31/07/2013

Symbolism In Films

Symbolism. It's used in the majority of films, when looking close enough. Sometimes it is done with the director's/writer's intent, other times it is the audience's own interpretation, but done correctly, can always lead to insightful discussions and debates. I'll look at a film that 1) will look at hidden and double meanings as a whole and 2) focus on key moments that represent something deeper than is what is first seen on the surface.


Mulholland Drive
Mulholland Drive
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The film I have chosen to focus on is David Lynch's Mulholland Drive (2001), a film so full of twists and turns, it's hard to wrap your head around on first viewing. It is so full of layers, it is quite difficult to describe the plot without giving anyone a headache. On first viewing, Mulholland Drive comes across as a fairly normal film, albeit with strange twists and turns, film devices to be expected from David Lynch. When I first watched it, I was left scratching my head, frustrated that I didn't understand the whole concept. I was urged to re-watch it, paying close attention to the details. Mulholland Drive can be described with two concepts. The first concept is what the audience is first introduced to at the start of the film - a story about a woman called Betty moving to Hollywood to try and break into acting. She stumbles across Rita, a woman who is suffering from amnesia after surviving a car crash. From there, the two women form a partnership to try and figure out how Rita came to be in the accident and find any clues to help jolt her memory. Which sounds straightforward enough, until the film introduces other characters and subplots. And so, the two characters carry on with trying to find answers to the question they have until it leads them to a theatre. And that's where events in the film take an even stranger twist leading onto the second concept of the film. Just after halfway through Mulholland Drive, the whole plot shifts focus - with same characters having different personas, same scenes having different meanings. Betty becomes Diane, a messed-up wannabe actress, far from the eager, perky Betty Naomi Watts portrayed in the first half of the film. Rita becomes Camilla, a woman who has everything - success, beauty, a partner. The audience soon discovers that Diane and Camilla were involved in a romantic relationship - with Diane being the obsessed, meek partner of the two and Camilla being the dominant, unsympathetic one, complete opposite to the first half of the film. If we describe the film in two halves, it may be easier to grasp the concept of the plot and any meanings. It may be safe to say, in my opinion, that Diane and Camilla are the real-life characters here, with 'Betty' and 'Rita''s part of the story, either a dream or a fantasy world that Diane has conjured up to cope with the agony of what she has done (ordering the hit on her former lover). This could be seen throughout the first half:
  •  The opening scene of a 50s dance competition - which may symbolise a more innocent, glamourous age. This is corroborated by the poster seen in Betty's bathroom, that of Rita Hayworth in the 1940s film Gilda (again, a glamourous time in Hollywood). Betty's desperation to be an actress in these scenes seems to be more innocent and sweet rather than obsessive. She is innocent and naive, as demonstrated by how she speaks and dresses. 
  • Another way this first half can represent Diane's yearning for a happy ending is the use of colours throughout each scene - a lot of warm colours are used in the mise-en-scene: reds, oranges, pinks (this is directly contrasted with the colours  that show up in Diane's life - blues, whites which represent the starkness and emptiness that Diane seems to be feeling).
  • Throughout the Betty story, we see little clues pop up, instances that probably wouldn't make sense if viewed only once without any concentration but make more sense once thought about - an example being of Justin Theroux's director character, Adam. His purpose in the first half seems to be for comic relief almost, every little bad thing that can happen to someone happens to this guy - he loses creative control over his film, his wife not only cheats on him, but when confronting her, he ends up getting beaten by the wife's lover (a cliched, over-the-top, cartoon-like character). All the bad things that occur to Adam could be a representation of Diane's anger and hatred towards him, the reason to why is brought up in the latter half of the film.
  • Keys are a focus point throughout the entire film and not just in the Betty half. Betty and Rita find a key that in the end, does a lot more damage when inserted into its rightful hole. In the Diane half, the key is a sign from the hitman to let Diane know when the hit has been made. Keys open locked, hidden things from view - letting in secrets. The box that the key opens that sends Betty's world crashing down, which can be a metaphor for Pandora's Box, opening a box that should never have been opened, unleashing unspeakable horrors. This theory is supported by the fact that the next scene directly after the box is opened is the introduction of Diane and Camilla's story.
  • The lack of music used in the Betty half creates the jarring effect that the film has over an audience, there is something unreal about the unnatural close-up lingering shots. This makes the focus on the character more intense, helping the audience noticing the smallest of details (waitress in the first half being called Diane, changing to Betty in the second half of the film). The smaller details, such as the aforementioned waitress, may help to confirm that the whole first half is part of Diane's mind and these clues of the real life are seeping through, showing the cracks in Diane's mental state as she tries to come to terms with what she has done.
  • The scene in Club Silencio, the theatre that the two main characters discover in their quest to find answers, is the most jarring out of all the scenes in the Betty part of the film. It is here that Betty's life starts to crumble as, instead of finding answers for Rita, Betty stumbles on some truths she can't quite grasp about herself. This may be shown during the performance of 'Llorando', Spanish version of Roy Orbison's 'Crying' (which may have its own connotations). The two women are so overcome with emotion, with Betty unknowingly more so. She has a fit in this scene, which may be her mind being overwhelmed with the horrible truth that her life is a lie; it could also be a representation of the end of Betty's life that is soon upcoming. It may also represent something physical in Diane's world simultaneously - her realisation what she has done to her love, her suicide or maybe even any attempt to save Diane's life at the end of the film (although this is never implied).
The switch from the happy, naive, 50s style that Mulholland Drive was going for in the first half of the film to the dark, depressing, adult scenes in the second half is a sudden one with not as many quirky, odd symbolic instances. This may be because it's meant to be a more realistic portrayal of a woman's distress in life. There are some key moments in the latter half however:

  • The colours, as mentioned before, are seen in Diane's apartment as a complete contrast to that of Betty's apartment.  Gone are the warmth overtones in Betty's apartment to be replaced with the cold, stark tones in Diane's, representing her character and her state of mind
  • The camera point of view during Camilla's engagement party. The point of view is that of Diane's and the shuddering effect that the camera shows, can symbolise Diane's deteriorating state of mind. It is here that she realises that she can never be with Camilla again and is maybe the point where she devises the plan to have her killed.
  • The version of the couple that Betty shared a plane journey with, appearing in a manic, shrunken way. They appear from a box (Pandora's Box?) and plague Diane in a hysterical, frantic way, coming towards her laughing uncontrollably and screaming at her. They could represent that nothing is what it first seems as they appear in the first part a as seemingly normal, polite old couple (albeit slightly sinister with maniacal grins on their faces). They could also be a representation of Diane's breaking mind as it is this point that she knows that the hit has taken place, causing her to freak out hysterically, screaming until the only peace she can find is through death (a nice link up to a scene shown earlier involving Betty and Rita).  
   This explanation and summary is probably far too simplistic for what David Lynch was going for. However, it is my opinion on what the film is about. Which is the great thing about symbolic films, there's never just one explanation, audience members can come up with a variety of reasons, all as interesting as the next. I'd be interested to hear of any other symbolic films you can come up with and what the hidden meanings are.