Trip report, theories: Mulholland Dr

Hey! I watched this movie yesterday and liked it.

For people who don’t want to be spoiled, you should definitely watch it! It’s really easy to follow and it’s a lot less cynical than I expected. It comes off as kind of a moral fable — the characters make a lot of serious life-and-death decisions, and some come off as very good people.

The film also contains a lot of material that undermines that interpretation. There’s a lot of character nuance!

A lot of people seem turned off to this movie because David Lynch has a reputation for intentionally making things hard to understand, or for writing things in a pretentious way. I think that reputation is mostly undeserved. It’s definitely undeserved in the case of this movie.

Next up, the spoilers. Before reading on, if you haven’t seen the movie lately, I recommend refreshing yourself on the plot. Wikipedia has a summary.

It can be hard to figure out what actually happened in the movie based on the plot. I subscribe to the interpretation of the movie that says:

  • all scenes involving Betty or Rita are part of a dream Diane is having about Camilla
  • in order: Diane falls in love with her roommate Camilla, Camilla gets into a relationship with Adam, Diane hires a hitman to kill Camilla, has an extremely self-serving dream, wakes up, finds the key, shoots herself
  • in the dream, Diane is an idealized version of herself (Betty): Camilla is defanged and turned into an ideal friend for Diane (Rita)
  • Diane re-experiences her real-life desires to help Camilla, but, because she’s displaced all her flaws onto Rita, the secrets she discovers are hers

Based on that, here’s some details I found interesting. I’m tying some of these into theories, but some of this is just stuff I wanted to point out because I thought it was cool.

Some of these are observations I picked up reading other people’s criticism of the movie.

(I also wanna point out preemptively that I think work that uses symbolism is usually very abstract — a symbol that means only one thing is a lot less economical than a symbol that means many things which are related in a nonobvious way. That means that work which makes efficient use of symbolism tends to have multiple possible interpretations. There is likely more textual evidence than I realize for some of my theories, and some of my observations likely point to theories I have not considered.)

Diane appears to be willfully unaware that her brain is hiding something

Diane (dreaming) seems comfortable with the idea that other people might be repressing things, but not her.

The first time repression appears in the movie, it’s discussed metaphorically, from the point of view of a random guy Diane saw at Winky’s — let’s call him Fred — when she found the server’s name “Betty.” Fred had a terrible dream about a homeless person.

Fred never wants to see the homeless person again, but he can’t stop himself from exploring the place where the homeless person will be. Similarly: The movie is about a dream where Diane knows what she doesn’t want to see, but can’t stop herself from going there.

Later on: there are bad things Rita has done that Rita can’t remember. The blue box and key are Rita’s, not Betty’s. Rita appears to worry she may have killed Diane.

Betty has no awful secrets. Louise (who also looks a lot like a homeless person) can’t convince her that she does. Betty says she’s Betty, Ruth’s niece — Louise says “no you’re not.” Louise is telling the truth.

For Fred, Rita, and Betty, there’s something so terrible it can’t be seen without killing you. Fred sees the homeless guy and experiences a heart attack. Rita and Betty look in the box and disappear in turn.

Betty’s audition is a disaster

So: Betty’s audition for Woody’s movie (not Adam’s movie) goes really well! She has to let a man feel her up, which is really gross, and when he stops short of grabbing her ass, she grabs the palm of his hand and forces him to — this grosses the casting agent out, but everyone likes her performance —

— except Bob, who gives her real advice she isn’t sure how to interpret. His response is tepid. He thinks her performance was forced.

(At the end of the film we discover Bob is the real director of the movie that Adam was directing in Diane’s dream.)

The casting agent apologizes for the director and the actor and brings her to Adam, where she locks eyes with him — it’s the perfect moment, and he _would_ cast her, except for the fact that the mob and the cowboy have all told him to cast Fake Camilla.

Betty doesn’t even get to protest because she has to rush home to help Rita investigate Diane’s apartment.

I think the audition we saw in the film did not literally happen and these scenes are somehow determined by Diane’s feelings about Real Camilla, who got the role in real life.

Specifically, I think Diane is fantasizing about how it’s not her fault that she didn’t get the role, and telling herself she’s a good person despite the fact she didn’t:

  • Maybe I deserved the role, but someone else forced Adam to cast Camilla over me.
  • Maybe Camilla didn’t deserve the role: she just used sex to convince the men to cast her.
  • Maybe my audition didn’t go so well because the director failed to realize my talent. Someone could have recognized how good it was and saved me. Besides — he’s not the director. Someone else is.
  • I’m a good person because I was there for Real Camilla when she needed me, and that makes it OK that I didn’t get the role.

I think it’s easy to read Bob’s comments as representative of how her real audition went. (Not well.)

As a sidenote, I think this block of scenes is one of the most hellish sections of the movie. I think Betty’s actor plays the part admirably straight — no tears or anything.

Dream Adam has many similarities to real-life Diane

Before the dream, Diane is told that two detectives are looking for her. That makes sense, since she just took out a hit on Camilla.

Inside the dream, two mobsters are pursuing Adam. On the way to #12, Rita freaks out at a car containing two mobsters.

The cowboy tells Adam that he’ll see him only once if he does good, twice if he does bad. Diane has seen the cowboy once and sees the cowboy a second time when she wakes up.

The Cowboy’s advice is to stop dwelling on it, let Camilla get the role, and take a better attitude. This is advice that makes sense for Diane.

Diane feels she has lost Camilla to Adam. In the dream, she feels like she lost the role as Betty because she had to rush out to help Rita. Dream Adam’s wife cuckolds him.

There are people Betty can’t think mean things about

In the jitterbug sequence at the beginning of the movie, those weird old people’s faces are juxtaposed in weird ways over the footage, sometimes uncomfortably close to the camera.

They only have nice things to say — platitudes — and Betty is stiltedly formal around them.

Every time we see them, they’re smiling, even when they’re chasing and killing Diane. Sometimes (towards the beginning) the awful grin is frozen on their faces and they don’t look like they can talk.

Diane seems to feel the need to put a happy face on them, even though she fears them.

Diane doesn’t appear to want Real Camilla dead

The dream starts with Rita about to be shot. A weird coincidence happens and Rita lives. In other words, Diane just paid to have Rita shot, and the dream-hit failed.

In several places, the dream implies the hitman is incompetent. He kills three people in dumb ways while trying to make a death look like a suicide. He asks questions that imply Rita may have escaped him. (“any brunettes around?” type stuff) His friend can’t light a cigarette and they appear to smoke the end they tried to light, instead of the right end.

Her decision to shoot herself comes after seeing the blue key. The hitman claimed the blue key would mean Camilla is dead.

Diane projects a lot onto Rita

Rita: she’s a bit of a blank slate. She can’t even articulately oppose Betty when Betty decides she’s a friend of her aunt’s. There are only a few places where she has earnest wishes of her own.

Betty is pretty flawless. She’s highly competent, although she acts like she just gets her ideas from knowing what characters in a movie would do.

In real life: Diane is guilty about inheriting a large sum of money from her deceased aunt. Betty has no such guilt. However, Rita has a large sum of money and doesn’t know why.

Rita’s first action in Betty’s presence is to put herself to bed and hope that having a dream fixes it. This is (apparently) Diane’s action in real life.

In real life: Diane openly admits she’s not a very talented actress compared to Camilla. Betty is very talented, and gets the role Camilla got in real life. Rita is just her roommate and obviously not a good actress.

Rita is implied to be responsible for the death of Diane (hence the disguise) whereas we know that in real life, Diane is responsible for Camilla’s death.

(A sidenote: does anyone else get thirsty “look at how much I’ve done for her! Of course she’ll have sex with me?” vibes from the when thinking about how Betty’s behavior must feel from Diane’s perspective?)

The tape is still running

In Club Silencio, a magician explains that the sound of something can be there when the source of the sound is not. He demonstrates this with a recording of a clarinet and a trumpet.

Then he simulates an earthquake — a recording of an earthquake still shakes Betty. Then he brings on a singer, who collapses in the middle of her song, but the song still finishes.

Betty is still getting calls from Aunt Ruth. The real Aunt Ruth is already dead. Diane is getting visits from Camilla when the real Camilla should already be dead.

Trauma doesn’t seem to go away when the source of the trauma goes. It seems like Diane can get pretty shaken up by a mental recording.


  • Camilla comes off as so graceful when she escorts Diane out of the car in Diane’s version of the pre-shooting scene. The reversed chronology of the film really does it some favors — it gives us the impression that Camilla has done this before and knows where to go.
  • When Fred describes his dream, he assigns his boss the specific role of “person who is standing over there” and acts as if this is super consequential. That happens to be where the random guy was actually standing in real life when Diane saw him.
  • The sex scene from the dream comes off as intimate and close; the masturbation fantasy comes across as pornographic, and Camilla looks exhausted.

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