Every now and again, a film comes along that absolutely dazzles in its sensory ambiguity. Efficacy in this vein, whether it is in a mystery, a thriller, or a horror piece, really lies in effectively blurring the lines of what is real and what is illusion for the viewer, and never truly resolving that tension: creating an unrelenting ambiguity that gnaws at the senses and gives the viewer a taste of what it is like to truly flirt with insanity.

David Lynch's Mulholland Dr. (2001), for all its layers and attempted interpretations, is at its core, a tour de force of this kind of psychopomp, in a film noir / psychological thriller dress (this kind of story lives very well in noir). As the Club Silencio emcee says in his scene that is really a view of sensory ambiguity as art: "'No hay banda!' 'There is no band!' Yet we hear a band."

"No hay banda!" "There is no band!" Club Silencio sequence. This is also where Diane's dream begins to unravel: notice Naomi Watts' body quake in the scene.


Lynch's brilliance, however, is not just in creating ambiguity effectively. Lynch's brilliance lies very much in HOW he created in. It lies in the trappings of the story that ultimately create the ambiguity.

It first needs to be said that until Lynch himself outlines unequivocally what the movie means that there cannot be one interpretation of the film that will automatically reign above all (as some "critics" , in their hubris on the web, like to proclaim: I will not name names there, you will know these types of critics by the tone of their reviews. Still, there are good analyses out there too. Here is a piece from the British Film Institute on the Vedanta inspired spirituality that could be seen in Mulholland Dr. Here are Lynch's Ten Clues to Unlocking the Thriller. Last, here is a Youtube analysis that is more in line with the points I make here). Lynch will probably never give such an interpretation, as it directly contradicts his views on art: he believes so strongly in not giving this kind of interpretative aid to his pieces that he does not even include chapter breaks on the DVD and Blu-Ray releases of his films, so as to not disrupt his intended continuity in viewing a piece.

Still, I believe it helpful to take a more overarching view of what the film means. Not proclaiming my views as gospel, as some reviewers do, but merely to have a defensible way of viewing what is indeed a very bizarre story, sharing what I think makes sense as a view of the story without believing for a moment that my hypothesis is the monopoly on truth for it, if such a monopoly even exists in the mind of an artist as complicated and utterly nuanced as David Lynch. Indeed, one would likely be lost in viewing such a dizzying piece as Mulholland Dr. without at least a position on what the film actually means.

The scene where Diane's dream fully collapses.


The core of Mulholland Dr., the central driver of its ambiguity, in my view can be found in a psychoanalytic look at the piece. We have the entire first section of the film, basically up until the blue key is inserted in the blue box, which essentially plays as Betty / Diane's (Naomi Watts) dream sequence. We get a myriad of clues that point to this as a literal dream in the post-dream sequence, happening more or less after the blue key in blue box scene until the film ends.

Naomi Watts as Betty (the ingenue character) in the dream sequence. Notice the makeup and warm color palette which all add to the feeling and idea of innocence here.


It is in the post-dream sequence that we see most of the film's characters re-enter the stage, yet as different people. Probably the most prolific of these character switches is Betty's switch to Diane, and Rita's switch to Camilla. This is significant because in the dream Betty is on a promising career track as an actress, and the amnesiac Rita (Laura Harring) is the "woman in trouble" (yet another archetype that runs through much of Lynch's work, see Blue Velvet (1986), Twin Peaks (1990-1991, 2017), and Inland Empire (2006) as further examples), this dynamic, of course, gets turned on its head in the post-dream sequence, to earth shattering results.

Naomi Watts as her real self, Diane in the post-dream sequence. Notice the cooler color palette and lack of makeup that all adds to the feeling of foreboding in the reality she's in. This is quite the contrast from the Betty character of the dream reality.


We further see in this sequence, a variety of plot points which are couched in some of the finer academic and practical points of psychoanalysis. We see, for instance, classic compensation on the part of Diane's psyche when she, in essence, confabulates herself with her lover Camilla in the dream. This is also a manifestation of basic wish fulfillment, when she dreams herself as having the decent career trajectory and Camilla as being the "woman in trouble", when in the real world these roles are reversed. This is also Diane's subconscious wish to bring Camilla down after being spurned by her in the real world.

We also see the essential randomness of dream logic when we are finally privy (in the post-dream sequence) to seeing how Diane's mind came across and mentally picked up the myriad of names and characters that got switched around in her dream. Getting a glimpse into her thought processes there also can be analyzed in terms of her subconscious associations with the various characters.

Laura Harring as Rita in the dream sequence. Notice the restrained color palette of blacks and reds on her in this shot. This balances out the brightness surrounding Betty and could be seen as a harbinger of things to come.


Laura Harring as Camilla Rhodes in the post-dream sequence with Justin Theroux as Adam Kesher, really the only character who does not go through a role/identity change between the dream and post-dream sequences. Notice the soft lighting and dress on Camilla to accentuate her success and relative innocence in light of what Diane is about to do with her in the story.


Probably the most explicit Camilla connection. Here we have Laura Harring as the real Camilla Rhodes (in the post-dream sequence) kissing Melissa George who plays an unnamed character here in the post-dream sequence yet who also plays Camilla Rhodes in the dream sequence.


An early clue to the confabulation of characters and dual identities. Rita (Laura Harring) is made to look like Betty in the dream as an overt statement of Betty's subconscious wish to both have her career and bring her down after she was spurned by Camilla in real life. This can also be seen as a nod to Kim Novak's dual characters in Hitchcock's Vertigo (1958) via the infamous "Hitchcock icy blonde" archetype.


Monty Montgomery as "The Cowboy" in the dream sequence. The Cowboy is the only other character who does not recognizably change between the two sequences. He could be seen in terms of Jungian psychological theory as Diane's "animus" or the more stereotypically male part of her personality because of the advice he gives during the dream sequence which acts as a set of clues to unlocking it.


As in all studies of the human mind, this is essentially a study of what is plausible ambiguity, taken in light of what we know about how the mind works. It is this ambiguity that gives Mulholland Dr. its enduring mystery and power. Indeed, everyone who watches it will bring something with them in viewing the ambiguity. Truly, all the interpretations of the film will be right: for the person. The beauty of the ambiguity of Mulholland Dr. endures.

Wess Haubrich is a photographer and writer. You can find more of his work over here. This article originally appeared on Cinapse.