Mulholland Drive

David Lynch’s most personal work has generally seemed intuitive, dreamlike in the sense that the intention of each moment is to be found in the general emotion conveyed rather than in any literal reading or symbolic egg hunt. In his best film, Blue Velvet (1986), he imagined extremes of innocence and corruption confronting each other, and their queasy mutual fascination drew the viewer into a state of complicity beyond the comforts of interpretation. But such unfiltered channeling has been hard to sustain and by the time of Lost Highway (1997) he had reached a point of self-reflection that seemed to be parodying a former purity of approach. Even intuitive artists have interfering egos.

So Mulholland Drive comes as a welcome step backward, a mostly unforced stretch of Lynchian mysterioso that recalls his earlier work even as it incorporates some of the jokey gloom of the “Twin Peaks” series and a bit of the lugubriousness that served The Straight Story (1999) so well. Ostensibly an example of the “Inside Hollywood” genre with noir trappings, it tells the story of two actresses, Rita (Laura Elena Harring), a dark and dubious beauty who suffers from amnesia, and Betty (Naomi Watts), an impossibly chipper blonde with a distinctly ’50s aura. Rita is a temporary escapee from the dark forces that rule the dream factories, the same evil kingdom that naive Betty is bursting to get into. They’re basically the same person, of course, before and after the bubble of innocence has popped. There’s also a story of sorts about a young director who’s being forced to cast his movie against his wishes, but with Lynch all plot is subplot, secondary to the shifting moods as some pervasive threat is now clear, now elusive.

For most of the film’s two-and-a-half hours, Lynch keeps his wilder impulses in check and it’s like watching a soap opera spiced with non sequitur set pieces: a shaggy dog story about a man who believes an evil being lives behind the diner he frequents; a comically violent robbery; an audition where Betty morphs into an aggressive vamp. But during the last 20 minutes or so the floodgates open and a great buildup is dissipated in a rush of Lynchian imagery and babble. The deeper meaning — barely there — is no big loss, but the deeper feeling is missed.

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Richard C. Walls writes about the arts for Metro Times. E-mail him at [email protected].