Illusion in Mulholland Drive

During a surreal sequence in David Lynch’s 2001 film Mulholland Drive, a theater host explains that the music playing on stage is “all a tape recording” and that “It is an illusion.” This scene is incredibly important to the structure of the film, because the narrative changes afterward. More significantly, however, the fact that life itself can be constructed as “an illusion” relates to ideas of the film as a whole.

We might initially assume that the line, “It is an illusion” refers to Hollywood and the film industry. Films themselves are synthetic and can often pander to unrealistic ideas. Furthermore, the film executives shown in Mulholland Drive are motivated by self-interest in an industry that Betty’s character has so much faith in. Betty believes that if she works hard as an actress, she can make it big in Hollywood. We see, however, that Adam hires a different girl purely to protect himself from the mysterious Cowboy, who warns him that he must cast Camilla Rhodes. These events show the audience that Hollywood is no meritocracy and that opportunism is what motivates its powerful leaders.

On a deeper level, “It is an illusion” perfectly describes Diane and her denial of her downward spiral as an actress. She is frustrated because she cannot make a living, and she also cannot be with who she loves. The first half of the film takes place inside of Diane’s head. Betty’s persona, which the audience takes for granted, is also a product of Diane’s imagination.

The Cowboy, who puts this second section into motion by waking Diane up from her dream, acts as a sort of omnipresent figure that transcends the boundaries of the narrative. In the same way that the Man from Another Place guides Agent Cooper in the dream sequences of Lynch’s Twin Peaks series, the Cowboy steers the characters in Mulholland Drive to align with his ideas of fate and reality. We do not know if the Cowboy’s act of forcing the casting of Camilla is the “right” thing to do. In that way, the Cowboy could represent an unjust and deterministic force of fate.

The audience is understandably surprised when the narrative shift occurs. As people, we are used to taking a film’s plotline at face value. Lynch changes the direction of the film to alert the audience that people ignore life’s reality and accept their fantasies as legitimate. In the case of Diane, the constructed reality provides her with several things she cannot have in her own life. This truth is the ultimate takeaway from Mulholland Drive. Everyone constructs their own individual realities when they are displeased with their actual existence. In everyday life, this sort of thing is not done as intensely as the far-reaching “dream life” in the film, but people might deny certain things or tell lies to themselves. These examples might not seem as harmful as Diane’s alternate existence, but Lynch is showing that denial and constantly indulging in fantasies can be a slippery slope. In the same way that we do not expect the film’s abrupt shift, we might slip into a day-to-day, constant state of denial without realizing it.

Works Cited

Lynch, David. Mulholland Drive. Universal, 2001. Film.

(Image courtesy of http://www.theguardian.com/film/2020/oct/20/mullholland-drive-lynch-arthouse)

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