Lynchian Doubles: ‘Mulholland Drive’ and ‘Lost Highway’

Lynch’s two films are filled with dualities, and they double each other as well.
Mulholland Drive David Lynch
By  · Published on June 1st, 2017

David Lynch is one of the most distinctive directors in film history. His visuals, themes, narratives, and soundtracks are instantly recognizable and have been so influential on other filmmakers that the adjective “Lynchian” was coined to describe art similar in style to Lynch’s works. Each of his films is unique, yet they all feature the Lynchian hallmarks: strange, slightly stilted acting, melodramatic violence, terrifying sound design, meticulously created surreal visuals, and the dichotomy between lightness and darkness.

Two films stand out as being particularly connected: 1997’s Lost Highway and 2001’s Mulholland Drive. There are of course differences between the two films, yet they feel similar regarding content, style, and structure. The most striking similarity is how both films are split in half — partway through each film, a metaphysical breakdown occurs, characters become other people, and new stories begin. These breakdowns are not straightforward. However — the second parts are deeply connected to the first parts, with details rearranged and shifted around. The halves mirror each other in both films. In this way, Mulholland Drive and Lost Highway are strange doubles of each other as well.

Lost Highway begins with the story of Fred Madison (Bill Pullman), a jazz saxophonist, and his wife Renee (Patricia Arquette). The couple begin to find mysterious VHS tapes portraying the two of them sleeping in their home, apparently filmed by an anonymous intruder. The tapes become more and more alarming until the final tape shows the aftermath of Fred’s brutal murder of Renee. Once Fred is sent to prison, he experiences massive headaches before his physical and spiritual identity completely breaks down and he becomes Pete Dayton (Balthazar Getty). Fred’s transformation represents the splitting point between the two parts of the film — once he becomes Pete, everything shifts and the film begins to follow Pete. Patricia Arquette appears once again as the blonde Alice Wakefield, who becomes Pete’s lover. The film is haunted by the “Mystery Man” (Robert Blake), a terrifying presence who taunts both Fred and Pete throughout the film.

Lynch rearranges the characters and situations between the first and second halves of the film, utilizing different types of doubling. Fred’s double is Pete — one transforms into the other — and they are portrayed by different actors (who only vaguely physically resemble one another). Alice and Renee are portrayed by the same actress, and the film begins to break down towards the end when Pete finds a photograph with both women in it. He questions whether they are both Alice, and is incredibly confused by their identical physical appearances. Renee’s friend Andy (Michael Massee) from the beginning of the film reappears in the second half as a friend of Alice’s, whom she robs and murders. Mr. Eddy (Robert Loggia) has two identities — he is also known as Dick Laurent, whose death bookmarks the film (“Dick Laurent is dead”). There seems to be two of everything in this film, and these dualities are made even more terrifying as they are filtered through Lynch’s ominous filmmaking style.

Mulholland Drive is composed of many different stories which intertwine with one another across different time periods, all taking place in sunny Hollywood. The film opens with Betty (Naomi Watts), a bright-eyed young actress arriving in Hollywood to pursue a career in acting. She finds a strange amnesiac woman (Laura Elena Harring) in her apartment, who takes on the name Rita after seeing a poster for the Rita Hayworth movie Gilda. The women attempt to solve the mystery of Rita’s true identity, and attempt to figure out how and why she was injured in a car crash. Meanwhile film director Adam Kesher (Justin Theroux) struggles to cast his new movie, which unfortunately becomes overtaken by the mob. Much like Lost Highway, partway through the film everything becomes rearranged. Betty becomes the lonely and depressed Diane Selwyn, and Rita becomes Camilla Rhodes, a highly successful actress whom Diane is in love with. Adam remains a director, but he is thriving in the second half. Betty’s landlady Coco (Ann Miller) becomes Adam’s mother in the second half of the film, and the mysterious Cowboy (Monty Montgomery) appears briefly in both halves.

Similar to Lost Highway, there are no uniform rules for the doubles in Mulholland Drive. Names are repeated throughout the film (Diane, Betty, Rita, Camilla), and the faces that go with each name are simply rearranged. Even subtle name changes take place, such as the waitress at Winkie’s Diner who goes from being Diane to Betty. There are also repeated scenes in the film, which are only altered slightly in their different versions. The film opens with Rita sitting in a car, which stops, prompting her to note “We don’t stop here.” The drivers then pull guns on her, before the car is hit by a reckless car full of teenagers. Later in the film, Diane finds herself in a similar outfit in the same car, which also makes an unexpected stop, causing her to repeat Rita’s line. However, this scene ends in a happier manner, with Rita showing up to lead Diane through some bushes to get to her house for a party. Another repeated scene is one in which a man (Patrick Fischler) recounts a horrifying dream he had about Winkie’s Diner — he tells his story in the first half of the film, and in the second half he appears in the diner again with his friend, clearly having just recounted the same story.

Lost Highway and Mulholland Drive are connected by the similarity of their narrative structures. It can be argued that they are both “Mobius strip” narratives — ones which seemingly do not begin or end, but continue repeating over and over again. Lynch is a master of unique narrative structures, and nowhere is this more apparent than in these two films. As I previously mentioned, Lost Highway begins and ends with the line “Dick Laurent is dead.” Fred wonders about the mysterious voice on his intercom at the beginning of the film, but at the end we see that is was Fred himself who relayed the message, thus beginning the events of the film over again. This narrative structure is such that a viewer could begin the film at any place in its running time, and it would still make sense because everything cycles back around. Mulholland Drive is similar, in that Betty and Rita find Diane’s corpse in her apartment, and then at the end of the film, Diane commits suicide in the exact place where the women find her later. Although these events do not make sense by the natural laws of physics (one person in multiple places at the same time), they may sense within Lynch’s story worlds. These stories repeat over and over again, with minor details rearranged and switched around. Jim Emerson notes that Lynch’s films are not frequently described as “straightforward”, but they become easier to grasp once one begins to think of them as meditations on states of consciousness, rather than as linear narratives. These films do not have linear narratives, but upon deeper reflection are brilliantly coherent.

Author Todd McGowan writes that Lost Highway contains “images so bright we close our eyes and look away, and voices so distorted that we wish we could close our ears.” These words could easily be applied to Mulholland Drive, with its terrifying descent into Club Silencio, where people convulse in their seats and singers faint in the middle of their performances. McGowan posits a theory about the narrative split of Lost Highway, and by extension, Mulholland Drive. He writes that the two parts of each film represents a split between desire and fantasy — fantasy being a compensation for what reality cannot provide. For example, Fred is unhappy and confused with his wife Renee, but once he retreats into the fantasy world of Pete, he has Alice, a straightforward woman whose company he can enjoy. The separation between social reality and fantasy is manifested in Fred’s transformation. The same can be said of the switch between Betty and Diane, although in this case, the split is in reverse: Betty represents the fantasy, Diane is the tragic reality who cannot have what she desires (Camilla).

As McGowan notes, these films becomes so immersed in fantasy that it can be jarring or shocking for viewers. Fred retreats into the fantasy world of Pete and Alice as an escape from the horrors of his reality — his wife was cold and mysterious, and he ended up brutally murdering her. He escapes into Pete’s world, as a young, sexually active young man whose life has a lot of promise. The social reality intrudes on the fantasy towards the end of the film, when the Mystery Man reappears and Pete sees the photo of Alice and Renee. Notably, after Andy is accidentally murdered by Pete, the police find the same photo and Alice is no longer there — the fantasy is over, and Renee is all that remains.

For Diane in Mulholland Drive, it seems that she dreamed up the first half of the film where she is the bright and beautiful Betty, who must take care of the fragile, vulnerable Rita. Rita depends on Betty and the two women sweetly fall in love. After the Club Silencio scene, Rita seemingly disappears and the film switches over to Diane’s depressing reality. The lighting is dimmer, giving Diane’s house a grey look to mirror her emotional life. She looks tired and sickly, her hair unwashed and her face seemingly always on the verge of breaking down into tears. The film portrays the harsh reality that Diane was rejected by Camilla, and that Diane lives in Camilla’s shadow as an actress. Camilla also begins a romantic relationship with Adam, leaving Diane so distraught that she hires a hitman to murder Camilla. These incredibly depressing truths are hard to take in comparison to the exciting mystery of the first half — Betty and Rita team up and become companions in their search for Rita’s identity. There is a striking disconnect between them in the second half of the film.

Many of Lynch’s films could be considered neo-noirs (Twin Peaks: Fire Walk With Me, Blue Velvet), but Mulholland Drive and Lost Highway are the most polished Lynchian film noirs. They are both dark and full of mysteries, and are populated by shady characters whose motivations are unclear. Alice/Renee and Rita/Camilla are the attractive and potentially dangerous femme fatales, and the characters in both films become involved in strange criminal activities. There are hitmen, mafia men, violent murders, illicit sexual encounters, and people who will do anything for money. Of course, because these are Lynchian noirs, there are also terrifying supernatural and metaphysical elements, setting these films apart from the works of any other filmmakers. In Mulholland Drive, seemingly kind and friendly elderly people become menacing later on in the film as they chase Diane to her bedroom where she shoots herself. There is a terrifying figure that lives behind Winkie’s Diner, a man covered in dirt who causes people to faint out of fear. Lost Highway features a man who can be both at a party and at your house at the same time (“I’m there right now”). A man spontaneously becomes someone else while he sits alone in a jail cell. Photographs change from one moment to the next. Lynch updated the film noir tradition with these two films, making it more mysterious and frightening than ever before.

Of course this is just a theory, and the fantasy/reality split was not necessarily Lynch’s intention while making these films. However, this theory (as well as the Mobius strip analysis) applies to both Lost Highway and Mulholland Drive, connecting them within Lynch’s filmography. Both works feature many instances of doubling, representing a split between reality and fantasy, or perhaps a split between two different physical dimensions (or maybe a bit of both). In this way, the films also mirror each other — Jim Emerson writes that Mulholland Drive is Lost Highway in reverse, with its depressing social reality revealed at the end instead of at the beginning. The films came one after the other in Lynch’s career, and are only four years apart — perhaps they represent a particularly creative time period for Lynch. After Mulholland Drive, he went on to direct the three-hour masterwork that is Inland Empire, and at the moment his newest iteration of Twin Peaks is being revealed to the world. It is clear from this progression that David Lynch gets better and better as he gets older, experimenting further with the medium and telling deeply intense, emotional, and supernatural stories along the way.

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Actual film school graduate from Toronto. Always thinking and writing about queerness, feminism, camp, melodrama, and popular culture.