I wrote the following essay back in college and later presented it at the University of Notre Dame’s Midwest Undergraduate Film Conference. It was written for Dan Rybicky’s class on John Cassavetes and Robert Altman, which was one of the best film courses I’ve taken. Memo to Columbia College students: if Rybicky is teaching a class, take it.
With his eyes squinting into the darkness, and his fingers wiggling as if playing an invisible piano, filmmaker David Lynch speaks to an auditorium crowded with eager students. He’s there to discuss his foundation for consciousness-based education and world peace. A tormented-looking boy approaches a microphone, and asks the cinematic genius why he insists on making films that are confusing and abstract. Lynch’s stern face breaks out into a devious grin reminiscent of the one carried by the Master of Ceremonies at Club Silencio. “Life is full of abstractions,” Lynch declares, “and the only way we can make heads or tails of it is through intuition.” He then goes on to explain how transcendental meditation has assisted him in the creation of all his art, and how it has provided him with enlightenment, and the revelation that “we are one.”
This philosophy provides the key to unlocking the mystery behind three of the most fascinating, brilliant, and seemingly incomprehensible films in cinema history: Ingmar Bergman’s “Persona” (1966), Robert Altman’s “3 Women” (1977), and David Lynch’s “Mulholland Drive” (2001). They were each born out of a similar experience for the filmmakers. While recuperating from illness in a hospital bed, Bergman felt a liberating sensation when unconscious, which gave him the idea for “Persona.” While Altman worried about his wife’s illness, he dreamed he was making a film that later became “3 Women.” These stories of artistic inspiration are tremendously similar to Lynch’s method of meditation, which undoubtedly played a part in the birth of “Mulholland Drive.” These three films use similar characters, plots, filmmaking techniques, and themes to tell, more or less, the same story about isolation, shattered illusions, shifting identities, and unwelcome guests. Intuition may provide the only map to guide one through these cinematic dreamscapes, yet upon finding enlightenment, one may come to the startling revelation that these films “are one.”
To begin with, close attention must be given to the characters themselves. All three films primarily focus on the strange relationship that develops between two women. One of them is talkative and exudes a bubbly personality. She’s embodied by Alma (Bibi Andersson), the nurse in “Persona,” Millie (Shelley Duvall), the solarium worker in “3 Women,” and Diane (Naomi Watts), the aspiring actress in “Mulholland Drive.” All three of these women are struggling to stay content with their own idealized perception of self, by carrying with them a false persona. Alma pretends to have the utmost confidence in her professional abilities and her impending marriage. Millie pretends to attract the lust of her male co-workers and neighbors, while using societal trends to gather friends. Diane literally pretends (aka dreams) to be Betty, a promising young actress whose talent attracts the attention of directors. These are all false roles the women play to mask their inner weaknesses and insecurities. Alma lacks belief in her abilities, and remains tormented about her past, which includes an erotic episode that gave her unexpected pleasure. The wildly unpopular Millie is ignored by the men she lusts after, and all her trendy chatting falls on the deaf ears of her disinterested co-workers. Diane is a failed actress who falls into immense depression after her relationship with a lesbian lover, who also happens to be a successful actress, comes to an end. She doesn’t take on a false persona, so much as dream about it, which proves equally destructive for her.
The second woman in these films is the opposite of the first. Instead of consciously living a fake role, she is in search of her own identity. Although she is often silent and deceptively naïve, she is deeply introspective and observant about the events that take place. She seemingly idolizes the first woman, who in turn latches onto her by playing the additional role of ‘caregiver.’ The second woman is eventually revealed to be much stronger than the first. She’s embodied by Elizabeth (Liv Ullmann), the actress gone mute in “Persona,” Pinky (Sissy Spacek), the mysterious new solarium-worker who moves in with Millie in “3 Women,” and Camilla (Laura Elena Harring), the actress suffering from amnesia in “Mulholland Drive.” Both Elizabeth and Pinky (whose real name is also Millie) study the personality of the “first woman,” even secretly jotting down notes about her. In Diane’s dream, Camilla acquires the first woman’s name and physical identity in order to protect herself from fictional villains. In reality, however, these “second women” are vastly more assured in their personalities than the “first women.” Elizabeth is secure enough in her identity to control and even absorb that of Alma’s. After a botched suicide attempt that gave her temporary amnesia, Pinky steals Millie’s identity, and brings it to an idealized version, by succeeding in wooing men and acquiring friends. Camilla is, in real life, the idealized version of her ex-lover Diane’s personal goals – she’s a successful film actress with a happy love life. The “second woman” is strong in every way that the “first woman” is weak. This makes the women’s identities begin to shift and even in some cases, “become one.”
There are other characters that revolve around these two women, several of them seeming to be nothing more than figments of the imagination. In Altman’s film, there is a woman reminiscent of Elizabeth, a silent artist named Willie (Janice Rule), who seems to be despairing over a pregnancy that she seems to know will end tragically. There are also various characters that have realistic identities, but carry out surrealistic actions. In “Persona,” a bewildered Alma is approached (in a dream?) by Elizabeth’s husband, who identifies her as his wife. In “3 Women,” Pinky fails to recognize an old couple (nearly comical in their strangeness) who claim to be her parents. In “Mulholland Drive,” Diane fantasizes about having parents/adult guardians in the form of a monstrously pleased old couple, who later attack her before she commits (or dreams of committing) suicide. With the exception of Willie in “3 Women,” these extraneous characters seem to symbolize the fears and anxieties that torment the women’s psyches. In “Mulholland Drive,” Diane casts the people she despises in real life as villains and other unfortunate souls in her dream (her victims include the director and actress that Camilla’s romantically entangled with). Her most memorable imagined demon is that of a fearsome bum who carries a box full of the characters’ most feared and neglected insecurities. These phantoms have an emotional effect similar to the grotesque creatures Willie paints in her murals.
In order to put these characters into a more comprehensible perspective, one must next focus on the plot itself, in which the two women find themselves temporarily living together in a location that seems shut off from the outside world. Sister Alma is ordered by Elizabeth’s psychiatrist to take the actress to her isolated cottage, where they will live for a few weeks, and allow the patient to recover. Pinky becomes emotionally attached to co-worker Millie, and eagerly responds to her ad posting the need for a roommate. While the cottage in “Persona” was isolated on a beach, Millie’s lonely apartment room is placed on the second floor, overlooking a large swimming pool. When Diane’s intense love for Camilla fails to reciprocate, she hires an assassin to kill her ex-lover. Out of guilt, she dreams that the assassination was botched by a car accident, and Camilla emerged from the wreckage naïve with amnesia. Casting herself as the angelic Betty, Diane innocently helps Camilla search for her identity, while letting her live in the Hollywood apartment she’s gotten from her aunt. In reality, the aunt is dead, while Diane remains broke and lives alone in a cheap and lonely apartment.
Although the dream-details are more clear-cut in “Mulholland Drive,” all three films contain segments that seem to be depicting a dream being had by the “first woman”. Alma dreams of standing by Elizabeth, looking ahead as if into a mirror, while the actress sensually strokes back the nurse’s bangs. There’s also a sequence that may symbolize the absorption of Alma’s weak identity into that of the dominant Elizabeth. Alma fiercely reaches out at Elizabeth’s face, as if in an attempt to grab at the soul she has lost within the body of the actress. Alma then does an inexplicable thing: she slashes her own arm, and forces Elizabeth to bend down and drink her blood, creating a visual representation of Elizabeth consuming Alma’s very being. A more obvious dream sequence occurs in “3 Women” that blends together various images from the film into a confounding collage – one image shows a maniacally laughing doll morph into the hollow face of Pinky’s rejected “father.” This sequence also represents a considerable “break” in the film’s narrative, which can be seen in the other two films: the end of Diane’s dream in “Mulholland Drive” and the breaking of the film itself by a burning projector in “Persona.”
Although the two women’s identities merge, each filmmaker has a slightly different way of depicting it. Bergman visually represented the fusing of their beings in an unforgettable image that combined half of Alma’s face with the other half of Elizabeth’s. Lynch used dream logic to explain how Diane fantasized about splitting herself into the two fictional women who fall happily in love. Altman’s take on the material is considerably more literal, as Pinky begins to wear Millie’s makeup, hang out at the places she used to go, and successfully flirt with the men Millie sought after. She even sleeps with Edgar (Robert Fortier), Willie’s disloyal husband, who Millie also had an affair with out of desperation. After each Millie fails to save Willie’s botched pregnancy, which ends in a miscarriage thanks to Edgar’s absence, the three women bind together as a “family.” It is also implied that they killed Edgar, and Altman even “suggested” that his body is buried under the pile of tires that is seen in the final image. The other films also end the story in some form of death and “nothingness.” Lynch ends “Mulholland Drive” in Diane’s supposed suicide, before cutting to a woman in an empty theater whispering, “Silencio.” This word mirrors the final utterance Alma forces Elizabeth to mutter in Persona: “nothing.” This deconstruction of life’s illusions into seemingly nihilistic fragments will be discussed later in the paper.
The cinematic styles of Bergman, Altman, and Lynch are wildly different, but they each utilize some of the same filmmaking techniques to tell this singular story. Each film includes an atonal music score that reverberates under every image, creating a brooding sense of unease. Although only Bergman actually melded together the two women’s faces, there are numerous shots in each film that depict a merging of the two women’s souls. In Diane’s dream, when Camilla sleeps in bed next to Betty, mumbling “silencio”, the camera shoots at an angle where half of Betty’s face looks over Camilla’s profile, and their features line up, creating an image similar to Bergman’s. During the “3 Women” dream sequence, Mille and Pinky sit motionless next to a pool, in the exact same pose as the twin girls who work with them. Not only does the use of twins by Altman in his subverting of the horror genre foreshadow Duvall’s involvement with more sinister twins in “The Shining” (1980), it also emphasizes the growing parallels between the two women. There are also shots, notably an angle where Pinky dresses in a mirror while Millie gabs through a doorway, that force the separated women to look as if they’re facing and blurring into one another. All three filmmakers use slow pacing and jarring visuals (such as brilliant flashes of white light) to give the film the rhythm and texture of a brooding, and even mournful, nightmare.
Yet as Lynch remarked to the confounded student, “intuition” is the only valid language to interpret such abstract works of art as these three films. All three filmmakers have argued that there is no real answer or overall meaning to these films. Despite the preceding similarities noted above, no ‘evidence’ could really ever be considered proof that the three films are telling the same story. The best place to find connections between works of art are not in the specifics of character or camera angles, but in fundamental themes, and this is the area where the three films truly merge into one being.
The first most glaring theme is the fallacy of role playing, in both artistic performance and life itself. Like Elizabeth, whose stage performance of “Electra” – and her voice – was halted by inner torment, the role players in all three films can’t stop reality from seeping under their practiced façades. Diane uses dreams, and later masturbation, as a defense mechanism against dealing with the inadequacies of her life, both romantically and professionally. In the case of Altman’s film, the women are subjected to forever playing roles because of their failure to exist in the real world. At the film’s conclusion, the three women isolate themselves in a house, and play the roles of grandmother (Willie), mother (Millie), and daughter (Pinky) as a zombie-like ritual. Since they have devoted themselves to playing roles, their lives are hollow. Willie wakes up from a vivid dream in the final shot, thus implying that perhaps the entire film was a dream. During Diane’s dream, all the acting is slightly heightened (examples include Betty’s bubbly demeanor, the villain’s bizarre verbal patterns, the stereotypical casting of Robert Forster as a cop, etc) to highlight the inherently false nature of Diane’s personal dreamed delusions.
A more subtle theme of the films, notably “Persona” and “Mulholland Drive,” are the lesbian undertones of the two women’s relationship. Although Pinky awkwardly clung to Millie, and described her as “the most perfect person she ever met,” their bond is more narcissistic and competitive than romantic. Alma, however, delivers a haunting monologue about having an orgasm while watching her nude female friend have sex with a stranger. Elizabeth is sexually stirred by this confession, which calls into question whether their later sensual embrace was Alma’s fantasy, or a remembered event. Diane dreams of having passionate sex with Camilla, but the reality of their relationship’s intimacy remains unknown.
Yet the lesbian attraction merely implied by Bergman is brought completely into the open by Lynch, as is the theme of “an inability to create.” It is Diane’s failure to succeed in Hollywood and build lasting relationships that eventually drives her over the edge. Willie’s miscarriage symbolizes the stagnant lives of the three women, who are occasionally framed through a kitsch water machine to look like overgrown fetuses, too timid to leave the womb. In a repeated monologue before their faces combine, Alma recites an ambiguous, detailed story to Elizabeth about the contemptuous relationship she has with her son. “You wanted a dead child,” Alma declares, while describing how Elizabeth later hated her adoring son’s “thick lips” and “moist…pleading eyes.” This description fits that of the unknown boy who, at the film’s opening, climbs out of bed to curiously stroke the morphing faces of Alma and Elizabeth. Does he symbolize a boy possibly rejected by both women? Regardless, the characters in each of these films lack an ability to create, which eventually seals their rather nihilistic fate.
This leads to a discussion of a major thematic element touched upon by each filmmaker: the shattering of illusions. Bergman bookends his film with footage of lighting embers, film reels, projected light, and fragmented images such as silent movies, cartoons, crucifixions, sexual organs, Jews rounded up by Nazis, and a Buddhist monk burning himself in Vietnam. These last two images later terrify Elizabeth, implying that the world’s horrors have made her unable to create fanciful illusions onstage, and thus scared her into silent solitude. The other aforementioned footage draws attention to the illusion of cinema itself, deconstructing it before the viewer’s very eyes. This directly mirrors the sequence at Club Silencio that immediately precedes Diane’s awakening from her dream. While music plays in the club’s theater, people fade on and off the stage, directly noting that the audible music is nothing but a recording, and an “illusion.” This is a blatant reference to Diane’s frightening recognition of the fact that everything she’s just experienced has been a dream.
While this theme speaks volumes about Lynch’s dissatisfaction with Hollywood-bred illusion, as well as Bergman’s modernist despair that temporarily stretched to a disbelief in cinema itself, Altman seems much more disenchanted with the illusion of societal standards for women. Millie’s embracement of media images and faddish catalogues has caused her to lose touch with reality. “3 Women”’s utilization of the theme has less to do with psychosis and performance art as it has to do with the illusions of a successful lifestyle fed to American women. Altman’s women are victimized by a cruel society and thoughtless men, and thus are granted a hermetic existence on the outskirts of civilization. The women in all the films are victims of force-fed illusions.
The final theme explored by each of these films involves the concept of a “persona non grata”, which means “unwelcome person.” Each story deals with the infiltration of a persona non grata into the minds and spirits of these female characters. Just as the man in Diane’s dream is psychologically tormented by the bum behind Winkie’s diner, so is Diane herself frightened by the reality she hopes to have swallowed up by her dreamland. It isn’t so much the intruder of another woman that makes up the persona non grata in this story, as it is the suppression of an unwelcome truth – Alma’s insecurity, Millie’s superficiality, Diane’s delusions – that allows society as a whole to take advantage of these weak souls and crush them. As a review for “Persona” stated in its theatrical trailer, “[the film’s] about loneliness, estrangement, our ability to reach one another…Persona is an illusion shattered.”
In conclusion, one’s own personal enlightenment may be experienced while unconscious, in a dream, transcendentally meditating, or watching the flickering of a cinematic mirage, but rarely while reading words on a page. Although there are numerous similarities between the characters, plots, filmmaking techniques, and themes on display in these three films, words simply aren’t the adequate tools to describe the mystifying unity that exists between them. These movies seem to be built from personal intuitions the filmmakers have sensed about the nature of existence, and therefore can only be interpreted by viewers through the use of their own intuition. Why do two women find themselves blurring into one another? Is there earth-shattering significance to such an event, or is it merely just a dream? Is there evidence in our present society of people on a path to self-destruction because they have sold their souls to unreachable dreams? Aren’t we each tormented by our own persona non grata?