Mulholland Dr. and psychoanalytic theory: part 2 of 2

Last night, by way of procrastination and consolation, I posted the first half of an old essay of mine about the psychoanalytic functions of Lynch’s Mulholland Dr., focusing primarily on the film’s form. The concluding part deals with the content of the film. Incase you are wondering, I am maybe 20 words ahead in my dissertation-writing than I was yesterday. :S

Here’s part two:

Not only does Lynch engage with psychoanalytic theories though his use of apparatus, he also does so through the narrative of Mulholland Drive. In particular, Freud’s ideas about the structure of the mind are relevant to analysing Diane’s thoughts and behaviour throughout the film. Freud divided the mind into three operations: the id, the ego and the superego. The processes of the id are completely unconscious; it obeys the pleasure principle – the compulsion to obtain immediate gratification in whatever form it may take. The ego mediates behaviour by compromising between the id and the superego. The superego is split into the conscience and the ego-ideal; the conscience is the internalisation of the rules and restrictions of society, while the ego-ideal represents an individual’s goals and what he/she would like to be. The human mind is full of conflicts between these different urges.

Exploring Diane’s behaviour in terms of these three drives is valuable when trying to shed light on the events of the narrative trajectory. When Diane has Camilla killed, she is obeying the compulsion of the id while suppressing the demands of both the ego and the superego. Freud believed that dreams are motivated by repressed urges:

…dreams arise out of inner conflicts between unconscious desires (primarily sexual ones) and prohibitions against acting out these desires. (Tang, 2001: 2)

In this light, it is possible to read the first part of the film, the fantasy narrative, as fulfilment of Diane’s repressed ego-ideal. In this section, her alter-ego is talented and causes a sensation when she goes to her first audition. She lives in a nice apartment, as opposed to Diane’s drab bungalow.

More importantly, however, she re-envisages her whole self as the kind of person she wants to be in real life. Diane is a depressed loser whose optimism has been beaten out of her by lack of fortune. She is also effectively a murderer, and her guilt plagues her to the point of suicide. Her alter-ego, Betty, is impossibly compassionate and cheerful. The power balance in the relationship is in her favour; she drives the story and is in control of both her own fate and that of Rita. There are numerous occasions where Betty compels Rita to do things she would have been too afraid to do alone. It is Betty who suggests opening the bag to find out Rita’s real name, Betty who makes the decision to hide the money they find, Betty who persuades Rita to let her phone the police to find out about the car accident and Betty who breaks into Diane’s apartment – all to help Rita find out who she is and what is happening to her. As Martha Nochimson points out:

Her generosity towards Rita is, perhaps, not quite as altruistic as it might seem; she is also in love with the control she seems to have over her. (2004: 174)

In the Diane/Camilla narrative, the power distribution is reversed: Camilla is self-assured and in control, whereas Diane is the one who is lost and alone. Therefore, the dream is not only a fulfilment of Diane’s aspiration to be a virtuous person, but of her desire to have control over the events of her life.

In fact, the Betty/Rita section of the film contains many Freudian notions about the mechanism of dreams. In another gratification of her ego-ideal, Diane projects the guilt she feels over Camilla’s death onto other dangerous characters. According to Freud, the ego contains defence mechanisms that come into play when different drives conflict with each other. One of these defence mechanisms is projection, which involves a denial of one’s own unacceptable behaviour and a perception of these distasteful qualities in others. This would appear to make sense of a scene which had previously seemed unrelated to the story in which a man kills his friend to take possession of a book, and in doing so kills two witnesses. The death of two innocent people represents Diane’s remorse, but Diane distances the violence from herself in the dream and projects it onto the hit man. Similarly, her overwhelming and deserved feelings of guilt are displaced onto other menacing figures – most prominently Mr. Roque’s network of malicious characters that take control of Adam Kesher’s project and work together to systematically destroy his life. The Betty/Rita narrative is teeming with forces of evil that Diane uses to distance any imperfection from herself.

As well as sustaining her ego ideal and projecting her feelings of culpability, the dream functions as a way for Diane to relive her relationship with Camilla in a more rewarding way than she was ever able to in real life. The relationship between Camilla and Diane is competitive and often cruel; moreover, it ultimately ends in callous betrayal. However, in the dream, not only does Rita fall for her, but she is utterly dependant on her.

Finally, the dream also provides wish fulfilment for Diane in the form of punishment for Adam Kesher. Adam represents a direct hindrance for Diane because of his romantic connection with Camilla. Additionally, he represents the kind of lifestyle Diane cannot access – he is very successful, both professionally and personally. It is therefore understandable that Diane’s fantasy takes away his power and “forces him to succumb to various rituals of humiliation” (McGowan, 2007: 205). One by one, every pillar of his life is taken down, beginning with his job. The, he uncovers his wife’s extramarital affair and ends up being thrown out of the house with his expensive suit covered in pink paint. He has to stay in a shabby downtown hotel with paint peeling off the walls. According to Todd McGowan:

Lynch uses this setting to indicate further the depths to which Adam has fallen: he has lost everything and now he exists in the midst of urban squalor rather than the luxury of the Hollywood hills (2007: 205)

Things go from bad to worse when the hotel manager knocks his door to tell him that he is “maxed out” at his bank and his “line of credit has been cancelled”. More ominously, he warns him “whoever you’re hiding from, they know where you are”. He meets with a soft-spoken yet menacing man known as “the Cowboy”, who puts him in his place, reprimanding him about his bad attitude. After this meeting, Adam complies completely with Roque’s wishes and agrees to cast Camilla Rhodes.

McGowan sums up the function of the Adam Kesher subplot within the dream:

The fantasy transforms Adam from a figure of mastery into a victim and a pawn. It both punishes him for standing in the way of Diane’s access to Camilla Rhodes and removes him as an obstacle. (2007: 205)

It is noteworthy that the anger Diane feels towards Adam is distanced from her in the dream. This is another function of the superego – she is “trying to disown [her] aggressive impulse” (Tang, 2001: 3)

Not only does the dream articulate Diane’s urges and desires, it also reveals hidden symptoms about her fractured psyche. According to Barbera and Moller:

It is noteworthy that the structure of the dream generally echoes Diane’s state of mind, in particular her progressive fragmentation (2007: 9)

Throughout the course of the dream section, there are several bizarre, almost surreal elements which seem to disrupt the flow of an otherwise relatively coherent narrative and disturb the logic of the dream. The Club Silencio scene signifies the breakdown between fantasy and reality. Betty finds the blue box in her purse, with no explanation to how it got there. Several minutes later, she disappears completely. Rita is left to open the box by herself, and the mystery is never solved.

That these interferences occur almost entirely towards the end of the dream section is notable. On initial viewing, we are unaware of their significance, passing over them with little attention – perhaps even ascribing them to Lynch’s typically perplexing style depending on how familiar the audience is with his work. However, on repeated viewings, it becomes apparent that it is possible to read these disruptions as indicative of Diane’s disintegrating psyche, even in sleep.

Freud saw dreams as the gatekeepers of sleep; he believed that they are a function of the mind that helps keep the impulses that are threatening to wake us up from doing so. Diane’s dream begins and progresses in a way that appears to fulfil her need to make sense of her fragmented life. However, towards the end it becomes more and more nightmarish, demonstrating that the dream is not adequately containing her thoughts and emotions. Her conscious mind is aware of the reality of the situation and finds it increasingly difficult to accept the version of events presented in her dream that are constructed by her unconscious. While her dream struggles to maintain the illusion of Camilla’s presence, suppressing the anguish and guilt which threaten to wake her up, her conscious mind is all too aware of Camilla’s absence and resurfaces towards the end of the dream.

This inability to accept the suppression of her reality is supported by the shift in power between the two women towards the end. Betty/Diane’s illusion of control begins to deconstruct shortly after the two women consummate their relationship. Rita wakes up from post-coital sleep and urges Betty: “go with me somewhere”. This signifies a change in the power dynamic: it is now Rita who initiates the adventure and Betty who hesitates on account of practical matters (“It’s two o’clock in the morning”). The scene at Club Silencio which follows represents a shift towards the truth and the unravelling of Diane’s alternate reality, when she realises she cannot fool herself any longer: this is represented through the bizarre stage show which seems to be a dreamlike manifestation of Diane’s awareness that “it is an illusion”.

It is clear that looking at Mulholland Drive from a psychoanalytical perspective can bring much to light about the inner workings of the film’s narrative and even enhance our understanding of the film’s characters. It can also reveal something about the level to which David Lynch himself is conscious of the inner workings of his films:

The events depicted within Lynch’s films reflect the relationship with the spectator that these films construct. (McGowan, 2007: 25)

According to Martha Nochimson, Lynch is very much aware of the tendency of Hollywood cinema towards “creating substitutes for life” (1997: 13). In recreating within the narrative the relationship between the psychoanalytic subject and the screen and showing it to have negative consequences, he is arguably critiquing the way in which we use fantasy to escape our discontentment with our daily realities.

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  1. Pingback: Welcome! | head into the heavens

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