2017 is a bumper year for fans of David Lynch. Next month sees the much anticipated return of Twin Peaks, and a new documentary profiling the eccentric auteur, David Lynch: The Art Life. Premiering in the UK as part of Birmingham’s Flatpack Film Festival tribute to Lynch is a 4K restoration of 2001’s Mulholland Drive.
Betty (Naomi Watts) has come to Los Angeles to pursue a career as an actress. She arranges to stay at her aunt’s apartment, but when she arrives, she finds a mysterious woman (Laura Harring) who cannot remember who she is. Together, they begin to investigate her true identity, intersecting with film director Adam Kesher (Justin Theroux) and other strange characters. As they begin to unravel the mystery, lines of reality and identity blur.
Among the many, many strange things about Mulholland Drive is that it began life as a pilot for network television in 1999. It’s not hard to imagine the looks on the ABC executives’ faces, perhaps anticipating a more accessible slice of Lynchian weirdness akin to Twin Peaks, when the pilot was delivered to them. They dropped it on delivery and an enterprising Studiocanal employee persuaded Lynch to finish the pilot as a feature film. Television’s loss is very much cinema’s gain as Mulholland Drive is a highly cryptic, dread laden, sensual filmic marvel.
A question that is unavoidable about much of Lynch’s work hovers over Mulholland Drive, namely ‘What is going on/is this about?’ Randomness abounds, from a strange creature living behind a diner, a man known as The Cowboy offering strange threats and a bizarre club named Silencio, all adding to that question. There’s also the small matter of a massive rug pull towards the end of the film that calls into question all that proceeded it. Far from being alienating and obtuse, these strange incidents bleed into a mesmerising kaleidoscopic whole that genre hops between film noir, romance, Hollywood satire, melodrama and tragedy seamlessly.
The 4K restoration itself is stunning. Overseen by Lynch himself, the cinematography by Peter Deming shines with the fresh polish of a high definition upgrade, with the shimmering L.A. landscapes, nightmarish visions and the beautiful (and ugly) people of Tinseltown all vivid onscreen. In spite of such highly cinematic visuals, the aspect ratio which Lynch filmed it in was made for television so projectionists and viewers will need to keep an eye out to see if the film is projected correctly. With that proviso in mind, the film begs to be seen on the big screen.
Naomi Watts’ career launching performance remains her finest to date, inhabiting the wide eyed innocence of Betty and her small town folksiness with ease, excelling when showcasing Betty’s acting ability (the scene where she auditions for a film role is astonishing) and the cynicism that begins to drag her down. That Laura Harring didn’t become a bigger star on the back of her turn here is almost as a big a mystery as any onscreen, absolutely captivating in what by rights should have put her alongside Watts on casting director’s wishlists. Their chemistry together is off the charts, particularly in that famous sex scene. Justin Theroux, now enjoying a career purple patch thanks to The Leftovers, offers an amusingly perplexed counterpoint as the put upon director Adam and there are welcome appearances along the way from ‘It’s that guy!’ character actors Mark Pellegrino, Patrick Fischler, Dan Hedaya and, strangely, Billy Ray Cyrus.
Headlines were made last year when a BBC Culture survey crowned Mulholland Drive the best film of the 21st Century thus far. Though a very lofty accolade indeed (and surely overlooking Norbit) Lynch’s film is far from the unworthiest claimant to the throne, offering warped view on fame, the nature of truth and relationships. And what could be more 21st Century than that?
The Flatpack Film Festival took place between 4th and 9th April 2017 in Birmingham. For more information please check http://flatpackfestival.org.uk.