Points of No Return


Mulholland Drive parts the veil on a totally cracked, utterly convincing world with David Lynch its brooding demiurge. A Denny’s-like restaurant on Sunset Boulevard fronts the abyss: “I had a dream about this place,” a smug young creative type explains to someone who might be his agent, even as his nightmare begins to unfold. Crazy!

Fashioned from the ruins of a two-hour TV pilot rejected by ABC in 1999, Lynch’s erotic thriller careens from one violent non sequitur to another. The movie boldly teeters on the brink of self-parody, reveling in its own excess and resisting narrative logic. This voluptuous phantasmagoria, playing the New York Film Festival this weekend before it opens commercially on Monday, is certainly Lynch’s strongest movie since Blue Velvet and maybe Eraserhead. The very things that failed him in the bad-boy rockabilly debacle of Lost Highway—the atmosphere of free-floating menace, pointless transmigration of souls, provocatively dropped plot stitches, gimcrack alternate universes—are here brilliantly rehabilitated.

What was it that Dennis Hopper called Dean Stockwell in Blue Velvet—one suave motherfucker? From the absurd midnight automobile accident on the Los Angeles road that opens the movie and gives it its title, Mulholland Drive makes perfect (irrational) sense. Lynch’s outlandish noir feels familiar, and yet it’s continually surprising, as when a bungled assassination turns into a Rube Goldberg mechanism involving two additional victims, a vacuum cleaner, and a smoke detector, or a scene begins with an abrupt eruption of pink and turquoise and a studio rendition of the Connie Stevens chestnut “Sixteen Reasons (Why I Love You).”

The narrative, such as it is, commences when a lush brunette of mystery soon to be known as Rita (Laura Elena Harring) dodges a bullet, staggers out of her crashed car, and descends from the Hollywood Hills into the jewel-like city below to find refuge in an empty apartment. She’s suffering from amnesia, which makes her the perfect foil for the flat’s caretaker, Betty (Naomi Watts), who arrives the next morning—blond, perky, and inanely optimistic—from the Ontario town of Deep River (named perhaps for the sinister dive where Isabella Rossellini made her home in Blue Velvet). Betty is innocently avid to become a star; Rita is forced by circumstance to impersonate one. Their first meeting is a mini Hitchcock film, with the dazed brunette assigning herself a name from a handy Gilda poster.

Where did Rita’s suitcase full of money come from? What is the significance of the blue key in her pocket? There’s a definite Nancy Drew quality as the naively trusting and ever enthusiastic Betty takes it upon herself to solve the enigma of Rita’s identity: “It’ll be just like in the movies. We’ll pretend to be someone else.” Although Betty is initially a mass of cornball clichés, possibly modeled on Eva Marie Saint or Lynch himself, it unexpectedly develops that she really can act. (So, too, Naomi Watts.) Betty’s audition at Paramount, a sensational performance in a tryout worthy of Ed Wood, presents the possibility that everything she has done and will do is calculated for effect. “You look like someone else,” Betty exclaims when Rita gets a makeover to more closely resemble . . . her. Thanks in part to that new blond wig, the women get together in a scene that is not only exceptionally steamy and tender but contains what is surely the greatest amnesiac sex joke ever written.

Whatever Mulholland Drive was originally, it has become a poisonous valentine to Hollywood. (This is the most carefully crafted L.A. period film since Chinatown—except that the period is ours.) The locations are quietly fabulous; there’s a museum quality to the musty deco apartment where Betty and Rita live under the watchful eye of a showbiz landlady (Ann Miller). The cloyingly lit nocturnal landscape and splashy glamour compositions seem pure essence of 1958, as do Betty’s ingenue poses. The ominously rumbling city is malign and seductive; the movie industry, or should we say dream factory, is an obscure conspiracy. In a secondary narrative, an inexpressive, self-important young director (Justin Theroux) is compelled to endure a production meeting from hell wherein a shadowy cabal seizes control of his movie—but only so that the presence of a single, unknown actress can be dictated by an irony-resistant bogeyman called the Cowboy (Monty Montgomery, producer of Lynch’s Wild at Heart, among other credits).

Alarming as the Cowboy is, Mulholland Drive‘s most frighteningly self-reflexive scene comes when Betty and Rita attend a 2 a.m. performance—part séance, part underground art ritual—in a decrepit, near deserted old movie palace called Club Silencio. The mystery being celebrated is that of sound-image synchronization, which is to say cinema, and the illusion throws Betty into convulsions. At the show’s climax, Rebekah Del Rio sings an a cappella Spanish-language version of “Crying.” She collapses onstage, but the song continues—just like the movie. For its remaining three-quarters of an hour, Mulholland Drive turns as perverse and withholding in its narrative as anything in Buñuel. Similarly surreal is the gusto with which Lynch orchestrates his particular fetishes. In Mulholland Drive, the filmmaker has the conviction to push self-indulgence past the point of no return.

Curiouser and curiouser. From the moment Betty and Rita leave the club, the narrative begins to fissure. Mulholland Drive flows from one situation to the next, one scene seeping into another like the decomposing corpse I’ve neglected to mention that’s at the story’s center. Characters dissolve. Settings deteriorate. Situations break down and reconstitute themselves, sometimes as fantasy, sometimes as a movie—which is to say, much of what has previously happened, happens again, only differently. Love is now a performance. Rita reverts to femme fatality. The parental demons return.

Betty’s dream becomes a nightmare—or perhaps the previous story was itself only a dream. Not that it matters. Mulholland Drive is thrilling and ludicrous. The movie feels entirely instinctual. The rest is silencio.

Béla Tarr—heir to the state-subsidized vanguard of Miklós Jancsó and Andre Tarkovsky and subject of a full retro opening Friday at MOMA—is known here largely for his seven-hour magnum opus, Sátántangó, a bleakly comic allegory of social disintegration on the muddy vacuum of the central plain Hungarians call the puszta.

Recognized as a landmark from its first screenings at the 1994 Berlin Film Festival, Sátántangó is a characteristically East European tale of charismatic swindlers casting their spell on hapless peasants. Indeed, Tarr’s hypnotic film (taken from a novel by modernist Laszlo Krasznahorkai) constructs somewhat the same relationship with its viewers. A movie in which emptiness becomes amazingly rich, textured, and visceral, Sátántangó is a multiple tour de force—for the actors, as the camera circles them in the lengthy continuous takes that Tarr adapts from Jancsó, and for Tarr, who constructs his narrative out of these morose blocks of real time. The final shot, in which one character boards up his window, provides a superbly materialist fade-out.

More experiential than narrative, Sátántangó has fewer shots than the average 90-minute feature, and two hour-long chunks of it would be remarkable movies in their own right. In one, a fat, drunken doctor spies on his neighbors, runs out of booze, and is forced to make an epic trek through torrential rain to get another bottle; in another, a 10-year-old girl poisons a cat and then herself. The titular performance is a remarkable composition in repetitive ranting, drunken strutting, and befuddled dancing to the same mind-breaking musical loop. After everyone collapses, the accordionist finishes all their drinks and pukes (offscreen). Not until halfway through the movie is it apparent that much of the action is unfolding simultaneously.

Sátántangó is a masterpiece of visionary miserablism, but then Tarr originally burst on the Hungarian film scene, a 22-year-old enfant terrible, with his 1978 Family Nest—a relentless, Cassavetes-style kitchen-sink drama in which three generations of workers (non-actors all) and a blasting TV set are crammed together in a Budapest apartment. The naturalistically incessant squabbling is artfully orchestrated and shot through with a distinctive dark humor. Tarr followed up with the similarly claustrophobic prole operas, The Outsider (1981) and Prefab People (1982). His style then shifted with the stridently punk pyrotechnics of Almanac of Fall (1985), a kammerspiel that seemed at the time to be a misguidedly tarted-up version of his gritty domestic dramas. For me, Tarr’s breakthrough was the voluptuously entropic Damnation (1987), a majestic study of erotic betrayal in an industrial wasteland, which had a brief run at Anthology Film Archives in early 1990.

Damnation, a film whose rapt attention to landscape, fastidious creation of a climate, and immaculately sumptuous cinematography recalls Tarkovsky, was Tarr’s first to be written with Krasznahorkai. Paradoxically, this ongoing collaboration has allowed for the primacy of the visual in Sátántangó and Tarr’s latest, Werckmeister Harmonies—which opens the MOMA retro. I’ll review it when it begins a limited run at Anthology next week.

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