Caution: This review is filled to the brim with spoilers. If you haven't seen the film yet, or don't want your own interpretation of what it all means to be coloured by my own, please skip down to the HD DVD Presentation section.
Personal interpretations are a funny thing. I recently reviewed Darren Aronofsky's The Fountain, and, despite it having profoundly moved many viewers, the only emotion it left me feeling was annoyance. A director who chooses to make a film completely open to personal interpretation takes a considerable gamble, since, if it fails to connect with the viewer on an emotional level, the standard conventions of narrative cinema are not there to be fallen back on - and all the attempts in the world to explain what it all means won't do the blindest bit of good. One reader replied to my review with a coherent and well thought out interpretation of what it was all about, but unfortunately it didn't make the blindest bit of difference to my enjoyment of the film. I suspect that the same will be true for many people who watch David Lynch's Mulholland Drive, which, like The Fountain, has been described as both incredibly moving and completely nonsensical in equal measure. As a testament to how fickle thing personal interpretations are, I find myself loving Lynch's film for almost exactly the same reasons that Aronofsky's left me cold. I can't explain or justify it, so I won't even bother.
Likewise, there's probably not a great deal of point in trying to explain Mulholland Drive's plot (if it even has such a thing). If you don't like the film, there's probably ultimately little point in attempting to provide a reason to all the madness... but I'm going to give it a go anyway.
In a sense, you can ask to what extent an explanation is even required: the film is so beautifully crafted that you can simply allow the images and sounds to wash over you without seeking a deeper meaning. Likewise, you could argue that to attempt to attribute a meaning to each and every character and scene would be to go beyond Lynch's original intentions, with many of the unexplained or seemingly nonsensical elements (such as the two diners at Twinkie's and the monster living in the alleyway, not to mention Robert Forster's detective, who only appears in a single scene) most likely to be loose ends which would have been developed in the aborted TV series (the first hour and a half, or thereabouts, are the remains of a pilot shot for ABC but eventually abandoned by the network). Still, if an explanation that attempts to tie everything together as a single cohesive entity in which every frame has a purpose is what you're after, the best, by far, is Flak Magazine's article, which is further developed in an excellent downloadable audio commentary by its writer, Andy Ross, with Sean Weitner. This doesn't attempt to be the definitive explanation as to what's going on in the film, but it certainly had the strongest influence on my own interpretation of the film (their translation of the lyrics to "Llorando" alone adds a completely new dimension to the film).
The basic idea is that the events of the first two-hour "block" of the film are a dream experienced by the protagonist, Diane Sellwyn (Naomi Watts), and that the second block represents a fractured, non-linear version of reality, albeit a reality at times filtered through Diane's eyes. This is something that I suspect most viewers will spot for themselves without too much difficulty; the relationship between fantasy and reality, however, is a little more obscure. Broadly speaking, my interpretation is this: Diane, a young Canadian, travels to Hollywood on the back of winning a jitterbug contest, full of dreams of stardom. She is turned down for the lead role of a film called The Sylvia North Story, but she befriends the woman who wins the part, Camilla Rhodes (Laura Harring), and thanks to her lands a bit part in it. The two women become lovers, but Camilla ends up leaving Diane for the film's director, Adam Kesher (Justin Theroux). Washed up and driven to despair, Diane pays for a hit to be taken out on Camilla, before retiring to bed and eventually committing suicide.
It is at this point that the dream, and the first block of the film, begins. In her dream, Diane has become the beautiful, bright-eyed Betty, who arrives in Hollywood to embark on a life of stardom and glamour. Camilla, meanwhile, splits into two personae: a brunette amnesiac who names herself Rita (Harring again), taken in by the benevolent Betty after narrowly escaping an attempt on her life (the hit taken out on her by Diane), and a vapid starlet who retains the name Camilla Rhodes (now played by Melissa George), forced on director Kesher, when the woman he really wants is Betty. Gradually, however, elements of reality begin to seep into the dream, including, in one of the film's most disturbing moments, Betty's discovery of Diane's (i.e. her own) rotting corpse. Eventually, the two women find themselves drawn to a mysterious nightclub, Silencio, where the artificial nature of the dream is blown open and Diane/Betty is sucked back into reality.
If you accept that the first section of the film is a figment of Diane's imagination - which, to be honest, isn't too difficult to do - the artificiality of its performances, dialogue and situations becomes a lot more palatable. Betty's journey to Hollywood is essentially how Diane wishes hers had been, replete with glittering smiles, adoring fans (the elderly couple whom she meets on the plane, and who come back to haunt her prior to her suicide), clichéd dialogue and auditions which bowl over all and sundry. She constructs herself not only as a remarkable talent but also as an altruist, taking the confused "Rita" under her wing and eventually romancing her, probably in much the same way that Camilla carried and seduced Diane in reality. Naomi Watts' performance here, as two distinctly different and year clearly similar characters, really does deserve more credit than it gets, and the extent of her acting ability only becomes clear when the glistening, idealistic Betty, with her movie star dialogue and perfect teeth, gives way to the strung-out, greasy-haired Diane - an empty shell of a woman who has been chewed up and spat out by the unforgiving Hollywood machine.
Everything is grander and more glamorous in the dream, not just Betty/Diane. The hitman paid by Diane to have Camilla murdered is replaced by a shady crime syndicate (while the original hitman appears as a bumbling moron who, while trying to kill one man, ends up shooting a further two people plus a vacuum cleaner), Betty now has a rich movie star aunt who has agreed to let her stay in her lavish apartment, the dream sex scene between herself and Rita is soft, shadowy and romantic, in comparison with the harshly lit and borderline violent one between Diane and Camilla in reality... and so on. Betty also uses the dream to dish out retribution to those whom she feels have wronged her: Adam Kesher becomes a bumbling buffoon who not only has his film taken away from him, but also returns home to find his wife in bed with the pool attendant (jilted in the same way that he and Camilla jilted Diane). Of particular interest is the manner in which Rita is made to feel extreme guilt over the dead body, indicating that Diane ultimately considers her responsible for driving her to suicide. However, it also serves as an exposé on the myths of Hollywood and stardom versus reality, managing to be both tragic and wry in equal measure: ultimately, it drives Diane to suicide, but Lynch also manages to have some fun along the way, with Camilla's "audition" being comprised of lip-synching to Linda Scott's performance of "I've Told Every Little Star".
Whether or not you agree with any of the interpretation, or even care what it all means, doesn't matter too much. It's an absolute masterpiece of a film, a mesmerising fever dream told by the king of fever dreams, and, for me, one of the most powerful achievements of cinema in the last decade. Whether it came about intentionally or completely by accident, it's an incredibly intoxicating cocktail of images, sounds and emotions, and one that I'm happy to call one of my favourite films ever created.
HD DVD Presentation
Mulholland Drive is presented in its original aspect ratio of 1.85:1 in this 1080p, VC1-encoded transfer. This is, for the most part, a stunningly beautiful transfer which faithfully recaptures the deliberately soft focus appearance of the source materials without resorting to "enhancing" them in any way. The grain particles, which are particularly visible in the sun-bathed day scenes, are fine enough to suggest that no unnecessary filtering has been attempted: simply put, the resolution of the disc is being used to its fullest potential. I only wish I could say the same about more high definition releases.
Unfortunately, the disc is not perfect, and the culprit is the old bugbear of noise reduction, something that has affected all of the Studio Canal titles that I've seen so far. While the grain is rendered beautifully in the daylight sequences, those that take place at night or in shadow reduce the grain to a swathe of smeared or frozen blocks. This is an incredibly distracting effect and one that really hampers the enjoyment of these scenes.
Oh, and in case you're wondering, as with the standard definition release, Laura Harring's crotch is still optically blurred in That Shot (you know the one I mean). That said, if your display is properly calibrated, it shouldn't be particularly visible either way.
Two audio tracks are provided: the original English in DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1, and a French DTS Hi-Resolution 5.1 dub. With a lack of DTS-HD equipped audio decoders at the moment, these specifications are currently fairly academic, since viewers will simply hear a legacy 1.5 Mbps stream, but even this offers as substantial upgrade over the standard definition Region 1 release's 768 Kbps DTS track (and even more so for those who previously owned the UK release, which was a Dolby Digital affair only). It's a strong track with some really powerful bass - so powerful, in places, that I ended up getting some distortion in my speakers (the climactic sequence, in which the elderly couple attack Diane, being a case in point). The dialogue is also perfectly clear at all times, although some light distortion in the high frequencies (listen carefully to the "s" sounds in Betty's conversation with the old woman outside the airport near the start), also present on the Dolby Digital track on the UK DVD, is still there (not having heard the audio on the US DVD, I have no idea if it was similarly affected).
Unfortunately, this is yet another disc from Studio Canal that is blighted by the infamous "pitch glitch" that has affected a number of their titles so far. To briefly explain, affected titles, despite playing back at the proper speed (24 fps), feature audio tracks that have been sourced from sped-up (25 fps) masters. Therefore, while the audio has been slowed back down to remain in sync with the video, the pitch has been left too high. I checked this by playing the "I've Told Every Little Star" number on the HD DVD side by side with the soundtrack CD, and the pitch difference was as clear as night and day. I personally do not consider silly mistakes such as this to be acceptable in the high definition world (it's more of a moot point in standard definition, where all film-sourced material runs too fast for PAL releases, and it's up to the distributor to choose whether or not to correct the pitch to compensate), so I have deducted marks from the audio score accordingly.
The only subtitles provided are French, but luckily they can be disabled, provided you set the default language to English by selecting the small arrow at the bottom left of the main menu. (If you have previously played any other Studio Canal titles in your player and selected English as the default language, then you won't need to follow this step, as the player will automatically remember your preferences from before thanks to the magic of cookies.)
As per usual with Studio Canal's HD DVD releases, the only included extra is a promo reel for various high definition releases from the studio. I had hoped that, with a new 2-disc special edition DVD recently released in the UK, at least some of its content would be replicated on the HD DVD, but it seems that this was nothing more than wishful thinking. There are, however, a frankly ridiculous 55 chapter stops, which, with no chapter menu, can only be accessed manually by hitting the Next Chapter button or keying in the number. Perhaps this is to make up for the DVD release, which featured no chapter stops at all.
Mulholland Drive arrives on HD DVD in a predictably no-frills package from Studio Canal, who seem to view high definition content and bonus features as an either-or situation. While the transfer is in many respects very strong, it is let down by overzealous noise reduction, and the audio pitch problem is yet another silly error that could easily have been avoided. A US release has been rumoured at some point in the next year, so it may be worth waiting to see if Universal is able to provide a better package.