Mulholland Drive (2001) was written and directed by David Lynch. Throughout his film, Lynch uses a variety of surreal techniques through the mise en scene, use of the camera, editing and sound which all combine to create the film’s stylistic system and contribute to the mysterious, ambiguous narrative. As author Wisker states in his novel, Horror Fiction: An Introduction, “Lynch’s Mulholland Drive makes a nearly seamless transition from the mundane to the weird to the horrific” (Wisker, 2005: 137).
All these elements of production are extremely significant in establishing the overall puzzling mood of the entire film, however, this is particularly prominent in the opening sequence. In the opening sequence of the film, we are presented with a medium shot of couples dancing vigorously. Lynch’s use of jazz and swing music here is synchronous with the images of the dancers, which together portray an atmosphere of celebration. However, there is a change of mood as an elderly couple and a young Diane appear close up on screen.
Lynch uses somewhat grainy editing here, as the three appear white and hazy, and this is furthered by an eerie sound which clashes greatly with the upbeat music and therefore builds suspense, although we as a viewer only understand in hindsight why this is the case. In his novel, American Independent Cinema, King states that the narrative of Mulholland Drive is “far from easy to resolve without sitting down and working through a great deal of detail in retrospect or on repeated viewing” (King, 2005: 100).
This is a main aspect of the film’s stylistic system: the audience is encouraged to actively decode the meaning. This style of film is referred to as art cinema and “can be seen as an alternative that allowed art film-goers to distinguish themselves from “ordinary” filmgoers” (Wilinsky, 2001: 3), specifically mainstream Hollywood films. The dancers in the opening scene are dressed fairly casually, which contrasts greatly with the costume of Diane, who later appears under a spotlight wearing an extremely fancy dress and a diamond necklace.
It has been said that “David Lynch has manifested an intense interest in the female performer” (Davidson and Sheen, 2004: 165). The idea of the glamour and fame of Hollywood- Diane’s ideal world- hugely influences the film’s stylistic system. This is the case because the directors of art house films take a very different approach to a narrative than those of classical Hollywood blockbusters, and consequently the film’s elements of production differentiate to a great extent.
Each of these elements: mise en scene; use of the camera; editing and sound are major components which together make up the film’s stylistic system. A particularly noteworthy mode of production in the opening scene is Lynch’s use of editing. The presence of a purple background within this scene in retrospection connotes Diane’s perception of idealism. This is made apparent as the image of an extremely content Diane fades out to reveal a black background, which in this context mirrors Diane’s bleak reality as we are made aware that the previous scene was all a dream.
This sense of realism is furthered by Lynch’s use of limited external diegetic sound, as the upbeat music stops abruptly and is replaced with only Diane’s deep breathing. Lynch has cleverly chosen to use a hand-held camera here, which has the effect of making the viewer feel more directly involved as we are seeing the action from the character’s point of view. This adds a documentary style element to this particular shot, while Diane’s dreamy state is also made clear, as the hand-held movements combined with the out of focus camera denote that Diane is still in a state of delusion.
The continuous presence of the mysterious white haze gives a sense of confusion, however in observation it becomes apparent to the viewer that the unworldly white haze is a shadow of the elderly couple from Diane’s dream. One could argue that the couple are in fact Diane’s parents, who hold her down to reality, perhaps even discourage her from meeting her dreams of becoming a famous actress. This would explain why Diane wakes up shortly after the couple appear in her dream.
However, there are multiple interpretations of Lynch’s works, which were intended to be ambiguous, thus “the viewer has to supply his or her own meanings without authorial or authoritative direction towards a single ‘right’ meaning” (Fulton, 2005: 302). This is a main facet which differentiates classical Hollywood blockbusters such as Troy (starring Brad Pitt) from art house films like Mulholland Drive. Meanwhile in the opening sequence, the camera, substituting for Diane’s movement as she is brought back to reality, pans round to reveal red bed sheets, by which time it has gradually adjusted into focus.
One could argue that in this context the colour red foreshadows passion as well as bloodshed, as is present later in the film. A mood of confusion is conveyed in this scene, as we as an audience are interpreting the action from the character’s viewpoint as the camera slowly pans round an unknown room and then slowly falls onto a pillow. This sense of uncertainty is furthered by the use of extremely low key lighting, as this creates diffused illumination, and we as an audience cannot see all of the surroundings in the mise en scene.
The shot then fades out into darkness, which leads to the following shot in the sequence. In this shot, all is dark but a sign which is lit by the headlights of a vehicle. This is clear as the sign reading ‘Mulholland Dr. ‘ begins to flicker and it becomes more prominent and harsh as it becomes closer; this shot likely being achieved through the use of a crane and zoom lens. All the while we hear eerie sounds of wind and faint sinister music, which we automatically associate with horror films and the fear and suspense that come with them.
Together the use of mise en scene, camera techniques and sound has generated a mood that is both mysterious and tense. As the camera zooms in on the ‘Mulholland Dr. ‘ sign, it becomes slightly canted, which gives an unsettled feel. This sense of eeriness is interpreted by the audience who consequently feel intense while watching the scene. In fact, Lynch has his audience on edge throughout the whole of his film, and he has achieved this through the use of various techniques, many of which are not dissimilar to simply framing shots in such a way as to make the viewer feel uneasy.
The camera then tilts downwards away from the sign, where we can only see darkness. We then see some of the setting as the limousine headlights run past a rocky landscape. However, we can only see what these lights permit us to see, which creates a mystifying atmosphere as we have no idea what lies beyond. This mirrors the sense of mysterious ambiguity that is conveyed throughout the film. Lynch makes clever use of editing within this scene, notably his use of dissolves which enhance the effectiveness of the views of the vehicle from a variety of angles.
Lynch likely makes use of tracking together with a crane as the limousine is followed by the camera. A mysterious mood is achieved here as we firstly follow the vehicle from a medium long shot, followed by a close up where we can eventually make out the number plate. This builds anticipation as we begin to wonder who is in this vehicle due to the fact that this knowledge is delayed. Lynch makes use of a wide establishing extreme long shot as we see the city of Los Angeles, making the audience aware that the setting is near the city.
A cut follows, where we then see a medium shot of the limousine followed by another dissolve into a fairly high angle shot, which was likely achieved through the use of a crane. Lynch employs the technique of reframing when the vehicle turns corners in order to keep it in the centre of the screen, directing our attention to it and building anticipation. Before we enter the vehicle, the camera pans from side to side slightly, and this creates an unsettled feel, generating a mood of suspense and foreshadowing the oncoming accident which we experience shortly after.
In his novel, Directing: Film Techniques and Aesthetics, Rabiger states that “foreshadowing devices, special in-frame juxtapositions heightens tension by making us anticipate what the characters do not yet know is in store” (Rabiger, 2003: 226). The camera then cuts to a close up of a woman’s face, and we find ourselves to be within the vehicle which was being tracked. Lynch’s use of low key lighting is very significant here, as it is difficult to distinguish objects yet Rita’s features are still very striking. This is achieved through the use of make-up and lighting in the mise en scene.
The soft lighting also encourages us as viewers to notice Rita’s pearl earring, as this stands out from the dingy background. As an audience we become instantly aware that Rita is of upper class, as pearls hold connotations of wealth and sophistication. Here, Lynch portrays an idea of glamour and fame, as established once before in the opening scene through the use of upbeat music and the costume of Diane. It is interesting to note that a film whose plot is largely based around such desire for glamour and fame in Hollywood could be so unconventional.
It could be argued that sound throughout this sequence is internal diegetic, as many have interpreted that we are entering another one of Diane’s dreams after the camera falls slowly onto the pillow, thus all sound throughout would be Diane’s interior thoughts. However, Lynch has refused to comment on the film’s meaning and thus there are multiple interpretations, and the meanings we interpret “become subject to erosion and uncertainty becomes the most prominent feature”(Platteel, 2003: 230) within the film.
Overall, in his film Mulholland Drive, David Lynch has made use of a variety of techniques in the mise en scene, use of the camera, editing and sound which together combine to create the film’s unique cryptic narrative and exceptional stylistic system. Each individual element of production is significant in establishing the mysterious mood of the opening sequence, however, I feel that use of the camera is most significant.
I found the hand-held camera and out of focus lens in the scene when Diane wakes up particularly influential in establishing the overall mood of the sequence, as a sense of delusion was successfully created and this I feel was extremely significant as the dream aspect to the movie is an important part of the plot. Lynch’s use of canted angles and pans from side to side before we enter the vehicle are also very significant as these create a sense of edginess which is interpreted, likely subconsciously by the majority of the audience.
This is because the majority of viewers are so used to watching films that many techniques of the camera have become second nature to our perception, thus we do not consciously pick up on the effects the uses of the camera has on our minds. I found this particular element of production very influential in establishing the overall mood of suspense and confusion, as I did not at first fully understand why the sequence was so uncomfortably tense to watch, hence the sense of confusion was directly interpreted by myself.