Split Decisions: the Critics Speak

Befores and Afters

How They Learned to Drive

Mulholland Drive's love story is the perfect distillation of cinema's greatest female pairings—from Marilyn Monroe and Jane Russell in Gentlemen Prefer Blondesto Bibi Andersson and Liv Ullmann in Persona.—Melissa Anderson

As someone who didn't really like Blue Velvetthat much, I was relieved to see Lynch dispense with the Dennis Hopper/Robert Blake male-id monster figure (dropping him meaninglessly behind the trash compactor at the diner) and focusing on flawed heroines. The use of La Llorona, a Mexican folktale about a woman who murdered her children, as translated by Roy Orbison, is one of the best meditations on bicultural Los Angeles since Venice stood in for a Mexican border town in Touch of Evil. —Ed Morales

The audition scene gave Naomi her lead-performance Wattage; playing her seasoned, lecherous line-feeder was Chad Everett, star of the '70s series Medical Center. He's also the lifelong object of obsession for Ronnie Simonson, one of the five disabled adults traveling cross-country in Arthur Bradford's doc How's Your News?, which had a run at the Screening Room in October. If Mulholland was Lynch's acid valentine to Hollywood, Simonson (who has cerebral palsy and who loves everyone, according to his mother) provided a sweet, serendipitous footnote—displaying the photos the actor sent him, asking everyone he meets if they remember him, kneeling to kiss Everett's Hollywood star. Simonson proudly quotes a letter from Everett kindly calling him his "spiritual brother": It's a sunny counterpoint to Naomi and Laura's dreamy doppelgänging, for any who care to read meaning into the stars. —Ed Park

Mulholland Drive remains a fragmentary freak, overrun with clichés that Lynch has long since made his own: blond/brunette doubling, stagy non sequiturs, carnival gargoyles, crushed all-American innocence. Has he let a single film go by without tracking his camera into a small, shadowy, symbolic cavern? At this stage, Lynch's visions are hardly sui generis; the difference here is the accumulation of pathos. Sure, it's one of this dreary year's best, but let's not get carried away: For all of the movie's mirrored mysteries, both Little Otikand Pootie Tanghad a surer grip on post-Godard meta-ness. Michael Atkinson

Naomi Watts gets two mentions in the Mulholland Drive credits. Does this mean I can vote for her twice? —Mark Peranson

Betty and Rita fall in love, have sex, and go to Silencio, in roughly that order, and so the dizzying sensations that attend any besotted couple's first postcoital encounter with the outside world—stunned joy, shared secrecy, the effulgent strangeness of familiar surroundings—are reflected through the fun-house mirror of some sub-Brechtian nightmare palace. Silencio's mantra is No hay banda, and it sends Betty into convulsions: Her dream jolts her out of her dream. As the song goes, she hears a symphony; but there is no symphony. Rapture so pure, so undiscovered, must be a deception, a delusion, a trick—which is to say, only a movie. The only sound might be Betty's heart breaking; the film and the performance tear open with it.

One measure of Naomi Watts's astonishing accomplishment is the number of viewers who walk out unsure whether naive, perky Betty and abject, crazed Diane are the same person. The physical difference comes down to sallow skin and stringy hair; the confusion truly stems from the inside out. As Diane, the stars in her eyes shoot and fall, that can-do jaw juts out bitterly—her face stiffens into a scar-tissue mask of pain and betrayal. With a hunch of the shoulders and a defensive twist of the neck, the bird-boned sylph shrivels into a junkie wastrel. And yet, each woman is two women. Diane lurks in Betty, most overtly during the blindsiding audition scene (unnerving not least because, admit it, we don't know what caliber of actress Watts is up to that point, either). Flashes of Betty survive in Diane, too. En route to her own engagement party, Camilla takes Diane by the hand and fixes her with that counterfeit rapt gaze, and Diane ducks her head bashfully, smiles what she thinks is a knowing smile. For a moment, she looks like Betty after she nailed her tryout.

Camilla is leading lambs to the slaughter—the last half-hour of Mulholland Drive transpires under a white-heat L.A. glare of rage and humiliation, both embodied and suffered by Diane. She hallucinates Camilla in her kitchen, and a rash of deranged emotion swarms over her face like a vicious infection: surprise, ecstasy, hope, confusion, fear, and finally, unbearable sorrow. This scene evokes Laura Palmer at the end of Fire Walk With Me, seated in some way station of the afterlife, hysterically laughing and crying before a divine vision (though we can't hear her—more silencio). Diane's wish-fulfilling fever dream is also a version of heaven, of course. But while Laura's hereafter was assembled from Lynchian fixations (red rooms, seraphic ladies, Kyle MacLachlan), here Lynch at once indulges his borderline craven obsession with martyred blonds and amends it—he puts the doomed celestial fantasy into the hands of the fallen angel herself. In so doing, he also handed an extraordinary unknown actress the chance to deliver the performance of two lifetimes. —Jessica Winter

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