A love story in the city of dreams . . . Blonde Betty Elms (Naomi Watts) has only just arrived in Hollywood to become a movie star when she meets an enigmatic brunette with amnesia (Laura Harring). Meanwhile, as the two set off to solve the second woman’s identity, filmmaker Adam Kesher (Justin Theroux) runs into ominous trouble while casting his latest project. David Lynch's seductive and scary vision of Los Angeles's dream factory is one of the true masterpieces of the new millennium, a tale of love, jealousy, and revenge like no other.
"This is the girl."
After a three successive box office flops and nearly a decade spent relegated back to the fringes of the film scene, director David Lynch ('The Elephant Man', 'Blue Velvet') returned to prominence in 2001 with a new movie that netted him a Best Director trophy at Cannes, an Academy Award nomination for the same title (his third), and a level of both critical and popular respect that he hadn't experienced since the heyday of 'Twin Peaks'. The word "masterpiece" gets tossed around a lot in reference to 'Mulholland Drive'. Personally, I find it a very uneven, problematic work that grasps for (and occasionally reaches) greatness, but also shows clear signs of the artistic decline that the filmmaker would soon plunge into.
Admittedly, part of the problem may be my own cognitive inability to separate what the film is from what it almost was, or how it came into being. 'Mulholland Drive' started life as the pilot episode for what was originally to be a new primetime TV series. Even though his last feature, 'The Straight Story', had been a financial failure, key players at parent company Disney were impressed enough by it (and by the fact that noted iconoclast David Lynch could produce a mainstream-friendly movie within the studio environment) that they invited him to work with the ABC network again. Despite his lingering feelings of resentment over the cancelation of both 'Twin Peaks' and his sitcom 'On the Air', and perhaps against his better judgment, Lynch allowed himself to be lured back by promises that the corporate culture had changed in the intervening years, and that he would be allowed greater artistic leeway this time around.
Inspired by the possibilities of developing another long-form narrative, the director shot a two-hour pilot (a little over 90 minutes without commercials) about a naïve Hollywood starlet named Betty Elms (Naomi Watts) who meets an amnesiac brunette calling herself Rita (Laura Harring) and stumbles into a bizarre 'Nancy Drew'-meets-'Blue Velvet' psychosexual mystery in the City of Dreams. The story was part classic film noir, part behind-the-scenes showbiz satire, and entirely infused with Lynch's signature style and thematic preoccupations. Like most of his works, the episode had a multi-layered, twisty storyline peppered with quirky characters and surreal touches. It was extremely promising, and could have grown into a fascinating television drama.
Needless to say, the network hated it. Absolutely hated it.
As soon as Lynch screened the pilot, the programming executives immediately pulled the plug and canceled all plans for future episodes. Officially, their rationale was that the program was "too violent" for television. (Mind you, this was the same network that aired the envelope-pushing 'NYPD Blue' at the time.) Industry buzz claimed that the show was actually just too weird and the folks at ABC didn't understand it, which seems like a much more likely explanation. In any case, the network held onto 'Mulholland Drive' for a while and toyed with the idea of radically re-editing it behind Lynch's back (and against his objections) to air as a TV movie of the week. Eventually, even those plans fell through, and the whole project fell into limbo.
This experience left a very sour taste in David Lynch's mouth. Displeased at his shoddy treatment, the filmmaker fought to regain the rights to his project, a goal that he accomplished about a year later. With new funding from European backers, Lynch reassembled critical members of the cast and shot an additional hour of footage to wrap up his TV episode as a self-contained feature film.
Structurally, the first 96 minutes of 'Mulholland Drive' are essentially that original TV pilot episode with only minimal tweaks. A strange Jitterbug dancing montage has been tacked onto the beginning as a prologue, the opening credit text was replaced with a new font (the old version was better), the previously-deleted Winkie's Diner sequence (which appeared in the script and was presumably shot during the original production) has been reinstated, and several other minor bits and pieces have been shuffled around. Otherwise, the first act of the movie is pretty much what was intended to air on television.
The precise juncture where the TV pilot ends and the new footage begins is extremely easy to identify, almost hilariously so. It's punctuated, at literally the very moment when the TV-safe footage runs out, by an explicit sex scene that obviously couldn't air on network television. From that point forward, the movie is propelled into decidedly R-rated territory, and the narrative seemingly breaks down into an increasingly surreal series of scenes that radically deconstruct and reinterpret everything that we'd seen earlier.
In its way, this is an ingenious solution. Because the TV episode was never intended for a quick resolution, and has many characters and plot threads still at the very beginning of their arcs, Lynch decided that there was no point in attempting to tie up all of his loose ends. Instead, he simply yanked the rug out from under the whole thing. If 'Mulholland Drive' feels like two completely different movies that have been slammed together, that's exactly what it is. For new viewers unfamiliar with the director's previous works, this can be something of a mind-blower.
Lynch's existing fans should be less surprised, especially any who've seen his 'Lost Highway', from which most of the last hour of 'Mulholland Drive' is recycled. The director has grafted the prominent themes and stylistic devices from that earlier movie onto this one, and spells them out using the exact same symbolism and cinematic language. If anything, the puzzle pieces are almost too simple to assemble this time. For as seemingly weird as the movie gets, all of its plot points eventually fall neatly into place, and Lynch even takes great pains to spell them out. 'Mulholland Drive' is by far the easiest of the director's "difficult" films. It plays like 'David Lynch for Beginners'.
'Mulholland Drive' is also a very sloppy production, perhaps Lynch's most chaotic and unfocused since 'Wild at Heart'. It could stand to lose at least a half-hour or more off its beginning. It's filled with scenes and characters from the TV pilot that go nowhere and could easily be cut. Robert Forster's police detective was originally intended to be a recurring character and had two scenes in the pilot, but has here been reduced to a single non sequitur cameo. Why is he still in the movie? I find myself asking that about a lot of things in the film. I'm sure that Lynch may have planned for these storylines to better interact and play out over a season or more of television, but as the film stands, they don't lead to anything and serve no purpose. In fact, some of these scenes (including almost the entirety of the storyline involving Justin Theroux's movie director character) contradict the film's ultimate revelation. How could these events happen if a certain character never sees or knows about them? Major plot holes like this could be fixed with some judicious trimming, but Lynch was apparently too attached to the material to let it go.
Keep in mind that I say all this as a longtime Lynch fan whose opinion is very possibly colored by having far too much inside information about the film's production. If I didn't know its history, or if I hadn't previously read the original script and seen the TV pilot version, would I still feel that the director had merely reached into an old bag of tricks to throw something together for the new ending? I can't answer that question.
'Mulholland Drive' is one of David Lynch's most acclaimed and successful films. Clearly, a great many people have been able to connect with it more than I have. Even if it may be a less disciplined work than something like 'Lost Highway' (which I personally consider a stronger effort), it's also much more accessible and less alienating in tone. Indeed, one of the movie's greatest strengths is the way that it lures viewers in with the largely conventional storytelling in its first half, before it spins off into wild insanity in the second half. Unlike the chilly and intellectual 'Lost Highway', 'Mulholland Drive' has sympathetic characters and a strong emotional payoff. Naomi Watts, a relative unknown at the time, also delivers a stunningly complex performance that quickly and deservedly shot her into stardom.
More so than almost any other filmmaker, David Lynch is able to create startling images that indelibly burn into a viewer's subconscious. 'Mulholland Drive' has a number of such scenes. Betty's mesmerizing movie audition, for example, manages to outdo the Bobby Peru scene in 'Wild at Heart' for sheer creepiness and dark eroticism, something that I thought would never be topped. The later "Llorando" sequence is both achingly beautiful and has devastating emotional power. In those, and many other striking moments that transcend the boundaries of conventional filmmaking, 'Mulholland Drive' demonstrates more ambition and genuine vision than most directors are able to conjure in an entire career. That's enough achievement to celebrate, regardless of any other perceived flaws.
The North American distribution rights for Mulholland Drive are currently owned by Universal Studios, which released the film on DVD back in 2002 but showed no interest in issuing it on Blu-ray until now. After a long delay, the studio finally agreed to license the title to the Criterion Collection. On the heels of 'Eraserhead', this marks Criterion's second collaboration with David Lynch.
The Blu-ray arrives as Criterion spine #779. Even though it only contains a single disc and a booklet, the title comes packaged in an elaborate fold-out digipak within a slipcover case. The disc itself has a very simple menu with no setup options and no Scenes Selection menu. Unfortunately, since the dawn of DVD, David Lynch has expounded his hatred for chapter stops on video discs. He feels that a film is "a continuum" that must be watched from beginning to end every time. The DVD of 'Mulholland Drive' had no chapter stops at his insistence, and neither does the Criterion Blu-ray.
In other parts of the world, the rights to 'Mulholland Drive' are held by Studio Canal, which previously released it on Blu-ray through several distributors in Europe, Australia and Asia. I reviewed the UK Blu-ray edition in late 2012.
The Criterion Blu-ray for 'Mulholland Drive' is sourced from a new 4k film scan supervised by director David Lynch and cinematographer Peter Deming. Despite this, my initial impression was that it looks hardly any different at all from the older import Blu-ray. Although there wasn't necessarily anything terribly wrong with the import, I perhaps set my expectations unreasonably high for Criterion's effort. While indeed different in a few respects, any improvements turn out to be very subtle.
It's worth noting that the majority of 'Mulholland Drive' was originally shot for television on a limited budget. Its photography has always looked a little cheap and hazy in comparison to some of Lynch's other films. Fortunately, it was composed with 16:9 HD broadcasts in mind, so the framing translates well enough to the 1.85:1 theatrical aspect ratio that has been preserved on this disc.
Once you get past the opening Jitterbug sequence, which looks terrible and may even have been upconverted from standard definition video before printing on film, the rest of Criterion's 1080p/AVC MPEG-4 transfer exhibits a respectable amount of clarity and detail most of the time. Colors are rich and precise, and the contrast range extends from inky blacks to blinding whites. It's possible that the contrast may be a little too hot, but I'm not prepared to judge whether that's an error or a deliberate stylistic decision.
The image is fairly grainy. While Criterion is to be commended for preserving the natural film grain without trying to smear it away with Digital Noise Reduction or other artificial tampering, the encoding quality of the Blu-ray leaves something to be desired. The grain often comes across as noisy and sometimes obtrusive.
In comparison to the older import disc, the Criterion transfer has marginally crisper details and slightly warmer colors. The tradeoff to this, unfortunately, is that the image is decidedly noisier. To my eye, grain in the import transfer looks more natural and filmic and less distracting. In all, I'd rate the two discs about equally. In terms of video quality, viewers who live in Region B territories are not missing out on much if they can't acquire this copy.
Fans of the movie may recall the minor controversy about "censorship" that erupted when it was first released on DVD. During her nude scene at the 99-minute mark, Laura Harring's crotch area was digitally obscured to block out her pubic region. (This carried through to the Studio Canal Blu-rays as well.) However, the scene in question was already cloaked in heavy shadows, and the effect was not visible at normal playback calibration levels. It only became an issue when certain horny viewers freeze-framed on the shot and cranked up their TVs' Brightness settings to ridiculous solar-flare levels.
In the interest of thoroughness, I made a point to check this. In what will no doubt be a great relief to perverts everywhere, the optical blurring has been removed from the new video transfer. To their inevitable dismay, they will be greatly disheartened to discover that the shot is so oppressively dark that it's not possible to see anything between the actress' legs anyway. It turns out that the blurring was never needed in the first place, and this remains a non-issue under normal viewing conditions.
'Mulholland Drive' is officially the film where David Lynch decided that he was done with surround sound. Although technically encoded as 5.1 channels, the DTS-HD Master Audio soundtrack has little to no rear channel activity. Instead, it has very wide swings in dynamic range. The Jitterbug prologue is bold, brassy and very loud. The next scene transitions from whispered dialogue to a huge slamming car crash in an instant.
Idiosyncrasies about the surround channels aside, Lynch is obsessive about the sound design in his movies and layers all of his tracks with subtle, weird sound effects and ambient noises. The Criterion Blu-ray exhibits very good clarity in these details during most scenes. Angelo Badalmenti's haunting score sounds rich, with strong instrument separation.
The fidelity of the "Sixteen Reasons" and "Llorando" musical sequences are particular standouts. Both have startlingly clear and piercing vocals. The sound mix is a little murky in some other scenes, but I suspect that has more to do with the original production than a disc transfer problem.
Universal's DVD edition of 'Mulholland Drive' from 2002 contained only a theatrical trailer for bonus material. Criterion's Blu-ray (and comparable DVD) add a fair amount of new content. However, because Lynch forbids any discussion or analysis of his symbolism and the meaning of his films, what we're mostly left with is a love-fest in which the actors reminisce about how great it was to work with each other and the director.
Even as a David Lynch fan, something about 'Mulholland Drive' holds me back from wholly embracing the movie, mainly a feeling of redundancy to some of the director's earlier works that I prefer. Nevertheless, it's a good film with a handful of incredible scenes that rank among some of his best.
Criterion's Blu-ray edition has been a long time coming. The disc has nice picture and sound that should satisfy most fans. While I might wish for more substance from the supplemental features, what we get is reasonably interesting. I'm not sure if this can really be called the definitive edition of 'Mulholland Drive', but it's the closest we've ever seen or likely will see for a long time.
[Note: Although many published sources, including Criterion's disc packaging and the excerpt from the Chris Rodley book, insist on spelling the movie's title as 'Mulholland Dr.', the film's official title as written in the copyright notice during the end credits is 'Mulholland Drive'. Personally, I think that 'Mulholland Dr.' looks stupid and I inevitably read it as 'Mulholland Doctor'. I refuse to write it that way.]
Portions of this review also appear in our coverage of Dunkirk on Blu-ray. This post features unique Vital Disc Stats, Video, and Final Thoughts sections.