An aspiring actress arrives in Los Angeles with her head full of dreams only to encounter a mysterious woman who can’t remember her name, a decomposing body, a strange blue key, and an insane amount of symbolism and imagery.
MULHOLLAND DR. is David Lynch’s neo-noir masterpiece. A blatant indictment of the Hollywood monster far too willing to swallow up innocence, digest what it needs, and disregard whatever is left. MULHOLLAND DR is packed with symbolism, odd characters, and seemingly disjointed plot lines.
If you’ve seen this film before and are absolutely confused by its meaning, I’ve pieced together some explanations. If you have not seen MULHOLLAND DR, then stop reading right now, and go watch it. Then come back, and see if my interpretation holds up.
Plot: A Very Brief Summation
Betty is a young girl from the small town of Deep River, Ontario who comes to Los Angeles to be a movie star after winning a jitterbug contest in her home town. Staying at her aunt’s apartment while her aunt is out of town, she encounters Rita a young girl suffering from amnesia who has just been in an accident on Mulholland Drive. Betty forms a friendship with Rita as the two work together to discover Betty’s true identity.
Two men sit at a Winkie’s Diner, a specific Winkie’s Diner, the one that a very frightened man remembers from his dream. The frightened man explains that outside this Winkie’s, behind the dumpster, is a man who is controlling all of this. His friend convinces him to go back to the dumpster and see if this man is actually there. As the frightened man walks back to the dumpster, seeing arrows telling him to turn back, he falls over in fright when a dirty homeless man emerges from behind the dumpster.
A very important word is uttered several times during this scene… Dream. The Winkie’s scene tells us that we are no longer in reality we are in a dream. However, this scene also tells us that this dream is built by our consciousness and that the worlds of the subconscious and the conscious are going to bleed together.
We have just set up the possibility that Betty and Rita exist only in a dream.
Betty and Diane/ Rita and Camilla
Betty’s aunt allows her niece to use her apartment while she is out of town working on a film. Betty is first greeted by the landlord, Coco, a lovely older woman who happily welcomes Betty to Hollywood. Inside her aunt’s apartment, Betty finds a woman naked in her shower. The woman tells her there has been an accident. The young woman is unable to remember anything else, including her name. She sees a poster for the film GILDA, staring Rita Hayworth, and assumes the name Rita.
Betty and Rita are all a construct of Diane’s dream. In the real world, Betty is Diane Selwyn and Rita is Camilla Rhodes, and they do know each other quite well as we’ll see later on.
As this is all part of Diane’s dream, Diane takes on the name of another Hollywood icon, Betty Grable. In real-real life, Betty Grable and Rita Hayworth were Hollywood rivals, just like Diane and Camilla are in real life.
Later on in the dream, Betty and Rita go to Winkie’s (the same Winkie’s) for coffee. They are served by a burned-out waitress wearing a name tag reading Diane. This sparks a memory in Rita, who believes that her real name might be Diane Selwyn. Rita and Betty call the only Diane Selwyn in the phone book, but get an answering machine message. The woman’s voice on the machine is unfamiliar to both of them. Rita believes this may be the voice of her roommate.
This is the Girl
We are taken to a meeting room where a Director (in really cool glasses) meets with two mobsters. During the meeting, one of the mobsters is given a cup of espresso which really displeases him. The other mobster shows the Director the photo of an actress and tells him that he is going to cast this girl in his film. Later on, the Director goes to a home in the Hills owned by a Cowboy who informs him that when he sees the girl in the photo audition he will say “This is the girl”. He then tells him that if he does good, he will see the Cowboy one more time. If he does bad, he will see the Cowboy two more times (this will play out later on in the film).
During this scene, Diane’s subconscious has put into play a Hollywood conspiracy that allows her to explain her failure at becoming a movie star. In her mind, it doesn’t matter how talented you are, there will always be forces in motion beyond your control who dictate everything.
The Blue Key
In the real world, Diane goes to Winkie’s where she hands a headshot of Camilla over to a Hitman and says, “This is the girl.” The Hitman then shows her a blue key and tells her when the job is done she will find this blue key.
In the dream, Betty finds a large sum of money in Rita’s purse. This large sum of money is similar to the large sum of money Diane gives to the Hitman to have Camilla killed. She also finds the blue key a symbol that Camilla is dead in real life.
The blue key becomes a symbol of Diane’s guilt over having Camilla killed.
Betty’s Incredible Audition Reveals Diane’s Dark Past
Betty gets an audition for a film called “The Sylvia North Story”, the story of a young girl molested by her father’s best friend. Just before the audition, another auditionee is mentioned, a girl with dark hair, presumably Camilla. Betty’s audition is incredible, almost too incredible. It becomes quite apparent that Diane has a dark sexual past. Furthering this is a moment before Betty and Rita have sex. Rita asks Betty if she’s ever done this before. Betty does not answer directly, but rather says, “I want to with you”. This makes us question if Diane’s past sexual encounters have all been consensual.
I’ve Told Every Little Star
After auditioning for “The Sylvia North Story”, Betty is taken to an audition for a bigger budget film. There she meets the Director. Although no words are said, it appears that the Director and Betty are connecting on a more intimate level. We almost get the impression that the Director wants to hire Betty on the spot.
This is all interrupted when a girl by the name of Camilla Rhodes, the same one the director was shown a picture of earlier, comes in to audition by lip-syncing the song “I’ve Told Every Little Star”. Under pressure from the mob, the Director says “this is the girl.” And just like that Betty’s (and Diane’s) Hollywood dreams are crushed.
After the audition, Betty and Rita go to what they believe is Rita’s apartment. It turns out to be Diane Selwyn’s apartment. Inside they find a woman’s decomposing body.
As the real world and the dream world collapse, Betty and Rita go to a strange theatrical performance at Club Silencio. This scene begins to question reality. We are told that there is no band. We are told that we can imagine anything, but that nothing is real, much like in a dream. Club Silencio is Diane’s warning that the dream is ending, a prospect that sends her into convulsions. The walls of her subconscious are being torn down by her consciousness. At the end of the scene, Betty discovers a blue box in her handbag.
After the performance, Betty and Rita go home where Betty disappears, and Rita inserts the blue key into the blue box and thus ends the dream. We then go back in time to see all the events which set this dream in motion.
The Dinner Party
Back in the real world, we are taken to a dinner party on Mulholland Drive. There we are given clues as to where Diane found the pieces of consciousness that built her dream.
We meet the real Coco. In Diane’s dream Coco is her aunt’s landlord but in reality, she is the Director’s mother. At the dinner party, Coco and Diane share a bond. Coco shows Diane true sympathy as she also exhibits a hatred towards Camilla, especially after it is announced that Camilla and her son are getting married. It’s not hard to imagine that Coco may be the financial backer who paid for Camilla’s hit. After all, she does tell Betty in the dream “If there is trouble, get rid of it”. She is also the one who hands Betty the KEY to her aunt’s apartment.
We find out that Diane and Camilla met on the set of a film called “The Sylvia North Story” to which one guests says Camilla was great in. Presumably, this was the role that launched Camilla’s career, the role that Diane believed should have been hers.
The Espresso Mobster also makes an appearance just as Diane is about to take a sip of espresso. We also see the Camilla Rhodes from Diane’s dream (“I Told Every Little Star”). Diane watches in horror as she leans down and passionately kisses the real Camilla, an obvious attempt at making Diane jealous.
We hear the Director speak in Spanish and with a Spanish accent, which we hear spoken at Club Silencio.
From this scene, we can ascertain that Diane is in love with Camilla, and that Camilla has been helping Diane find work while her own career flourishes. We also see that Camilla is tired of carrying Diane and also enjoys torturing her by flaunting her other lovers in front of her.
The Return of the Blue Key
When Diane finds the blue key in real life, she is driven insane with guilt. The job has been completed, and she cannot undo what she has done. Camilla is dead. With someone banging on the door outside and blue lights flashing through her window, quite possibly police lights, Diane lies in bed and pulls a gun from her nightstand and shoots herself in the head. It is Diane’s body that was decomposing in bed, not Camilla’s.
Diane Selwyn, Call Girl
When we return to the real world, we are back in Diane Selwyn’s apartment. The first person we see is the Cowboy. The Cowboy enters the room, sees the body in bed and says, “Hey pretty girl, time to wake up.” Realizing the girl in bed is dead, the Cowboy leaves. This is obviously a man who does not want to be caught in a compromising position with assumedly a dead prostitute and dressed in what might be a fetishists outfit. Entering her home with blatant familiarity, the Cowboy is more than likely one of Diane’s clients.
This is also the first time we see the Cowboy in the real world. We see him for a second time at the dinner party later on. “Now, you will see me one more time if you do good. You will see me two more times if you do bad.” Diane has obviously done bad.
Diane Selwyn, Already Dead
According to science the brain goes on living up to twelve minutes after the body dies. This is certainly enough time for one more dream. Then perhaps we are witnessing Diane’s final dream. Perhaps Club Silencio was Diane’s entrance into the afterlife. The dream has ended and eternity begins. This is especially poignant when we notice a very small detail right before Betty and Rita enter the club. If you look at a lamp post off to the side you’ll see a small paper flier, not unlike a concert announcement. The flier simply states “Hollywood is Hell”.
Originally conceived as a television pilot the film was left opened ended to allow for further episodes. However, after the pilot was rejected by television executives, Lynch was forced to write an ending and release MULHOLLAND DR as a film.