser.

Spoilers are going to be crawling up and down this post like ants. If you haven't seen Mulholland Dr., know that I give it a perfect 5/5, and if I were making a list of the films of the 21st Century that are essential viewing for anyone even moderately interested in the art form, this would be jockeying for very top spot.

There was a time when any discussion about David Lynch's magnificent Mulholland Dr. would automatically turn into an attempt to piece out exactly what the fuck is happening within it. Having been right in the thick of the film's original release in 2001, I took part in more than my fair share of such conversations, and I am pleased that, in the interevening 13 years and change, cinephile culture has arrived at two basic groups of theories that represent the consensus "solutions" of the movie's mysteries ("it's all a dream" and "it's two versions of the same story in alternate universes" - I much prefer the former, but the film mostly works the same either way), thus freeing us all to talk about anything else. For I cannot think of a film that more clearly demonstrates the truth of Roger Ebert's dictum that what a movie is about is less important than how it is about that thing. In fact, the how of Mulholland Dr. is almost totally inseparable from the what - it is a film that burns its artistic themes and believes about life deep into the bones of its story structure, its acting technique, its sound design, its editing. Unpack the gnarled narrative, and you find a potboiler about desperation among wannabe actresses. Unpack the aesthetic, and you find one of the best - no, fuck it, the best autocritique of cinema as a medium that has yet been made.

But just in the interest of having something to talk about, let's start with the plot. And I mean "plot" in its strictest sense: what events are depicted onscreen and in what order we see them. "Story" is a different matter. "Story", in Mulholland Dr., is puking its guts up behind the dumpster around back of a little coffee shop. What happens is that a woman (Laura Elena Herring, about as far as you can go on the Prestige-O-Meter from her 1990 feature debut, The Forbidden Dance - though not, actually, giving much better of a performance) survives a murder attempt that's interrupted by a car crash on Mulholland Dr., the cliff road overlooking Los Angeles from the north. She staggers away from the crash without her memory, and finds solace in an abandoned apartment; the next day, she's found by Betty (Naomi Watts, in her never-bettered starmaking role), who was coming to stay there at the invitation of her actress aunt, currently shooting a project in Canada. Betty herself wants to be an actress, but she finds herself dividing her time between job hunting and trying to help this mystery woman - who calls herself "Rita", after spotting the name on a Gilda poster - determine her own identity and figure out whether she's in any danger, as she clearly feels without being to articulate it. Meanwhile, a film director, Adam Kesher (Justin Theroux), is being leaned on hard by a mysterious cabal to cast an unknown named Camilla Rhodes as the lead in his picture, The Sylvia North Story. There are scattered scenes throughout in which characters who seem momentarily important simply evaporate away, sometimes after interacting with one of the two main threads of the story and sometimes not. Eventually, Betty and Rita track Rita's past back to a place called Club Silencio, where notional reality is shown to be a fake, and the film restarts itself as the story of Diane Selwyn (Watts), who is having a very rough time dealing with the fact that her girlfriend, Camilla Rhodes (Herring) has gotten the lead role that Diane wanted herself, apparently by fucking the director, Adam Kesher (Theroux).

There are a lot of things that the movie can be about, depending on how hard you want to run it through an analytical wringer, but the one thing it's always about is that motions pictures and the industry that produces them are toxic shit-holes of lies. And nowhere is that more evident than in the famously insoluble mystery. It would be trivially easy to re-edit the film using all the footage it contains and only the footage it contains in its present form, basically just swapping the concluding fifth of the movie (where Watts plays Diane) to the beginning, and in the blink of an eye you've made thoroughly comprehensible story: a woman is thrown over by her lover, so she hires a hitman to murder her; the night after the job is done she has a fantastic dream dripping with symbolism, in which she and her now-dead girlfriend lived the exact happy life she wanted, and she is herself a promising, desirable young star, though hints and details of her guilt keep nudging in. Awakening, she is so horrified that she kills herself, and her last thoughts are flashes of that pleasant dream. Now, that does require ignoring the fact that Mulholland Dr. was born a TV pilot for ABC that the network passed on (aghast that they hired David Lynch to make a David Lynch show for them, upon which he did so), which included none of the Watts-as-Diane material. But the film has been re-worked from the material originally worked into that pilot enough to make them distinctly unique properties even in the places where they overlap, so writing off the story's past life seems fair. Even necessary, given the amount of its plot that's all about writing off personal history that gets in the way of a pleasing reality.

The point of Mulholland Dr., of course, is that it does not make this one simple shift, and that proves to be all the difference. Instead of an almost boringly straightforward Freudian psychodrama, the film turns into a morass of almost unnavigable narrative mysteries, breaking down the idea that films represent some kind of Thing That Actually Happened by inviting the viewer to bring together all sorts of details that seem like the must be Important Clews - I mean, if they weren't important, then why would Lynch have included them? - only to find that most of what happens in Mulholland Dr. is baffling nonsense. You can do what I just did, and mentally re-edit the movie, to make it relatively easy piece of dream analysis where we know that we're picking apart the details of a symbolic dream. Or you can catalogue all the places where Rita seems to take over or recede from reality, and use those as evidence for how it's a film she's dreaming into existence in real time. Or you can leave the movie entirely and discard all of the random effluvia as detritus that would have been explored in the full TV series, and Lynch left it in just because it was fun and stylish, in which case you will forgive me for accusing you of being kind of boringly literal.

But no matter how you try to square Mulholland Dr., you're ultimately trying to compensate for the fact that David Lynch has handed you a broken movie. And since we are accustomed to movies being things that aren't broken, but only appear to be in the interests of shocking us, we busily set ourselves to the task of fixing it. This is our habit as viewers trained by Hollywood to watch Hollywood film. But really, isn't Lynch only actually saying, "this thing is broken - I broke it on purpose". Five years later, he'd be more explicit in doing the same thing with INLAND EMPIRE, which not only breaks cinematic structure, but cinematic form,* recklessly chopping up hideous digital video footage into a frenzied slurry of anti-cinema. That film took place in Hollywood, too, which is one of the closest things Mulholland Dr. has to a tell. The other is its lynchpin scene at Club Silencio, in which sound and editing march right up and announce themselves: do you hear how a record soundtrack can lie to you, the film asks, and do you see how dissolves can be used to make you think that discontinuous motion is continuous? It is the equivalent of a magician who confidently states "I'm going to trick you now", and then does so.

The two most important developments in the plot - Betty and Rita's sexual encounter, and the unlocking of the blue box that collapses the Betty/Rita plot, by eliminating Betty completely and consuming Rita - are both preceded by moments where the film openly breaks itself, in fact. Club Silencio leads directly into the latter; the former is shortly preceded by a moment in which Rita's panic causes the film image to double and overlap itself, a rupture of reality as intense as any in the 35 years separating Mulholland Dr. from Ingmar Bergman's Persona. And then, in the cheekiest movie reference in a film saturated with them, their lovemaking is followed by a variation of the classic "Persona shot". So it's not like all this is an accident.

Like Persona, Mulholland Dr. isn't just a breakdown of the sacred rule of narrative filmmaking, that the viewer should never realise that they're watching constructed reality. It's a breakdown of form that mirrors the breakdown of personality that its plot - in whatever interpretation or lack of interpretation we want to describe that plot - depicts. The film itself is having a psychotic split from reality, in effect. Whatever that reality might be: there are at least three "realities" in Mulholland Dr., leading off with the banal, cheery reality of Betty's plotline, with the corny dialogue and campy acting that dominate it, the shiny, sparkly clothes she wears, the sexualised parody of the stock "some nobody gives a dynamo reading, is discovered and made famous" scenario, and the fact that her fucking name is "Betty". We know Lynch; we've seen Blue Velvet; we get that he likes travestying '50s tropes by exaggerating them and filling them full of rot and perversity. So the "Betty" third of Mulholland Dr. is easy to read as a joke. But it's maybe not so easy to read the "Adam" plot the same way, with its menacing lighting and quavering Angelo Badalamenti score, its terrifying dwarf puppetmaster played by Michael J. Anderson, whom Lynch employed in Twin Peaks to let us know in the most disturbing way possible that the gum we like was going to come back in style. Since we know that we're watching a Lynch film, we're ready for the darkness, the screeching horror injected into banal spaces, the migraine-inducing flickering light. And Mulholland Dr. comes along and wipes it away just like it does the corny scenes with Betty. And what does that leave us with? The plain style and grit (I gather that the new footage used to complete the pilot was on a different stock for practical reasons, but the texture of the newer material is certainly less polished than the rest, whatever the cause) of the "Diane" sequence, the "real" sequence, the "explanation". Which Mulholland Dr. also includes in its collapse of signifiers and narrative clarity near the end.

The idea behind Mulholland Dr. isn't that some movies are realer than others; it's that movies are constructs designed by liars. Ever since he smashed in a TV to kick off Twin Peaks: Fire Walk with Me, Lynch's movies have all been some kind of commentary on the unreliability of classic cinematic forms - yes, even the sedate The Straight Story, which depicts all the moments that most movies cover in a dissolve or montage, and barely cares about its nominal dramatic stakes - it's just that Mulholland Dr. is the one where he actually did it in the context of movie stars and movie-making. The film's slantwise namesake, Sunset Blvd., made waves in 1950 by reveling in the fact that the people who made movies were selfish, greedy, arrogant pricks; a half-century later, that baton had been picked up by many people in many places, but virtually nobody had ever done a better job than Lynch and his note-perfect crew of extending that bilious observation to the movies themselves, which are here supposed to be nothing but the natural extension of the broken minds involved in making them. It's there in the soundtrack, full of misleading and confused audio cues; it's there in Peter Deming's intense cinematography that's all shadows and sugary sunlight, pushing our mood in directions not determined by the script; it's there in Mary Sweeney's elusive editing, stitching together moments with the illusion of connectivity; it's there in Jack Fisk's romanticised and patently artificial production design.

In Mulholland Dr., a movie can be a comforting and optimistic lie; it can be a horrifying and upsetting lie; it can be a sad lie; it can be a confrontational lie designed to make us furious at the pretentious dick who made it just to mess with our heads. But it cannot not be a lie. That is its essential nature. And the film's beauty, its intellectually gripping complexity, its slippery and unpredictable performances, all make it a pleasure to have it lie to us, to calmly assert how much more intelligent it knows itself to be than we are.

*This is the only context in which INLAND EMPIRE can be plausibly described as "more explicit" than anything else I've ever seen.