Let’s be honest—Mulholland Dr. doesn’t make much sense, and that’s part of its genius. However, offering your own interpretation of Mulholland Dr. is like an unspoken cinephile rite of passage. As a rule, I hate films that are purposefully nonsensical—it feels like lazy storytelling—but Mulholland Dr. is the ultimate exception. This is because, strangely enough, it does make sense (ish) from a clinical POV. So, at last, here are my crazy theories about what lies on Mulholland Dr.(Spoiler warning, obvs).
A common fan theory for Mulholland Dr. is that most of the movie is a cinematic immersion into the repressed memories of Diane’s childhood sexual abuse. I scoffed at this initially, but after watching the film for the fifth time, it’s exactly the conclusion I see too. Of course, it helps that most of my clinical work is with victims of abuse. My clients with these experiences have been of varying ages (from 6, to 16, to 60) and in various settings (from emergency rooms hours after the event, to psychiatric hospitals, to community clinics five decades post-assault). One thing I’ve learned is that trauma influences every little piece of a person, right down to the neural level. It’s led me to believe the ever-more-popular theory emerging in psychology that most pathology, including disorders like ADHD and Bipolar Disorder, are really just complex trauma reactions. This trauma can be something other than sexual abuse, but it is rare to come across a victim of sexual assault who doesn’t possess comorbidities with such disorders. Of course, trauma doesn’t change who people are, but rather it tends to impact the way they perceive the world, their sense of self, and method of relating to others.
People who live in unprocessed trauma can engage in a number of behaviors. Some include patterns of self-medication, including substance use, acting out, and escaping to fantasy, while common symptoms often involve vivid dreams or nightmares, emotional dysregulation, over-attachment in relationships, excessive obsession and clinginess to perceived affection patterned with petrifying fears of abandonment, derealization, low self-worth, and the internalization of perceived criticism. When these patterns are consistent, it’s possible to recognize the symptoms of sexual trauma almost like a person who has the symptoms of a cold.
So cinephiles—any of that sound familiar?
These are all traits and behaviors of the real-life Diane Sullivan, the main protagonist of Mulholland Dr., and that’s before even touching her subconscious realities that are psychologically rich enough to be a Freudian field trip. In the small bit that we see her as a physical being (assuming, at least, that the last 30 minutes or so reflects events that tangibly happened), we see her completely cave-in when her hot-and-cold lover leaves and a true sense of worthlessness at her core. Her internalization of perceived criticism is even clear with how she talks about her career, explaining to Coco at dinner that she was turned down from her dream-part because the director “wasn’t so fond of me.” Someone with a healthier self-concept likely would’ve phrased it as “wasn’t so fond of my performance” or something else externally-focused, but the comment instead reflects the classic cognitive error of “I failed, therefore I must be bad.”
The biggest clues for trauma lie in Diane’s subconscious (again assuming that the majority of the film is a dream that occurs sometime after Diane ordered the hit on her ex-lover and before she shoots herself). If you can expect trauma to influence the way that neurotransmitters are released in the brain, it’s illogical to assume that the subconscious remains untouched, and the way that Diane’s subconscious tells stories almost seem like recreations of real trauma episodes. As an aside—there’s this AH-mazing assessment in psychology called the Thematic Apperception Test (TAT) that is a projective evaluation in
which a person is shown a series of (oftentimes creepy, vague) black-and-white photos and is asked to tell a story about it (example to the left). There’s no clinical cutoff that says what’s normal or not; the real information comes from the themes that emerge in people’s storytelling (ex. violence, sex, deception, unhealthy relationships, family conflict, impossibly happy endings, etc.). It’s largely just interesting info—and the way that Diane’s subconscious tells stories with themes of guilt, co-dependency, conflicts with the self, and rejection, is in the exact same wheelhouse.
Specifically, there seem to be multiple stories that Diane’s subconscious tells the audience—a love story, a young starlet success-story, a murder mystery, a monster movie, and a dark comedy in which a cocky director’s luck runs out. All of these things converge in some way or another into a portrait of abuse, but if I had to pick the most salient ones aside from the dialogue Betty practices in the dream (blatant themes of incest from an older man mixed with victim blaming, homicidal ideation, and blackmailing) it would be her relationship with the famous Aunt Ruth and the representation of Adam.
For a woman with no lines, Aunt Ruth is one hell of a presence, even according to Lynch. The hypothesis that Ruth knew about Diane’s sexual abuse (or was perhaps the abuser herself) and had some role in getting Diane to stay quiet is also quite common in fan theories. It’s a stretch no matter which way you look at it, but there are a few curious things about dream-Ruth’s behavior that certainly lends to it. For one, there’s no way she didn’t see Rita (i.e., Camilla) sneak into her home as she was leaving at the start of the film—Lynch purposefully shows her turn to look as Rita sneaks in. Ruth is also seen walking into the bedroom right before Diane is about to wake up to check on what seems to be “a ruckus,” but while we see the blue box on the floor, when we see it through Ruth’s eyes—it’s gone. Even when Betty/Diane is speaking to Aunt Ruth on the phone to tell her a stranger is crashing her pad, there isn’t any other sound on the other end like there are in every other phone call in the movie. The way that Aunt Ruth’s apartment is structured carries the theme that someone is always watching Betty/Diane, (ex. the prophetic neighbor who sounds straight out of an inpatient psychiatric hospital) but no action is ever really taken. This includes the brilliant inclusion of the portrait of Beatrice Cenci, always seeming to look over Betty’s shoulder, and is allegedly somewhat of a real-life hero for taking a hit out on her incestuous father.
Betty and Diane both show conflicting feelings for Ruth overall—in the dream, Betty’s given a real place to stay, but in real life, Diane not-too-enthusiastically notes she just ended up with some money that she took to Hollywood in attempt to find the same adoration she got doing the Jitterbug (this is, perhaps, the saddest sentence ever written). Betty even rejects the robe given to her by Ruth, instead casting it over Rita. Overall, if there’s any theme to Aunt Ruth, it’s that she seems to have a hard time seeing things that are blatantly presented to us, mixed with an emphasis on silence; it’s sadly the kind of blind-eye that can be common in secondary victims and perpetrators of trauma.
Perhaps the most outlandish theory I can add to the Mulholland Dr. pile is that Adam Kesher—the director who is forced to re-cast his film in Diane’s dream—is actually a manifestation of Diane’s inner-child. I know the main assumption is that his misfortune comes from Diane’s resentment for “stealing” Camilla given the many over-the-top bad things that happen to him in the film. However, her entire obsession in “real life”—including arranged hit—was centered entirely around Camilla’s rejection, not Adam’s “thievery.” My case for this definitely comes first from the cinematically-hilarious/psychologically-befuddling scene in which he returns home to find his wife in bed with the pool guy (Billy Rae Cyrus, lolololol). The events seem grounded in reality based on comments Diane overheard B.D. (Before Dream), but the way things played out are odd. For one, the wife initiates the confrontation by stating “Now you’ve done it” to Adam, which makes little sense as she is the one mid-infidelity. This is followed up immediately with Cyrus’ revealing “just forget you ever saw it, it’s better that way,” which also makes little sense. They honestly look and sound like they’re disappointed with him and gearing up for a nice scolding. Adam responds to this by going to the garage to grab some hot pink paint (a color certainly not seen on any of the glass-walls of his house) to pour it over his wife’s jewelry, gets in a shove-battle with her, and is thrown out. Right after this, a mobster looking for Adam punches both the ex-wife and pool guy out, which seems to have no real purpose for the film other than to show that some sort of retribution occurred against the sinning couple (unless this was the original lead-up to the horse-head-bedroom-delivery service that was cut from the film).
In one weird whirlwind, Adam is blamed for a sexual act between two people, told to forget (repress?) it, acts out like an angry adolescent, and gets cast out from his own house. In real life, Adam is direct, tactful, calculated, and a little manipulative; in dreamland, he’s snotty, short-sighted, seemingly dismissive of the consequences of his actions until they’re nearly clubbed into him, temperamental, and childish (see: random golf club). We never get insight into Diane’s family unit other than the see-no-evil Aunt Ruth, but this strange adulterous dynamic has a weird family systems feel to it—Adam has no power in the scenario—the wife and pool man do; it’s completely opposite from reality in which it was Adam’s wife who allegedly ended up with nothing but the pool guy.
The dream audition scene is where this theory fully clicked for me. When Adam finally meets Betty/Diane, he looks at her longingly. He doesn’t appear angry as one might expect if this were based on real-life Adam who just lost his fiancé, nor does it seem to be a heated sexual gaze or sadness—his face conveys yearning. I think a case could be made that maybe Diane secretly wishes Adam had fallen for her instead of Camilla, but there’s no real case for that in reality as both are completely consumed with passion for Camilla. Even according to Watts, Betty is arguably Diane’s most ideal self and undoubtedly who she wished she could be. This shot makes me feel the subconscious divide of personal identities: the inner abused child gazing at her dream identity, still knowing on some deeply lucid level that she became a murderer instead. It’s not a surprise to me that the theme of “this is the girl” refers to Camilla by name and by person, said most significantly by Adam (dream) and Diane (reality), and both in some degree of heartache.
I promised crazy theories, right? As I prefaced, the point of Mulholland Dr. isn’t necessarily to arrive at truth, but to enjoy the mystery for what it is. David Lynch is kind of like the love child of Stephen King and Sigmund Freud, which puts him half-in my psych wheel house when he chooses to test the boundaries of reality. From my clinical POV, I don’t know if I’ve seen a better portrayal in film of how PTSD manifests in the subconscious. As I mentioned before, when trauma occurs it impacts every little part of a person, particularly the way they see themselves and others. Even in her dreams and fantasies, Diane is tortured; as Betty, she has love withheld, success stymied, and conflict unresolved, and that’s not to mention the strange central-monster who sics elements of her past to torture her present.
Then again, maybe a cigar is just a cigar.
So, there it was. Am I NSFC eligible now?