Visual dramaturgy in MULHOLLAND DRIVE – by Christine Lang (update 2016)

This text is a revised version of a lecture held at the 7th Screenwriting Research Conference at the Filmuniversität Babelsberg KONRAD WOLF in Oct 2014.

I will only be delving into a few aspects of a longer text about David Lynch’s MULHOLLAND DRIVE (2001) that I am currently working on in my dissertation on “aesthetic viewing”.

Although a great deal has been written about MULHOLLAND DRIVE, I find most of the theories about the film to be unsatisfactory from an analytical standpoint. I have the feeling that most of the texts are mainly interpretations that are filtered through the lens of a particular discipline such as gender studies or psychoanalytically oriented film theory. Most of the texts try to get the meaning of the film by describing the first part of it as a protagonist´s dream, but I missed a deeper understanding of how the film is told, about it’s narrative strategies. So I think it would be useful to take a step backward  and to look at MULHOLLAND DRIVE in a comprehensive and very concrete fashion, and to analyze the film’s dramaturgical and aesthetic strategies. In other words, I propose to analyze MULHOLLAND DRIVE in terms of the manner in which it is constructed and  in which it creates complex narrative meanings. In reflecting on this, it occurred to me that key chains of events of the film’s narrative have yet to be described.

Postmodern Cinema

MULHOLLAND DRIVE is an example of contemporary postmodern cinema, which explores the impossibility of differentiating between imagination and reality. (This occurs in a similar form in films  as Aranofsky’s BLACK SWAN and to a lesser degree in Scorcese’s SHUTTER ISLAND, both of which were released in 2010.) Postmodern cinema is highly self-reflexive, in that the act of perceiving the film itself becomes a theme and a structuring element of the narrative. In this regard, MULHOLLAND DRIVE is probably one of the films that has the greatest kinship with film theory, in that psychoanalytic film theory serves not only as a starting point for the film, but is also explicitly spelled out in the film’s visual metaphors, as well as in the concrete realms of its narrative and action. When you watch MULHOLLAND DRIVE, you have no choice but to try to piece together the film’s metaphors, which (in the visual metaphor in fig 1) are reminiscent of a shattered window pane, David Lynch is hightlighting in an early sequence.

Aesthetic Viewing


Fig. 1 – it is a fragmented narrative

MULHOLLAND DRIVE is an inviting and engaging film – a film from which, I feel, one can learn aesthetic viewing, in the sense of Michael Bachtin’s term “aesthetic activity” – but in this case from the viewer’s perspective. In this regard, Lynch, invites the viewers to embark on their own proactive journey of discovery of the narrative’s various layers of reality. Lynch has underscored this approach to the movie by encouraging viewers to decipher the film, publishing ten tasks for an understanding of the film. But it should also be noted that he formulated the task questions so adroitly that they would not necessarily lead to further solutions to the film’s mysteries.


Fig. 2 – Cues play a key role

The fact that the film provides the viewer with cues and the key to understanding the film’s narrative puzzle – and that it is in fact possible for the viewer to figure out the narrative’s actual chain of events, despite their being a background element – is indicated by the blue key, which is incorporated into the film’s action and thus becomes a cinematic self-reflexive object. Once the blue key makes the characters Betty and Rita realize that that they are in fact purely imaginary figures, they have to disappear (I get back to this later). Moreover, once the viewer has understood what the key to the film actually is, the concealed dual encoding of all elements of the film’s narrative can be deciphered and understood. This involves a strict color coded dramaturgy, which goes as follows: blue represents “reality”, “truth”, and the viewer’s understanding. To this end, Lynch depicts (as we see here) the blue-haired female spectator at the Club Silencio as a “thoughtful spectator” (to use Laura Mulvey’s term); and as an “emancipated spectator” (to use Jacques Ranciere’s term), whom Lynch invites to try to decode his film. Red represents the imagination.

So once the viewer has found the key to the film, he or she needs to see it again. On second viewing, the film is completely different, and the viewer realizes that all the necessary cues were there from the outset. In this regard, from a dramaturgical standpoint MULHOLLAND DRIVE constitutes a postmodern analytical drama containing a mystery, or puzzle, that needs to be solved. In terms of the film’s explicit narrative layer, the question arises: Who exactly is the brunette? And in terms of the second layer, the question arises: What exactly is being narrated here?

Allegorical Narration

Lynch, who studied painting, refers to the narrative methods of painting, and his cinematic language is inspired by the pictorial language of painting. The following picture, I will show now, contains elements – that go a long way toward understanding and deciphering the film.

MH one person

Fig. 3: Betty and Rita are one and the same person

MH tweo faces one person

Picasso: Portrait of a sitting woman, 1960 / Bergman: Persona, 1966 –  overlapping faces as representation of a shifting identity

Hence the sex scene the filmstill is from depicts a narcissistic self-love (which also explains the subsequent scene in the second half of the film where Betty has a sexual fantasy about Rita that turns out to be a masturbation scene). Hence the film’s protagonist has been split into two characters – this is explicitly shown in numerous scenes and moments, one example being when Betty and Rita decide to phone Rita’s house to find out Rita’s true identity, and Rita says: “Strange to be calling yourself.” But that’s not all, the protagonist is split not only in two but in three facets of one and the same character.

Now I’d like to briefly describe what is the causal and logical context of the film, – which becomes readily apparent through multiple viewings – of the system of characters that is a background structure in the film: Diane is the actress on the reality level who lives in a blue apartment, while Betty is Diane’s idealized version of herself, Bettys Phantasma, with her pink cardigan and blow-dried hair; “Drinking coffee like a real movie star”. Rita, the brunette, is the film role embodied by Diane & Betty – a stunning woman whose makeup is always perfect – because she is not real, she is a dream figure in the film world. (She is the one the male director is falling in love to: he loves the role he has created, not the women behind the role…) Later on, when the actress playing the role changes – as Betty got fired and Camilla gets in – this brunette`s name then becomes Camilla, the name of the one who “is playing her”, playing the role. The moment the role left the movie she is in, she got a headache and has no name and no identity any more. The fact that Betty and Rita are two facets of the same character is clearly indicated a number of times, including in the scene where Betty and Rita first meet:

Fig. 4

Betty finds the stranger’s clothing on the bed. She then goes into the bathroom, but is distracted by a mirror in which she’s depicted in an unrealistically beautiful head shot, and gasps in delight. What is being depicted here the moment at which a character no longer sees reality, which Jacques Lacan calls “Je suis un autre” or, “I am an other” and which recounts the splitting of the subject. Betty no longer seeing reality leads to yet another instance of not seeing reality – namely the encounter with the nameless woman taking a shower. This encounter, which is depicted in an unusual fashion, occurs via a mirror. The sight lines are not established by means of a spatial montage; plus there is no ambient sound that the camera would be able to follow into the shower. The encounter is thus depicted as a purely unreal and imaginary event.

Fig. 5

Fig. 5

The film repeatedly conveys, in a visually direct dramaturgical fashion, that Rita is a character who has, in a sense, split off from Diane. For example, in a later scene (see left), Diane briefly fantasizes her ideal beautiful partner, only to realize that it’s only herself she’s seeing opposite her (in a reverse shot), in all of the sadness of reality.

From a narrative standpoint, this now gives rise to the simple and astonishing chain of events that ensues: The film’s layer of reality does not occur until late in the film, and is only recounted briefly – namely the story of Diana in her apartment at the Bonita Apartments, and her conversation in the diner with the contract killer. So the following chain of real events emerges from this narrative layer: an actress falls in love with her role/character in a film. She is then deprived of this role. Enraged with jealousy, she hires a contract killer to murder this role.

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Fig. 6: Diane in the process of hiring the contract killer

And exactly how does one go about murdering a role? By write out the character by murder for example.

The agent, who is in a sense the guard of the character and the role (and who, here, is depicted as a character who works in the shadow of capital, i.e. for the film’s financial backer and producers… see fig.8) – In this moment the agent is still able to have a good laugh, along with his later killer, about a car accident. This brings to mind a scene from earlier in the film: the young partiers in the film-within-a-film scenery:

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Fig. 7: This motif of the smoke (second from right) is a direct visual index to the car accident

We see them coming  around a curve, illuminating with the harsh blue – “light of the incalculably real”, so to speak – the face of the character in the film. This light is an indicies that the character in the scene is catapulted out of the filmic imagination – which means that this character can be omitted from the film, and thus in a sense: jump out of the film within a film. This latter event – the female character jumping out of her film – is the actual accident in the film (not the car accident in the film-in-film scenery…) This accident results from two untoward events that occur when the contract killer assassinates the agent. First, the killing goes wrong via a chain of comedic events that result in not one, but three corpses – and a shot-up vacuum cleaner.

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Fig. 8: Death of an agent

When the contract killer murders the agent, an untoward event occurs, which is depicted in a comic fashion, culminating in a short circuit and a vacuum cleaner being shot up. But the most striking feature here is a strand of hair on the agent’s head that bizarrely sticks out and that has a drop of blood on its tip – which Lynch depicts as a symbol of an creative force and ability to care for his characters that even a murder can’t stop. The untoward events that occur during the contract killing result in the character being ejected from the film. She roams about, homeless, and her unconscious leads her to the apartment of Betty, the actress, whom she has previously been portrayed by.

I only discuss a few aspects of such narrative details here, but they occur in every single scene of the film, and are given meaning by the system underlying the narrative, a system that is maintained in each scene and narrative element of the film. In MULHOLLAND DRIVE, each narrative layer corresponds to the standpoint of a version of a character, and there are three versions, or aspects, for each character. Hence narrative layer number one corresponds to character-version or aspect number one, and so forth: The Diane layer is the reality layer; The Betty layer is the imaginary; The Rita layer is the film within a film, the one in which the movie character (the brunette) is the a role which is played by the actress Betty (and later Camilla). This system is based on the idea, that a “star” “consists of three personalities: the star, the actor and the actual person” (John Belton), but also it is based on a free-association transposition to Lacan’s structural model, which distinguishes between reality, the imaginary and the symbolic.


Fig. 9 – the real, imaginary, symbolic

These layers are made discernible in each instance, and are flagged scenographically and via color coding.

I have to add: in his capacity as a “metaphysician”, Lynch has added a fourth layer, which can be called the “control room” and which constitutes the puppeteer pulling the strings in the symbolic and the fictional realms, as well as in the psyches, of the various characters. In an early sequence of the film, the four layers are concretely depicted: A message is conveyed, by phone, via four layers. The topmost part of the hierarchy is occupied by the control room, which issues commands, is the highest instance in the symbolic realm, and calls up the producers/financiers who are implemented in the filmic realm, and who relay the message – and phone the film’s set. An illuminating hand (looking like a hand of a lightning electrician…) picks up a vintage telephone that is cinematically lit, and then makes a call – to the film itself (which is denoted by a red lamp) – a film which, however, is inaccessible to the film’s character, whose absence we cannot help but notice. Hence this character in the film is missing.


Fig. 10 – four narrative levels

This sequence recounts that the untoward event – namely the hiring of a contract killer – stems from the control room, which orders that everything be “shut down”. It is this command that brings the making of the film to a halt, that allows the character of Rita to be killed off, and that paves the way for Betty to hire a contract killer. Thus the murder is not actually Betty’s fault – she is, in Freud’s words, “not the master in her own house” – but is instead the fault of the “great other,” of whose existence Betty’s conscious mind is unaware, but of which her unconscious is surely aware. So the man in the diner with whom Betty makes eye contact when she hires the contract killer is to some extent an object of interest, or perhaps even desire, for Betty. As an allegorical figure, he embodies Betty’s conscience – which, ignored as it is here, will need to seek the help of a therapist later on. Because the film’s narrative unfolds recoursively rather than chronologically, the scene in which the man returns to the diner is not readily understandable without seeing the film more than once. Unlike Diane, this dormant conscience is aware that someone is sitting behind the wall who is actually responsible for the “whole thing”. The fact that David Lynch is depicting a kind of  female sludge monster here could easily form the subject of a separate paper…

…to be continued.

Christine Lang, Oct 2014 / Feb 2015 

Thanks Michael Wedel for the hint to “Persona”


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