Whether you love his films or hate them - and plenty of moviegoers fall into each camp - you have to admit that David Lynch is a true original. A homegrown surrealist who sees few boundaries between reality and fantasy, he shocked audiences with "Blue Velvet," charmed them with "The Straight Story," and transfixed them with "Twin Peaks," to mention just a few of his accomplishments.
Lynch sets out to do all those things at once in his new picture, "Mulholland Drive," which opens this week after hotly debated screenings at the Cannes and New York film festivals. If ever a movie had a split personality, this one does - part murder mystery, part Hollywood satire, part erotic thriller, and sheer hallucination all the way.
The intricate story is impossible to summarize, but here's a hint of what goes on. After losing her memory in a car crash, a young woman (Laura Herring) drifts into a Los Angeles apartment complex where she meets a wannabe actress (Naomi Watts) who helps her find out who she is and why her purse is crammed with cash. Living nearby is a movie director (Justin Theroux) who has to deal with a cheating wife and a gang of Mafia enemies who want to control his latest production.
Also on hand are a cynical cop, a washed-up actor, a lecherous swimming-pool cleaner, a mobster who's fussy about his espresso, a hit man who can't shoot straight ... and a long list of others so numerous that "Twin Peaks" seems underpopulated by comparison.
In short, "Mulholland Drive" has more twists and turns than the L.A. street it's named after. This is because Lynch conceived the story as a miniseries that would develop its ideas over many months. The reason it's coming to theaters instead of TV sets is that ABC didn't like the pilot he presented to them. In fact, he told me in a conversation at Cannes last spring, "They hated it." The project might have withered on the vine if European producers hadn't stepped in with enough funding to shoot additional scenes and transform it into a feature film.
But is it a feature film? Or is it a series of half-solved puzzles that get lost in their own labyrinthine maze? I wasn't sure after I viewed it at Cannes, where audiences argued not only about particular plot points, but over the larger question of whether the movie as a whole makes sense.
I asked Lynch about this, and his answer was convincing. He acknowledged that some of his movies - the controversial "Lost Highway" is an example - are cinematic fever dreams so steeped in irrational visions that they can't be sorted out through everyday logic. But he insisted that "Mulholland Drive" does tell a coherent, comprehensible story. While you may need multiple viewings to fit the pieces together, they'll form an elegant pattern if you ponder their perplexities long enough.
Why are those perplexities there in the first place? Here, Lynch was harder to pin down. The answer seems to be that he's more a dream-driven artist than a fact-oriented storyteller, and his provocative imagination invariably favors outlandish fantasy over real-world adventure.
The big question now is whether moviegoers will find "Mulholland Drive" a tantalizing challenge or an inscrutable enigma that's not worth the bother of figuring out. It's not likely the picture will be a box-office conqueror like "The Elephant Man," still Lynch's biggest hit. But it could build the sort of cult following that made his first and finest feature, "Eraserhead," a staple on the midnight-movie circuit for years.
Whatever happens at the ticket window, one thing is crystal clear: Lynch remains a one-of-a-kind filmmaker who couldn't sell out to Hollywood commercialism if he tried. That's worth celebrating even if "Mulholland Drive" proves too bumpy a road for many viewers to navigate.
Rated R; contains explicit sex and violence.