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The Hidden Meaning of 'Mulholland Drive'

Struggling to figure out what the hell David Lynch’s 'Mulholland Drive' is all about? You wouldn’t be the only one! Here are a few popular theories…

By L.A BanksPublished 6 years ago 4 min read
Thanks to Dudesleeper at English Wikipedia for the image

Firstly, a full disclaimer. I’m one of those annoying people who can’t just sit and watch a movie; I have to analyse every aspect of it. Admittedly, this is a little over-the-top when you’re watching a kid’s film. However, when you get presented with something as tangled and confusing as Mulholland Drive, it’d be rude not to.

Mulholland Drive is one of David Lynch’s most popular movies, and also one of his most perplexing. What’s it all about? What’s real and what’s not? And, who the hell is the creepy muddy guy behind the café?

Here are a few interesting explanations.

The Hidden Meaning of 'Mulholland Drive'

Firstly, the ‘surface’ narrative is almost certainly false.

By Peetlesnumber1 - Own work, CC BY-SA 4.0, source

So, if you were thinking that you were watching the story of pretty wannabe actress Betty and her enigmatic, memoryless friend Rita, you’d be wrong. This film is like an iceberg – the ‘obvious’ narrative is just the tip. To get to the heart of it, you’ve got to go a lot deeper.

It’s a movie of two halves.

Personally, I think Lynch uses this technique to emphasise the fakeness of Hollywood – that you can’t trust what you see.

For the first half of the movie, we watch Betty and Rita, desperately trying to find out who Rita really is. They eventually arrive at the home of Diane Selwyn, a supposed friend of Rita’s, who is dead – and horrifically decomposing on the bed. We also meet Camilla – an attractive actress due to be cast in a film. We only see her briefly, but it’s pretty clear she’s integral to the plot.

Then, the narrative does a complete 180-degree twist. Suddenly, Betty is Diane; and living in Diane’s flat. Gone is the bubbly actress. Now we’ve got a character that’s morose, uncared for and deeply depressing to watch. We discover that she was in a relationship with Camilla, who left her for a director – only in this second half, RITA is Camilla. Diane, mad with the pain of rejection, hires a hitman to eliminate Camilla / Rita in a staged car crash, then shoots herself in the head.

The most common theory is that the first half is the dream, the second the reality. Diane yearns for a better life, and the first half is her fantasy – where she’s full of hope for the future and with the love of her life. In the second, we see her real existence, full of pain and suffering.

A Never-Ending Loop

Others say that the dream / reality theory is way too obvious. After all, we know what David Lynch is like; his films are seldom easy to access, which is why they’re so freaking addictive to watch.

Some critics theorized that the movie was a loop of never-ending limbo. Betty / Diane is unable to ever escape the misery of her existence and must endure the same loop of happiness / sadness over and over again. Others say it’s not a conventional start-to-finish narrative, but actually, moves backwards and forwards through time without restraint. Not sure I personally buy into either of these theories, but each to their own.

It’s a comment about the fakeness of film.

Here’s a notion that I think has real potential – that the movie is an elaborate commentary on the falseness of movies in general. We visit a cinema, we immerse ourselves in the storyline (and sometimes respond with powerful emotion) – but ultimately, none of it is real.

Perhaps Lynch is trying to get that message across here. I mean, it’s about Hollywood for starters, which is a clear link to the movie business. The one part of Mulholland Drive that really gives credence to this theory is the famous theatre scene.

Betty and Rita go the theatre, where a make-up streaked, exhausted woman sings an acapella Spanish version of Roy Orbison’s Crying. She then collapses, and the emcee announces that there ‘is no band’. Nothing you are watching is real, in other words. This realization makes Betty and Rita weep uncontrollably, to the point of almost having a seizure.

Symbols in 'Mulholland Drive'

As with all David Lynch films, Mulholland Drive has plenty of symbols throughout, which can help with interpretation. These include:

  • Curtains. Curtains pop up in virtually every single David Lynch movie or TV programme. They’re a fairly obvious symbol of concealment; and an open declaration that what you’re watching is only a small portion of the real story. There’s much more going on beneath those curtains, it’s just a matter of opening them…
  • Boxes. The box in Mulholland Drive carries great significance. When Rita opens the box, that’s when everything shifts – when Betty becomes Diane and so forth. Boxes once again represent the hidden truths. They’re a challenge. Are we daring enough to take a peek at what lies inside, or are we content with the false, comfortable life around us?
  • The sinister ‘muddy’ man. Ah, one of the film’s most famous moments; mainly because it’s so terrifying and few people can ever really figure out why. My personal theory is that this man represents truth and death. He’s a horrible smear of cold, filthy reality against the rose-tinted haze of Hollywood, and that’s why he’s so repugnant.
  • The cowboy. Now here’s an interesting character. Menacing and controlling, he strolls in and out at various intervals, and seems to manipulate some of the action. Personally, I think he’s there to highlight the powerlessness of the others. He’s directing the action, they’re merely actors, playing their parts.
Of course, there are so many different interpretations to this movie, and part of the beauty of it is that all or none of them could be right. If you haven’t yet watched it – make sure you do. And if you have already? Watch it again! I guarantee you’ll see something new with every fresh viewing… it’s just one of those movies.

About the Creator

L.A Banks

Hello! I'm an experienced copywriter, published author (The Case of the Green-Dressed Ghost) and all-round film buff and music obsessive. If it's weird, you can guarantee I'll like it. Website:

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