Dream Layer: Interpreting David Lynch’s Masterpiece ‘Mulholland Drive’

Posted: May 18, 2011 in Week #16

Poster designed by Matt Needle

“This is a movie to surrender yourself to. If you require logic, see something else. Mulholland Drive works directly on the emotions, like music. Individual scenes play well by themselves, as they do in dreams, but they don’t connect in a way that makes sense—again, like dreams. The way you know the movie is over is that it ends. And then you tell a friend, ‘I saw the weirdest movie last night.’ Just like you tell them you had the weirdest dream.”

– Roger Ebert [source]

Back in 2001, as a young lad fresh out of high school, I had a weekly ritual, usually taking place on Thursday nights, where I would scour through newspapers and magazines, rummaging through all the new movie releases to find a movie to see that coming weekend. I normally had my hands on local South Bay (LA) publications like the Daily Breeze and the Press Telegram, but on this particular September Thursday afternoon I had an unexplainable urge to get my hands on a copy of the LA Times. That’s where I saw for the first time, in the weekend section, the ad for Mulholland Drive. I had seen Lynch’s previous film, Lost Highway, when I was 16, and literally had worn out the soundtrack until it was unplayable in my CD player, so the thought of seeing his new film thrilled me. At the time, I was watching up to three films a night, learning the mise en scene of classic directors and contemporary filmmakers who had been inspired by them. As an aspiring filmmaker myself, my eyes were like a sponge, absorbing everything on screen. So on a chilly October night, my best friend and I got in the car and headed to a small movie house in Manhattan Beach. We had no idea our lives would change that night. David Lynch’s Mulholland Drive had engraved itself onto my soul and from that day on, I would refer to the film as my all-time favorite. It even inspired the choice of film as my major in college.

If you have seen the film, you’ll know that upon first screening, it is almost completely indescribable, even incomprehensible. Although at first I was unable to understand the plot, every second of the film was like pouring a shot of liquid ecstasy on my eyes. Within a week, I had seen the film three times at the theater, each time making more attempts at analyzing the film’s narrative. I had eventually come to the conclusion that the film was about a dream, a surrealist nightmare, seen through the eyes of a woman who had made a desperate attempt to become a Hollywood actress. With the help of the ‘net, I soon became obsessed with reading people’s interpretations of the film, and with the help of others’ analyses, I would come to love the film even more.

For anyone who hasn’t seen the film or still questions what the film is about, I have aggregated the best interpretations to help better understand David Lynch’s surreal masterpiece. I call this curated article Dream Layer because the more you peel back, the deeper the dream becomes.

After you’ve screened the film, I first recommend reading through the time line created by one of my most trusted online movie sources, themoviegoer.com. It neatly explains when and where the film’s main character Diane ends her reality, and enters her dream. Notice that he starts the time line about two hours into the film.

Actual time line of events:

1 – Diane at the dinner:
While the movie time line starts with Camilla/Rita’s Mulholhand Drive sequence, the actual reality time line starts with Dianes ride down Mulholland Drive, to dinner (even though its seen as a flashback.)
The characters there will later be incorporated into the paranoid fantasy of her dream:
The director talking about the pool man, becomes the director in her dream, also with Diane’s idea of the pool man.
The fat man who who doesn’t like his coffee becomes the gangster who doesn’t like his espresso.
Coco, the director’s mother, becomes her landlady.
The cowboy-hat guy becomes the cowboy-hat Hollywood power figure.
The girl who kisses Camilla becomes the “Camilla Rhodes” in the dream part.
And of course, Camilla, her ex-lover who becomes the dependent, loving person Diane wants her to be, “Rita.”

2 – Diane at Winkie’s:
After the humiliation at dinner, Diane decides to kill Camilla. At Winkie’s, we meet the hitman she hires. He remains the hitman (and becomes a pimp) in her dream, although an amusingly incompetent one.
The scary man in the background of this scene becomes the man with scary dreams in the dream-Winkie’s scene.
Diane’s fear (acknowledging the reality of the murder) is projected into her dream as the man’s fear, the scary bum’s face. We later see the connection, as it is this dream-bum who holds the box.
The single stack of dirty money is dreamed as clean, neat multiple stacks.
The plain blue key, that opens nothing but represents the murder, becomes futuristic looking, and now represents the “key” to opening the repressed reality of the murder she is responsible for, hidden in the blue box.
The waitress at the diner becomes the prostitute.
The waitress’s name, Betty, is the name Diane takes in her dream persona.

3 – Diane at home:
The first scene of the movie (after the opening dance sequence) is filmed as Diane’s head landing on a pillow. We later learn that she already has the blue key, and knows the murder has taken place. At some point after that is the unseen moment that she began her downward spiral into fantasy, falls asleep, and dreams.

4 – Diane’s dream/fantasy:
The first 2/3 of the movie-
It begins with Camilla/Rita escaping the hit Diane had just, in reality, taken out on her. “From there, Diane, a product of Hollywood, imagines the story in cinematic fashion: She sees herself as the naive wannabe starlet Betty, who succeeds on sheer talent and solves whatever problems are thrown her way. She even gets the girl!…she re-imagines her ruined career and failed relationship with the woman she loves.” – Salon.com. And punishes the director for getting the girl in the real world.

5 – The box:
In the “silencio” club scene, because of all the “illusion” comments and depictions, such as the singer, Diane realizes she is dreaming and shudders. On the edge of reality/waking, the box appears in her dream as her subconscious could no longer repress her memories of murdering her friend. The box is the symbol of Camilla’s death and inside it Diane’s guilt, which she kept locked up by her fears (the bum/monster). Once Rita/Camilla unlocks it, the dream-cowboy says “It’s time to wake up.”

6 – Diane’s awakening:
As shown on her face when she wakes, Diane is forced to face the fact that it was all a dream, the sadness of her own life, and the guilt brought on by having her ex-girlfriend murdered. Diane’s neighbor knocks on her door, which is what actually woke her up, to tell her there have been detectives looking for her. More confirmation that there has been a murder. From Salon.com: “She starts reflecting on how she came to be in this position, from Camilla’s coolness to her flirtations with Adam to the unforgivable humiliations at the party. Diane sees that she’s been reduced to an object of pity and contempt by even someone like Coco.” In her kitchen, Diane says excitedly “You’ve come back,” to “Camilla” before quickly realizing it was just another hallucination/fantasy. This is when Diane goes into a flashback of:
1 – Diane at dinner
2 – Diane at Winkie’s

Leading into:

7 – Diane’s breakdown:
This hallucination starts with the bum dropping the open blue box, the murder realization, and then comes the crushing guilt, represented by the escaping little old people she actually met at the real-life jitterbug contest. (When we first meet Betty, she is saying good-bye to this couple, in effect, saying good-bye to the guilt that they represent. This is why Betty was so happy in the beginning, when Diane’s dream was in full effect, and her guilt was gone and forgotten, being driven away in a limo.) As her guilt and reality overwhelm her, in the hallucinatory breakdown of the old couple attacking, she shoots herself in the mouth.

The End


As themoviegoer.com points out, Mulholland Drive’s narrative starts with Diane’s dream and ends with her reality. If you start the film from Diane’s limo ride, you can get a better idea as to how her dream is shaped. The first time I started the film from this point, I was amazed at just how much ended up in her dream. I could relate to how Lynch set up the dream because more often than not, my dreams are set up the same way. There are always bits and pieces of my “real” life that seep into my dreams, and for Diane, who was guilty of hiring someone to kill Camilla, her reality was turned upside down. Every bit of her subconscious had seeped into the nightmare.

If you’re looking to better understand the plot and want to want to listen to someone explain the plot from someone who, in my opinion, has an exquisite grasp on the narrative of the film, you have to check out this guy below. I agree with him that if you haven’t seen a David Lynch movie before, it would be best to start with Mulholland Drive.

Although most would agree to explain the narrative with the dream analysis, some have offered an alternative explanation. One of the best I’ve found is from a guy named Frederick C. Millet. He completely rejects the idea that the first two-thirds of the film takes place within Betty’s (Diane’s) dream, and instead offers a different take on the film.

The following is an excerpt from an essay Millet wrote while at Michigan State University:

Let me get straight to the point: Betty does not exist. She is only a figment of Camilla’s (Rita’s) imagination. What do we know about this film? We know that at the beginning of the movie, Camilla is involved in a car accident just before she is about to be shot, suffers a serious head injury and develops amnesia. These are the facts. Then she finds a place to stay in an apartment where a person is going on a long vacation, and there she meets Betty, the girl that helps her out of amnesia. But what if Betty didn’t exist? What if Camilla just created her to help her get out of amnesia? She couldn’t do it by herself, so she had to create someone to help her remember important things about her past. This could explain why she looked like Diane—because Diane was her love interest before the accident. It could also explain why she cut her hair and wore the wig—so she could look like her “imaginary friend.” Most importantly, however, I think that this can explain the “mysterious box.” In the movie, Camilla finds a mysterious key in her bag while looking for her identity. Later, at the club Silencio, Betty mysteriously discovers the box that the key opens in her purse. Camilla then brings the box home with her and opens it, discovering the truth about her past. Well, here’s my explanation: the box, like Betty, never existed. It was only a symbol to how Camilla would figure out her past. When she found the box and opened it with the key, she opened up the truth to her past and solved her puzzle. This is also why Betty, for no explained reason, disappears shortly before Camilla opens the box. Camilla doesn’t need Betty any more because she has found the object to set her free, so Betty just disappears. Since we never find out how Betty finds the box in her purse, we must conclude that Betty and the box don’t exist at all, and that they are just instruments used by Camilla’s mind to help her find out her true identity. Somehow, Silencio made Camilla remember her past and finding the box there symbolizes that.

This analysis also explains a few other things about the movie. It explains why the director in the movie, when seeing Betty, was unable to turn away from her and stared at her for some time. For all we know, Camilla could have cut her hair and put on a wig shortly after her accident, so the director thought he recognized Betty (which was really Camilla), but could not place her. Also, this explains CoCo—since she might have recognized Camilla, she could have provided her with a place to stay, at someone’s apartment who will be gone for awhile. And then there’s Diane—found dead by Camilla in her apartment. For all we know, Camilla could have at the same time hired someone to kill Diane, and this one actually was successful. This theory also explains why Camilla found the money in her bag. After the accident, Camilla must have taken the bag from the assassins and later found it loaded with money.


Anyone who’s a fan of David Lynch’s work knows that his plots often surround one of the lead characters having a dream within the film, and it’s the dream itself that the narrative is surrounded by. One of the great aspects of Millet’s essay is that his thesis argues that there isn’t a dream within the movie. I can’t wait to screen the film with his analysis in mind because it will breathe new life into the characters, and give me a chance to contact Millet with my reactions to his essay.

Lastly, I want to present a video of David Lynch himself discussing the film with a crowd of people at a film screening. What I appreciate most about his speech is that he uses the word abstract to describe Mulholland Drive. Therefore, he explains that no one interpretation is right or wrong. He leaves it open to the viewer to make up his or her own mind about the film.

Whether you’re looking to dissect your favorite film, or dabble in the art of film theory, Mulholland Drive offers a great starting point. The intricate layers of Lynch’s narrative have been discussed and written about by scholars and film students around the world. Some colleges even offer an entire course of the art of David Lynch’s film catalogue. Because of Mulholland Drive, I became so passionate about film that I learned that I have two callings in life. Besides my songwriting, I have aspirations to write and direct a feature film, and I owe most, if not all, of the inspiration to David Lynch and his work. If you’ve got a couple hours to spare to curl up and watch a modern-day masterpiece, then I highly recommend that you rent Mulholland Drive and savor the dream layer.

“David Lynch has been working toward Mulholland Drive all of his career, and now that he’s arrived there I forgive him Wild at Heart and even Lost Highway. At last his experiment doesn’t shatter the test tubes. The movie is a surrealist dreamscape in the form of a Hollywood film noir, and the less sense it makes, the more we can’t stop watching it.”

– Roger Ebert [source]

Matt Needle website: www.mattneedle.co.uk

  1. Dan C says:

    Wow – I really do need to see this movie – awesome commentary.

  2. […] Dream Layer: Interpreting David Lynch’s Masterpiece ‘Mulholland Drive’ […]

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