Mulholland Dr. and psychoanalytic theory: Part 1 of 2

I’ve been trying in vain for days to get my film/theology dissertation started and am feeling frustrated at my complete lack of focus, so in an effort to cheer myself up, I thought I’d post up some more previous academic writing of mine. This is the first half of an essay I wrote about three years ago analysing David Lynch’s Mulholland Dr. through the lens of psychoanalytic film theory. Not the best thing I wrote that year (sadly I wrote a great piece on Jean-Pierre Jeunet and auteur theory which I was very proud of but which has completely disappeared off the face of the planet), but I think this one got quite a high mark anyway:


David Lynch is a film practitioner who wholeheartedly engages with psychoanalytic theory throughout his work by exploring ideas of the subconscious – much of what is considered bizarre about his films is actually an articulation of the unconscious drives beneath the surfaces of his narratives. This examination of psychoanalytical ideas is particularly evident in his eighth feature, Mulholland Drive, a film that evokes Freudian ideas about the function of dreams and Christian Metz’s concepts of cinematic apparatus.

In contrast to other films by Lynch, the first part of Mulholland Drive appears relatively straightforward: a woman (Laura Harring) survives an attempt on her life and a car crash but develops amnesia. Lost and frightened, she hides in a vacant apartment, where she is discovered by the chirpy and benevolent Betty Elms (Naomi Watts). Betty helps “Rita” in her quest to discover her identity, and during this time the two fall in love. Along with a subplot about a young movie director’s unfortunate run-in with mysterious Mob types, and several other seemingly unrelated story lines, this represents the basic plot of the first two thirds of the film.

Two hours in, seemingly on the cusp of solving the mystery of Rita’s identity, the film undergoes a radical transformation and an entirely new reality transpires. Betty disappears and wakes up as dejected and lonely Diane Selwyn (Naomi Watts), a failed actress who has been abandoned by the woman she loves – Camilla Rhodes, played by Laura Harring – for successful movie director Adam Kesher (Justin Theroux). After a series of humiliations, Diane hires a hit man to kill Camilla, and later, destroyed by guilt, she commits suicide. This section, which comprises the last twenty minutes of the film, is a confusing series of flashbacks which, at first, seems impenetrable.

The most widely accepted interpretation[1] is that the first part of the film is a fantasy and the second part represents the grim reality. Diane, broken-hearted and consumed by jealousy, has Camilla murdered. She then reimagines her failed career and disastrous relationship in a dream in which she is a good and kind person who succeeds in Hollywood on sheer talent. More importantly, Camilla is reinvented as someone who loves her and is entirely dependant on her.

The film is multi-layered and invites numerous interpretations. Lynch has declined to comment on the film’s symbolism or narrative and therefore it is up to the audience to deduce or even create the film’s meaning.

The question of how and to what extent individuals play an active part in creating meaning in a film text is one which has become increasingly pertinent in recent decades, as post-structuralist scholars have attempted to understand the relationship between the subject and the cinematic process. In the late seventies, Christian Metz conceptualized subjectivity by applying psychoanalytic concepts to film and spectatorship theory.

Christian Metz’s influential theories about the psychoanalytic subject are based on the work of Jacques Lacan, who hypothesized that an individual goes through three stages of development in infancy. The first stage, the “imaginary”, is a stage in which the infant feels unity and oneness with the world and has no sense of itself as a separate being. The second is the “mirror” phase – in this stage the infant recognises itself as an individual by recognising its reflected image. The final stage is the “symbolic” – the final part of the process in which the infant emerges into the world of language and order, the world of the father. In Lacanian thought, these three processes constitute the subject.

After we outgrow the illusory first stage, we experience a longing to return to “the original illusory experience of plenitude” (Gledhill 1984: 30). According to S. Hayward:

Upon entry into the Symbolic both male and female child will feel not whole but divided…the subject will attempt to recapture itself as a unified being, the idealised image of the Imaginary. (2000: 380)

Metz applied these theories of childhood development to spectatorship theory in an attempt to understand what is so pleasurable or meaningful about the cinematic experience and why we so frequently position ourselves as spectators. He posited that the cinema theatre is one of the locations where we play out the desire to return to the “imaginary” stage.

The “mirror” experience is an individual’s first encounter with identification – the first moment where we become aware of ourselves as autonomous. This process is repeated in the cinema experience. We identify with various characters onscreen and through them we are able to fulfil certain wishes or desires.

There is an element of delusion in both the original identification with the mirror image and the subsequent identification with characters represented on screen, as in both cases the identification occurs with a mere image. This is commonly referred to as the interplay of absence and presence (Hayward, 2000: 381). The image or character is present in the mirror or onscreen – in identifying with it the individual notices and recognises him or herself and simultaneously covets the apparent unity of the image. On another level, the person represented is there for us to consume and enjoy. However, at the same time they are absent because the image is just an image and not a real person.

The absence/presence paradigm functions on two levels. The first level is identification; i.e. we see ourselves in and empathise with the characters onscreen and they allow us an arena in which to live out fantasies we may not be able to resolve in our daily lives. The second level is desire: we derive pleasure from looking at the person represented onscreen.

The functioning of absence and presence within Mulholland Drive itself is twofold: on one level, we the audience experience it as spectators. However, one another level, the Lacanian process is paralleled within the film’s narrative. Diane Selwyn experiences the interplay of absence and presence within her fantasy/dream, which comprises the first part of the film. She makes Camilla present for herself in the form of “Rita”, but at the same time Camilla is actually absent due to having rejected her in real life (as well as being dead).

Lynch uses cinematic apparatus to explore the concept of absence and presence. There is a marked difference in terms of mise-en-scène between the first part and the second. Todd McGowan notes that although the mise-en-scène in the first part “conforms on the whole to the conventions of the typical Hollywood film”:

…in the second part …the lighting becomes much darker, almost every conversation includes long and uncomfortable pauses, and the sets become drab, lacking the ubiquitous brightness of those in the first part (2007: 195)

While the contrast between the first and second parts serves as a narrative strategy to highlight the bleakness of Diane’s existence, it also has a discernible impact on how the spectator experiences the film. It has long been acknowledged that cinema “can provide subjects with a mode of enjoyment that compensates for the dissatisfactions of their daily reality” (McGowan, 2007: 21). Apparatus theory suggests that the mechanics of representation in cinema (such as cinematography and editing) construct a false identification in the spectator with the object represented onscreen. Classical Hollywood movies work to produce a cinema of fascination in which the spectator is completely unaware of the apparatus producing the image. Lynch constructs the first part of Mulholland Drive like a Classical Hollywood film – scenes are well lit, the set design is colourful and upmarket, the editing is invisible and the dialogue flows comfortably are flowing. After the film transitions from the dream section to reality, many of the trappings of Classical Hollywood cinema which made the first part so fulfilling to watch are relinquished. This may leave the viewer feeling empty and disappointed:

After Part A, which is beautiful, we’re plunged into Part B in all its drabness and dreariness. I wanted the beauty of the first part to continue, like that feeling you get when you have a really good dream, and you wake up, and you want to get back into your dream. (Jean Tang, 2001: 3)

This echoes Diane’s experience of waking up from her dream in which her fantasies are fulfilled. The audience is as frustrated with the fact that her dream has to end as she is. This sense of loss is strengthened by the narrative strategies employed by Lynch towards the end of the dream section. Shortly before Diane wakes up, her alter-ego Betty inexplicably discovers a blue box in her purse which supposedly holds the answer to all the mysteries contained within the plot thus far. Then, just as they prepare to open the box and we anticipate the resolution of the films ambiguities, the dream narrative ends abruptly, leaving many baffling loose ends. This can be a source of great dissatisfaction to an audience trained by the Hollywood narrative system to expect all plot lines to come to a neat resolution. Lynch subverts this expectation to try and create the same sense of absence and lack of enjoyment for his audience as he does for Diane.


[1] Tang, 2001; McGowan, 2007; Ruch, 2002

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3 responses

  1. Pingback: Mulholland Dr. and psychoanalytic theory: part 2 of 2 « head into the heavens

  2. Pingback: Welcome! | head into the heavens

  3. Interesting. However Rita finds the blue box in her purse filled with money, not Betty. First part could be a dream/fantasy or an after life where Camilla and Betty meet. The blue box is representing the blue key that signifies Camilla’s death. Too much to cover here but anyway interesting stuff!

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