How can one interpret the narrative chronology of “Mulholland Drive”?


Audiences have spent years trying to piece together the mysteries of Mulholland Drive (2001), David Lynch’s classic piece of surrealist cinema. It’s a film with broken chronology, which weaves in and out of the real world and a dream. Making sense of what is true, what is dreamt, and what is a manifestation of both can be daunting. Though this analysis may not be exact (it’s possible only David Lynch knows without question the meaning of Mulholland Drive), it is the greatest agreed-upon understanding of what the film is about as far as Lynch intended:

Diane Selwyn (Naomi Watts) is the true subject of the film, and she’s undergoing a mental breakdown. She’s suicidal and depressed after having fallen in love with a fellow starlet named Camilla Rhodes (Laura Elena Harring), only to be turned away by that woman for the comfort of a male director, Adam Kesher (Justin Theroux). Angry and vengeful, she hires a hit man to kill Camilla. After it’s done, the weight of what she did becomes too much for her.

The first ¾ of the film are a dream Diane is having, exploring her memories and coagulating various bits of her life into other faces and situations. It draws primarily on things that did happen to her, but changes people and names and weaves her memories into a more optimistic series of events. Time is spent on minor people who were present at certain moments (such the girl auditioning for Kesher’s musical) which speak to the odd nature of dreams. The dream glamorizes her relationship with Camilla, makes bad things happen to Kesher, and occasionally manifests the realities of what happened as complex emotional exhibitions, like the man behind Winkie’s, or her experience at Club Silencio where she realizes she’s in a dream. The last quarter of the film is set after Diane wakes up, and she consciously flashes back to the events that led up to the murder, and her facing the grim reality of her life.

Diane’s mind is a conflicted emotional mess. The fantasy/dream segments of the film help explain the emotions that led to Diane being so devastated by Camila’s actions, while the “real” life ending shows how things actually played out. And other scenes throughout her dream state, like the man behind Winkie’s, are the by-product of remembering certain people at certain moments that got embedded into the dream (i.e. She was at Winkie’s when she paid the hit man, and the fellow in the dream sequence was in the restaurant at the time.)
Thus, the plot summary goes something like this:

  • Years ago, Diane won a Jitterbug contest in Canada. This was a catalyst that encouraged her to move to Los Angeles and attempt to become a star. She moved into her dead Aunt Ruth’s house.
  • Diane auditions for The Sylvia North Story, a film starring Camilla Rhodes. The two start a relationship. The two share a residence. Camilla is the bigger star of the two, and may be “pimping” Diane out to various Hollywood bigshots for better parts.
  • Camilla ends things with Diane to be engaged to Adam Kesher, a director on her next film where Diane has a small role. Diane evicts her from the house.
  • The limo ride up Mulholland Drive takes place, where Camilla meets her in the woods and they walk to Kesher’s house. She meets Kesher’s mother Coco (Ann MIller).
  • Diane meets the hitman at Winkie’s and pays for the hit, then goes into hiding for a few days.
  • Diane goes into depression, falls asleep, and starts the dream sequence of the first ¾ of the film.
  • She wakes up one day to find the blue key on her coffee table, signaling the hit took place. She sits on the couch for a while and remembers some things, told through flashbacks.
  • As someone pounds on her door, presumably the police, she realizes she’s been found out and kills herself.
  • Silencio.

Everything (save for flashbacks) takes place within Diane’s apartment, over the course of about 24 hours. Mysterious components of the story, such as the blue key and box, are little more than symbols representing the different emotions in her mind.

There are, of course, other theories for the film’s sequence of events. David Lynch offered ten clues to unlocking the film’s mysteries, most of which translate to a chronology that correlates with the above and provide deeper context hinted during the dream sequence. But the power of a Lynch film lies in the personal experience and take of each person who sees it.