sex scenes: queering los angeles
David Lynch subverts the femme fatale in 'Mulholland Drive.'
This article originally appeared on GARAGE.
Mulholland Drive, the 2001 film directed by David Lynch, is a neo-noir thriller that centers the concept of queering the femme fatale. Using noir tropes like amnesia and employing the same actor for different roles, Lynch creates a dreamlike romance between Rita/Camilla (Laura Herring) and Diane/Betty (Naomi Watts). It’s femme fatale for femme fatale, and in unraveling the film’s mystery, we slowly discover the two women are in danger—from each other.
The film revels in the question of fascination, that from which we can’t look away. Lynch doesn’t put the focus on the sexuality of the couple; it’s instead teased and used for surprise, furthering the mystery element. When the film debuted in 2001, queerness (and especially femme-for-femme queerness) had reached peak fascination in mainstream (straight) culture. The figure of the femme fatale is itself a focus of fascination, no matter our gender or orientation. We can’t seem to look away, our eyes fixed on her features, her sideswept hair, her dress glittering in a cloud of cigarette smoke.
Is Los Angeles itself a femme fatale? The city is also a theme of the film. What is it about Hollywood that relentlessly holds our gaze? Hollywood, before being an industry, is a location, one that has become a metonymy for LA at-large. LA is a woman, it’s been said; LA is a lesbian, Lynch seems to suggest.
In his essential documentary Los Angeles Plays Itself, Thom Andersen gives the Angeleno directive: “If you don’t like one thing, complain about its opposite as well.” The opposite, the doppelgänger, and the switch are constant tricks of Lynch’s seating, with him in a lineage tracing back to Hitchcock’s Vertigo and Bergman’s Persona. Lynch plays with doubling of character in Twin Peaks and offers a vision of Hollywood that is absolutely two-faced in Inland Empire, with its reversals and contradictions. In Mulholland Drive, this is first apparent in the shots of the city itself: parking lots and unremarkable landmarks cut with the glimpses of modernist villas. He suggests how the city in itself could have been otherwise.
In Mulholland Drive, Betty is a naive, fresh-faced girl who moves to LA hoping to be, first of all, a great actress, and then maybe also a celebrity, if she can. She is so trusting and nice that when she finds a stranger in her aunt’s house, she apologizes for startling them. But in the second part of the movie Watts plays Diane, a bitter spurned lover who puts a hit on her ex. Both versions are seduced by and in love with Rita, both have their own sex scenes with her. The movie industry too is represented in this duality; it’s irremediably under the heel of the mafia, dependent on its money but filled with idealists as well as genuinely generous people.
- DAVID LYNCH