The importance of “Mulholland Drive” in Sapphic cinematic history


Mulholland Drive is one of the most award-winning, critically beloved lesbian-themed films of all time, yet it’s rarely one celebrated by queer women. The darkly experimental neo-noir work of David Lynch was released as part of The Criterion Collection yesterday, solidifying its role in cinematic history. The new DVD/Blu-Ray edition includes on-set footage, a deleted scene, new interviews with the stars, the director, the composer, the production designer and the casting director. If you don’t own the 2001 release already, this would be the version to get.


The story of Rita and Betty has startled and confused audiences for 14 years. Theories about the mysteries presented in the film are the focus of most reviews of the film, and many interviews with David Lynch, who is also the man behind Twin Peaks, Blue Velvet and Lost Highway. Naomi Watts and Laura Harring star as two strangers that meet when Rita (Harring) is found hiding out in struggling actress Betty’s (Watts) aunt’s Los Angeles home. Rita has suffered amnesia after being in a car crash on Mulholland Drive–she can’t even remember her own name, choosing Rita from a movie poster. Betty attempts to help Rita figure out her identity and they grow close through the process, eventually sleeping together in a very passionate scene of connection. It’s nothing gratuitous, nor the focus of the film or its celebration after release. 

“Have you even done this before?” Betty asks Rita.

“I don’t know,” Rita says. “Have you?”

“I want to, with you. I’m in love with you.”


Viewers of Mulholland Drive are unraveling the mystery with Rita and Betty, looking for clues that might have been overlooked, some, like Melissa Anderson of ArtForum, seeing the film an upwards of 20 times. As bizarre things begin to occur–a blue key found in Rita’s purse unlocks a mystery box that has Betty becoming Diane Selwyn, a name Rita recognized earlier on as Rita is now actress Camilla Rhodes. In their new roles, Diane is in love with Camilla, Another love scene between Diane and Camilla is disconnected, one-sided.

“We shouldn’t do this anymore,” Camilla says.

“Don’t say that!” Diane replies. “Don’t ever say that.”


Later, Camilla kisses another woman (played by Melissa George) and then a man, and laughs in Diane’s face. This madness leads Diane to hire a hitman to kill the object of her affection.

The tagline for the film was “A love story in the city of dreams,” and that love story is of one between two (or is it four?) women. Interestingly, critics treated the same-sex romance with normalcy and credibility. The actresses spoke about their relationship as one that unfolds based on true desire and care for the other. Naomi Watts also noted that everyone’s interpretation of Mulholland Drive is going to be different and trying to decipher one singular idea about it would ruin the experience of its surreality.

Does it matter what the film is “about”? Having taken in more than $20 million in the box office world wide, and won awards from Cannes (among others) as well as having been nominated for an Oscar and several Golden Globes, Mulholland Drive is an intoxicating mystery, and one that centers around two women in a relationship. Roger Ebert once said of the film, “The movie is hypnotic; we’re drawn along as if one thing leads to another but nothing leads anywhere, and that’s even before the characters start to fracture and recombine like flesh caught in a kaleidoscope. Mulholland Drive isn’t like Memento, where if you watch closely enough you can hope to explain the mystery. There is no explanation. There may not even be a mystery.”


Melissa Anderson, an out lesbian critic, writes about the importance of understanding the film for queer women viewers:

For the sapphic viewer hopelessly (and equally) besotted by both cinema and women, Mulholland Drive ignites twin passions. References to other movies proliferate: Ingmar Bergman’s Persona (1966) and Robert Altman’s 3 Women (1977), among others, titles that, like Mulholland Drive, revolve around a central female dyad, the dynamics of which are protean and radically altered by a destabilizing love. And yet for as magnificent as those predecessors are, only in Lynch’s incomparable movie, following a logic that is at once elusively oneiric and emotionally intelligible, is a whole shadow history of Hollywood—that of actresses who loved other actresses, of the shame and humiliation so many of them endured both professionally and personally—tenderly and tragically excavated.

So even if Mulholland Drive is about the tragic loneliness that is inherent in striving to be a Hollywood actress, or the seediness of Los Angeles or crisis and duality of identity, or, at its most basic, life being one fantastical dream (nightmare?), the central relationship between Betty/Diane and Rita/Camilla is one that ultimately presents two women in the kinds of complicated and complex roles that are usually reserved for men or, if a woman is deigned to be involved, a heterosexual pairing. David Lynch’s utilizing two brilliant actresses as the nuanced leads in his twisted world is worthy of praise and note. And it plays universal, because no matter what the viewer’s sexual or gender identity may be, we’re all left with the same questions: What does it all mean?


Mulholland Drive is available from The Criterion Collection now.

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