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I Want To With You: 'Mulholland Drive' as the Ultimate Body Swap Movie

By Scott Beggs | Think Pieces | April 1, 2014 |

By Scott Beggs | Think Pieces | April 1, 2014 |

In normal body swap movies, two characters exchange their physical representations in order to walk a mile in someone else’s shoes. Or play a rock concert in someone else’s shoes. Or design shoes in someone else’s shoes. The trick is that, in a normal body swap movie, everything is surface level and safe to begin with. As genre entries, they play off our natural bias toward believing that we’re working far harder than everyone else and not getting nearly what we deserve, but they’ve almost exclusively used broad, situation comedy to bring home an aw-shucks point that the grass on the other side is exactly the same shade of green.

Mulholland Drive is different. First of all because its swapping mechanism is obscured by David Lynch’s typical magic (and potentially because of its patchwork status as a former TV pilot). Second of all because the changeover that occurs is better described as one of soul-swapping instead of as a purely corporeal exchange. There’s no moment where Betty (Naomi Watts) looks down and expresses intense shock at suddenly looking like Rob Schneider, but identity is core to the movie’s spirit. As such, it’s a body swap movie by way of psychological horror — perhaps a far more honest portrayal of what might actually happen if you mentally found yourself in someone else’s shoes. The very real fear of waking up one morning and not recognizing the dilapidated person in the mirror. The terror that your future won’t make you who you want to be.

The fairly uncontroversial reading of the movie recognizes that Betty isn’t really Betty at all, but a failed actress named Diane Selwyn reconstructing her Hollywood life with all the glamour and shimmer of a 1950’s version of Nancy Drew. She — as well as us — are charged with solving the mystery of a dangerous young woman who has forgotten who she is, but who calls herself Rita (Laura Elena Harring) after seeing Hayworth’s stunning mug on a poster. Filled with new friendship, intrigue, sexual liberation and thrilling clues, the hunt for truth isn’t really all that dangerous. Of course we know that there are two sides to the coin. And a lot of bodies swapped.

Since the pile of theories is deep and well-worn, here’s the quick and dirty overview:

  • Diane and Betty are the same person (or at least played by the same actress in Watts)

  • Rita and Camilla are the same person (or at least played by the same actress in Harring)

  • Camilla is also played by a different actress, Melissa George, in the sunnier parts of the story

  • Ann Miller (a genuine fixture of 40s/50s delight cinema) plays both a helpful landlady and a disapproving mother of a powerful young director

    With those tangled bases, the story of reality and genuine identity are blurred and inconsistent. Typically, fans see the happier half of the story as comprising a fantasy escape blissfully engineered by Diane — a woman who has lost her grip on her dreams, her loved ones, and her sanity. However, the door of identity/soul/body swapping swings both ways, and I prefer the opposite reading.

    In the mirror view, the grisly life of Diane — replete with murder, despair and existential angst — is a dreamworld constructed by a naive but talented actress who is on the cusp of finding stardom despite faking her sense of depth. She is a sweet young girl who has never had a bad day in her life, attempting to make a living where one has to know tragedy in order to be considered great. In a career where there’s a sharp dividing line between frivolous celebrity and captivating gravitas, it’s clear that Betty (with her cornfed tan betraying her) wants the latter. You can see it in her first audition that she’s gifted and curious about dynamic readings of even banal material. She’s a natural who has never been truly tested and, thus, is constantly worried that she will be found out and labeled a faker.

    She’s also far more adventurous than most give her credit for. She’s quick to help Rita, perhaps out of dumb kindness, but also she’s undeterred in wanting to get her hands dirty with the mystery despite not knowing the victim at its center or the potential risks that lie ahead.

    Plus, it’s clear that even in the real world we can romanticize tragedy by giving it a legitimizing quality. It’s often the eye-opener between bright youth and “how the world really works” in adulthood. Without that maturation under her belt, Betty has augmented elements of her life (including the first truly bizarre thing to happen) to create a depressing narrative that she can feed her method acting from.

    However, neither major narrative reading will ever be wholly consistent or complete, and that doesn’t matter. What matters is that Betty and Diane have chosen to switch spirits/minds/experiences. If X is the real story and Y is the fantasy, then in either case, one of the women trades her existence (one she’s judged inadequate) for a preferred model. One of them — either Betty or Diane — chooses to swap bodies to experience a different kind of grass.

    Mulholland Drive goes far, far beyond the typical swap structure in order to push a binary where neither option is perfect. However, the movie itself acts also as a litmus test for the viewer to parse out the mystery for him or herself. In that, it’s achieved something incredible within the realm of the body swap genre: making you choose which body you want to inhabit.

    Scott Beggs is the Managing Editor of Pajiba

    Dustin is the founder and co-owner of Pajiba. You may email him here, follow him on Twitter, or listen to his weekly TV podcast, Podjiba.

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