Dark passage

Lynch takes intriguing detour with Mulholland Drive

David Lynch ventures yet again into the wild heart of human misbehavior in Mulholland Drive. Where Lynch once gave us blue-collar sexual sadists huffing nitrous oxide and stump-teethed Vietnam vets to haunt our dreams, the specters bubbling up from his fervid, swampy subconscious now are mere Sapphos. Either Lynch has run out of scumbags to chronicle, or lesbianism is as scary to the director as schoolgirl pornography rings, ritual sexual torture and baroque decapitation-via-shotgun deaths.

Mulholland Drive is a film of wildly shifting extremes, from brooding mystery to light comedy. Lynch won a Best Director award at this year’s Cannes (split with Joel Coen) for Mulholland Drive, but the film feels less like the artistic apotheosis of his career than an interesting detour that enriches some of his signature interests. It is more significant as an enlargement of our understanding of this maverick director than an entirely satisfying film unto itself, but for any curiosity-seeker of the Lynch mystique, it is not to be missed.

Mulholland Drive begins with a gaggle of wildly jitterbugging kids bopping their socks off, and then abruptly changes tone as a limousine makes an ominously slow crawl up Mulholland Drive. As usual, composer Angelo Badalamenti’s plaintive score whispers volumes about the agonies to come. In the back of the limousine is a dark beauty who foils a murder attempt by the car’s driver and escapes into the Los Angeles night. In typical Lynch fashion, the darkness of this exotic, haunted woman, who adopts the name Rita (Laura Elena Harring), is counterbalanced by the blinding light of innocence in the form of a perpetually sunny, fledgling actress named Betty (Naomi Watts).

Betty is seen arriving in Los Angeles wearing an ear-to-ear grin that makes Sandra Dee look like a stone cold nihilist. Though Watts’ performance can often seem irritatingly saccharine, that veneer of hyper-cute, hyper-sweetness is chipped away as the film progresses, like a shiny, perfect apple that’s bitten into to reveal a mealy, bruised interior.

Enlisted to housesit her aunt’s Hollywood apartment, Betty arrives to unexpectedly find Rita already there, suffering from amnesia and packing a purse full of cash. Like an eager Nancy Drew, Betty rallies behind Rita’s attempt to uncover her true identity. Meanwhile, Lynch leaks into the plot scary hints of prostitution, a brutally corrupt movie-making industry and a swampy creature living behind a local diner. Such tangled, ancillary storylines betray Mulholland’s origin, as an abortive television pilot for ABC, which was dropped by the network and reassembled by Lynch as this feature film.

Lynch ties up the film’s various strands in a way that immediately recalls his film-within-a-film Lost Highway. Though he tends to derive his greatest horror from people lurking on the margins of “normal” society — like the monster who dwells in the weed-thick, graffiti-strewn netherland behind the Hollywood diner — it is the cheeriest, cherry-est Betty who ultimately hides the strangest secrets. Lynch’s peculiar erotic fixation, the idea he keeps coming back to again and again, is the sexual temptress and tainted woman whose face and voice and body corrupt. It’s as if Lynch were still a wide-eyed Boy Scout discovering for the first time that women are sexual and inferring that there is something nefarious and diabolically exciting about that hidden nature.

Despite its flaws, Mulholland is provocative for its assertion once again of such archetypal Lynchian fascinations. With each new film, our glimpse into this man’s haunted house psyche deepens a little more.

Lynch is repeatedly fascinated by the myth of The Wizard of Oz, where life is a strange dream populated by warped figures and forms from our ordinary, waking existence. It is when characters take detours from their normal paths — when Jeffrey Beaumont wanders into a vacant lot behind Lumberton proper in Blue Velvet, when Dorothy runs away from home in Oz, when Betty ventures out of Deep River, Ontario, into Tinseltown in Mulholland Drive — that they leave the protective cocoon of normalcy. Lynch’s entire career could be the disclaimer of a Scout’s handbook: Don’t wander from the path.??