What exactly does psychoanalysis have to do with the emotions movies transmit? Emotion, which comes from the Latin motus or movement, is the somatic expression of a feeling that the emotus, or moved subject manifests. In the words of Alexander Kluge, cinema is “immortal and older than filmic art. It’s based on the fact that we share, publicly, something that has moved us within.” The object that drives psychoanalysis is the same as the one that drives cinema: the emotions that film evokes, rooted in desire, love, sexuality, and death, are also the scope of psychoanalysis. Movies – as stories told not only in words but also in images and everything else that goes into making a film – are perhaps the most modern form of myth. Philosophers often use mithos, which we can translate as narration, as an alternative form of reasoning to logos, or abstract reasoning, simply because it makes it easier to explain something. In similar fashion, the psychoanalyst approaches a film – not to interpret it but, on the contrary, to shed light on a specific point of psychoanalytical doctrine. Movies draw our emotions in, they can surprise and upset us. They often lead us into a special realm: das Unheimliche, the uncanny. The uncanny is one of the names of anxiety, which, according to Lacan, is the only feeling that doesn’t lie because it brings us closer to the object causing our desire.
This is the case of Mulholland Drive, a film made in 2001, in which, David Lynch takes us behind the scenes of the Hollywood film industry, to show us what doesn’t work in the star system, to show us the holes in his perfect images. Anyone who sees this film for the first time either rejects it completely or doesn’t really understand anything but remains fascinated all the same. Mulholland Drive grew out of the pilot for a television series that was never made. Lynch mixed-up the scenes and added the last thirty minutes. It’s interesting to ask why he did what he did. What he did was this: he took a story to a key point and then repeated and transformed it. The main characters, Betty and Rita, are doubled and they take on new names, Diane and Camilla. The same thing happens for the rest of the cast. All of the situations, locations, and names are repeated and reframed. Lynch uses the same strategy that new technologies have given users: in simple terms, they can zap, they can intervene in the film’s linear sequence stopping it and repeating whatever they want, whenever they want.
The viewer, as Laura Mulvey, the prominent theorist of Feminist Film Theory, has demonstrated, can manipulate and destroy the classic fluidity and movement of film. “Slowed-down film” doesn’t just control narration, it allows the viewer to possess the image of the star and to enjoy it as never before. They can make a fetish out of it. By zapping backwards and forwards, they can emphasize the character’s mechanical automaton effect in which there’s an uneasy mix of life and death. The viewer commands the star, somewhat like a puppet, bringing out the inanimate nature of the human figure in film. The viewer’s act is uncanny because it reveals the absence of the object on which film is based, something we usually ignore. In Mulholland Drive Lynch himself takes on this role. He uses this very same mechanism, translating into images what the viewer’s manipulation reveals: the stars’ automaton character. He uses this technique to show the making of a star: the medium can’t be separated from the chosen subject.
The main character in Mulholland Drive is Diane Selwyn. She arrives in Hollywood from Deep River, Ontario, with the aspiration of becoming a great film star. But things don’t go exactly as planned. Diane tries to cast for the main role in Bob Brooker’s film Sylvia North Story, but she doesn’t make a good impression on the director, who gives the part to Camilla Rhodes. The story moves on: the two women become friends and lovers, and Camilla helps Diane get some small parts. Diane’s project, however, the dream that brought her to Hollywood, has failed. She’s deprived of the identity of the actress she wanted to be but manages to recover it by loving Camilla and identifying herself with her, someone who has what she has lost. Camilla, however, spoils the show. She decides to leave Diane and she does so brutally, inviting her to a party where she announces her engagement to the director Adam Kesher. She even seems to enjoy watching Diane tell her sad story to Adam’s mother. The dinner takes place at a house on Mulholland Drive, a road that winds up the hills over Los Angeles, a road on which it’s impossible to know what lies behind every curve and the thick vegetation that hides the stars’ homes.
Diane arrived at the party in a limousine. In this uncanny place after which the film is named, Diane loses everything: she no longer knows who she is, or why she’s in Los Angeles. The only thing she wants to do is to get back at Camilla by hiring someone to kill her. The hate she feels for Camilla, who has had the power to reduce her to nothing, sets off a delirium and leads her to act out. Her dream of being an actress has become a nightmare and she herself a murderer, who has hired someone to kill her lover.
I started telling you the plot of this film from the ending, which retroactively, explains the rest of the film, making it comprehensible. Once Diane has committed herself to this irreparable crime, her loss is even more desperate: she is destroyed by the pain of having had what was most dear to her killed. Her victim was her own exteriorized ideal self. By killing her, she has killed herself and there is no relief. Diane wants to go back in time, to when she was just a girl who wanted to become a film star; she wants to bring Camilla back to life. Could there be any better way to do this than to fall asleep and dream? Diane’s dream is not only a dream to contradict reality, it’s a way to rebuild herself as a subject.
The film begins with a dream in which Diane has taken on the name of Betty. Betty is a radiant young girl who has just won a contest in jitterbug, the dance represented at the beginning of the film by the silhouettes moving against the violet background. Immediately after the jitterbug scene, the camera zeroes in on a pink pillow and you can hear someone breathing very hard. The camera then seems to penetrate the pillow and fall into a dark hole. Diane’s dream begins.
In Diane’s dream Camilla is not really dead. She’s been in a terrible accident in which she has lost her memory, an accident that took place in the very same Mulholland Drive where Diane was traumatized by Camilla’s engagement announcement and lost everything. This Camilla looks like a broken doll. In respect to what we said about the automaton, the body of the woman who has escaped from the burning car is characterized by automaticism. She looks like a marionette attached to invisible wires, a sort of remote-controlled Barbie with uncombed hair. She walks in high heels unsure of her steps through the foliage descending toward the immense metropolis of Los Angeles. Diane finds her hidden in her aunt’s house and rescues her.
Betty arrives in Hollywood completely projected toward the future. The elderly couple Betty seems to have met on the plane has some resemblance to Queen Elizabeth and her husband Philip. In the ping-pong of cross-references between objects, people and things, Lynch seems to be alluding to the drama of another Diane, who had died a few years earlier. By the end of the film, the elderly couple sitting in the taxi with disquieting smiles will actually become terrifying.
The film citations of Sunset Boulevard (the name on the street sign) and Psycho (Betty finds Camilla in the shower) reflect Betty and Diane’s folly. Betty asks the unexpected guest in the shower her name, but the woman doesn’t know how to answer her question. She’s lost her memory and takes her identity on from the other. She’s like a child who, seeing themselves reflected in the mirror for the first time, identifies with the figure in the mirror. This is a basic concept of self-identification, as explained in Lacan’s famous stage of the mirror. What we actually see in the film is a woman in front of a mirror that reflects Rita Hayworth’s image in the film Gilda. Immediately after, she says her name is Rita: Camilla has identified herself with the film diva.
As Clotilde Leguil wrote in her analysis of the film, Gilda represents the myth par excellence of the femme fatale. But behind the figure of Gilda, there’s Rita Hayworth, who, at the end of her life, suffered from Altzheimer’s and clearly didn’t remember having played Gilda. The dream moves quickly from myth to reality, from Gilda to the aging Rita Hayworth, struck by amnesia, and rejected by the Hollywood studios. The woman who had been in the accident confides in Betty that she’s lost her memory: “I don’t know who I am.”
The dream doesn’t only make Diane’s wish to find what she has lost in reality come true, it also puts her on the road to the discovery of her own true subjectivity. The way in which the film is edited creates images that take on a value of subjective truth by creating images that are undecidable. What I mean by undecidable is that you can’t tell if they’re true or false. Here too, according to the philosopher Giorgio Agamben’s analysis of the filmmaker Guy Debord, it is repetition that restores the possibility of what was. It makes it possible to open once again “a zone of undecidability between the real and the possible, while the arrest of the image takes it out of a narrative context”. These two editing techniques – repetition and arrest – transform the image into a zone of undecidability between what is true and what is false. It’s a method through which Lynch develops a poetics of mystery. The images in Mulholland Drive are undecidable, they’re an enigma, like the image of love that so captures and fascinates us. It’s through the mysteries of love that Diane Selwyn leads us to question to the society of the spectacle in which everything is quantifiable in dollars and cents, where anyone who’s no longer productive or sellable is immediately rejected.
Coming back to the scene we were analyzing, the poster for the film starring Hayworth reads: “There never was a woman like Gilda.” So Camilla wasn’t Gilda because the superstar doesn’t exist, and what Diane killed, the woman who had left her and betrayed her love for the love of a man, wasn’t a superstar either. In Diane’s dream, the love between a man and a woman always fails, as it does, for example, in the scene in which Adam Kesher’s wife throws him out of the house. In parentheses, Diane has already gotten back at Adam Kesher in an earlier scene in her dream in which he loses control of his film to the Castigliani brothers, members of the Mafia, who want to give the role to Camilla Rhodes!
In the casting scene with Bob Brooker the actor who is Betty’s partner insists on playing out the scene oppressively close. In the same sequence the director gives the actors enigmatic orders: “It’s not a contest. Don’t act like it’s real until it becomes real.” As Clotilde Leguil has sayd, these orders take on meaning in reference to love and not to film. After the first casting in which Diane gave her all and wasn’t chosen, she gave up loving men and fell in love with Camilla. But love isn’t a contest between women to capture a man’s attention. And it’s never a good idea to give your all when your pretending to love in film, but to save your love for real life. The desire that wasn’t satisfied in real life, that of being seen, of being admired, and of being chosen by a man is realized in the dream. This time, however, the casting with Bob Brooker takes a different turn. Diane manages to catch Adam’s eye on the set, and then she leaves. She leaves the men to meet up with Rita and seek the secret of femininity in the love between two women, by becoming Camilla’s lover. But the death drive is even stronger than the desire to love and be loved. The dream produces the repetition of the trauma.
Diane accompanies Rita to what is assumed to be her old address, the address of Diane Selwyn. This name had come to Rita, when she saw the name Diane on the waitress’s badge at Winkie’s. Once they find the telephone number in the white pages, Diane calls, but Camilla doesn’t recognize the voice on the answering machine as her own. In fact, it’s not, it’s voice of Diane, Camilla Rhode’s assassin. What is Diane looking for? At the beginning of the dream, she’s trying to capture a man’s attention, a Pygmalion that will turn her into a great star like Gilda, so she leaves Rita to go to the casting. Later on, however, she leaves the set to go back to Rita. Behind Gilda there’s Rita, who, for her, represents the answer to femininity, the famous question to which Freud was unable to respond: What does a woman want?
In the making of a star, the veils fall off one after the other: behind Gilda there’s Rita Hayworth, behind Hayworth, the Rita who’s lost her memory, all the way to Diane Selwyn. The question shifts from the identity of a woman to that of Diane. Who is Diane Selwyn? Breaking into Diane’s house, Betty and Rita find the answer: Diane is a putrefying cadaver. In this horrific scene, Diane finds the representation of her own death. This will actually be the ineluctable epilogue of the story because, on the day in which Diane gave the hired killer Camilla Rhode’s photo, she signed her own death sentence.
This real scene, which takes place at Winkie’s, corresponds to the scene in the dream in which Rita and Betty are at Winkie’s and the waitress is wearing the badge with the name Diane. Here, however, the waitress’s badge says Betty. In the analysis of the film, we left Betty and Diane in the moment in which they had discovered Diane’s cadaver. How can you escape from something so awful? As Jacques Lacan affirmed: Beauty is the last veil on Death. The dream uses beauty in its sublime aspect, erotic ecstasy between two women to cover that horror. The dream contrasts the doomed-to-fail relationship between a man and a woman with the successful relationship between two women.
If the scopic drive is always connected to movies, here especially the beauty of the images fascinates and motivates us in watching the film. The beauty of this film is created by the beauty of the actresses, who solicit the viewers’ voyeuristic drive in scenes of Sapphic erotism. The film’s beauty, however, is not harmonious. On the contrary, it disturbs us. We’re captured by the images and, at the same time, suspended in the question the characters love to repeat: “What’s happening?” The director uses beauty to screen the uncanny, which veils and unveils, arousing compassion or uneasiness or even anguish.
The dream isn’t finished yet. The dream of the two women is interrupted by Rita’s nightmare in which she murmurs mysterious words: “Silencio, silencio, no hay banda, no hay orchestra.” Rita remembers a club called Silencio, and they decide to go there. This very last part of the dream answers Diane’s question on the enigma of love. At Silencio a host repeats the same Sibylline words Rita had murmured: “no hay banda, no hay orchestra.” With Clotilde Leguil, we can interpret these words as follows: there’s no way to orchestrate love, there’s no such thing as perfect harmony, neither between a man and a woman, nor between two women. The search for an object of desire ends in silence, in the absence of any concrete object. The phrase “no hay banda” is repeated in every language because the finality of that search is always the same in every language: Diane’s object of desire, the object Diane doesn’t have, is the object that is lacking in everyone. Love’s music is a question of chance, it can’t be programmed, it isn’t orchestrated in any way. When she understands this, Betty starts to shake violently: where Betty-Diane thought she would find something, there isn’t anything. The secret of love she thought was possessed by Camilla – her chosen beloved – doesn’t exist. That secret, like the idea of a love in which two make one, doesn’t exist.
At this point, Rebekah Del Rio enters the scene singing the melancholy song Llorando por tu amor. Listening to the song, the two women start to cry, united by emotion. Notice Rita’s blond wig, which makes her look like Betty, accenting the idea of the fusion between two like beings. But what are the two women really crying about, if not the death of Diane Selwyn, the woman who believed in the music of love, in love’s harmonic version for orchestra? The singer falls down on stage, but her voice continues singing completely detached from her body. Rebekah has fallen, as semblances do, revealing the object-voice. This is a Lacanian notion. The voice isn’t the voice we normally listen to but a voice that is detached from its site of emission, as happens, for example, in audio hallucinations. In the film the club Silencio is the twisting point in which this strange object without substance appears. The object without substance is at the heart of being, it’s an object that is different from all the other countless objects disseminated throughout the film.
To avoid awakening to anguish, Diane has to devise a ploy. Betty finds a blue box in her bag, it’s the same blue as the key Rita had found in her bag after the accident. The key is triangular and fits directly into the triangular slot of the blue box. Diane continues believe that there is a secret to love and is convinced that Rita has the key. The two women return home and, when Rita takes the key that is supposed to unlock the secret out of her bag, Betty runs away again to avoid becoming, once again, Diane Selwyn. When Rita, who has remained alone, opens the box everything goes black. Now Diane can wake up from her dream to enter the nightmare her life has become.
Diane wakes up with her head on the same pink pillow on which, like Alice falling into the well, the dream had begun. The cowboy that’s knocking on her door is still a character from her dream. He’s the one who made an appointment to meet Adam Kesher at the corral, where he constrains him by threat to hire Camilla Rhodes. The woman we see from behind, lying in bed in a black slip, is Camilla and then the dead Camilla with dark bruises on her skin. In the scene just before Diane is in the same position in a cream-colored slip. In reality Diane has been awakened by her neighbor knocking on the door, bringing her back to the squalor of her apartment. The blue key lying on the table is the sign the killer has left to say the job’s been done. In reality it’s the key of death, as opposed to the key that – in her dream – was to have revealed the secret of love. Diane hallucinates Camilla’s presence: “Camilla, you’ve come back.” In her bathrobe, she climbs over the couch with a cup of coffee in her hand, and we find her lying on the couch with Camilla in a pair of shorts, the cup of coffee now a glass of whiskey. Diane has come back in the moment in which Camilla left her. Back in reality Diane will have no other choice but to make her exit with a pistol shot, victim of her own belief in absolute love.
The elderly couple who, all smiles, had wished Diane good luck when she arrived in Los Angeles have become silhouettes that slide under her apartment door, getting bigger and bigger, chasing after her and threatening her, pushing her to suicide. They came out of the blue box, which had ended up in the middle of the trash and had been picked up by the monster with a brown face. It is the same monster that we saw at the beginning of the film, the one described by the man who had made an appointment with his psychoanalyst at Winkie’s to tell him about his monster nightmare. This opening scene turns the relationship between dream and reality upside-down with respect to what happens to Diane. The man tells his analyst about the dream, and the monster appears in reality alluding to the nightmare Diane’s life has become, veiled by the dream we’re watching.
Coming back to the elderly couple, they incarnate the persecutory image of parents. This image objectifies Diane and leads her to throw herself away, to make herself a throw-away. She’s just another piece of trash among the many in the film, the flip-side of the countless objects represented. This trash alludes to the throw-away destiny of consumer goods and of the subject itself in a world ruled by money, which is equally present in the wads of dollars that fill Rita’s bag at the beginning of the film and those with which Diane will pay the killer.
In conclusion, there’s no recipe for love, which can only grow out of lack and its acceptance. Every one of us can try to make this impossibility exist through our own unique words. In this attempt, you could say, everyone fails in their own way, in respect to the possibility of capturing love, making it exist beyond contingence. But unlike Diane, it’s a matter of failing in a good way with an invention that takes the place of this impossibility.
Translated with Marlene Klein