The films of David Lynch are replete with performances that reveal rather than obscure. Whether appropriated for the purposes of music or theatrics, the Lynchian stage is a place where hidden truths are made manifest and artifice is stripped away. In Blue Velvet (1986) Ben (Dean Stockwell) lip syncs to Roy Orbison’s pop hit “In Dreams” while sadistic villain Frank Booth (Dennis Hopper) mutters along, entranced and vulnerable like a small child. During a pivotal scene in Twin Peaks: Fire Walk with Me (1992) the doomed Laura Palmer (Sheryl Lee) recognises the weight and inevitability of her own tragedy, her body wracked with sobs as Julee Cruise sings the hypnotic “Questions in a World of Blue”.
However, it is in his 2001 film Mulholland Drive that we encounter Lynch’s most fully realised vision of this theatrical disclosure. The Club Silencio sequence not only serves as the narrative crux of the film, the most baffling moment in a strange and unyielding text, but it is also the most beautiful, moving and revelatory scene in Lynch’s filmography. It is undoubtedly one of my favourite cinematic moments, and like the characters who play it out, I can’t help but become emotionally invested in what I know to be an illusion.
A cogent synopsis of Mulholland Drive is beyond my ability as a writer, but I’m going to attempt to contextualise the Club Silencio scene within the broader events of the film. The scene takes place in the latter half of the movie, long after a beautiful, talented ingénue named Betty (Naomi Watts) has arrived in a sun-drenched, pastel-hued Hollywood with dreams of becoming a star. Club Silencio also comes long after a mysterious amnesiac bearing the name Rita (Laura Harring) has stumbled from a car wreck and inserted herself into Betty’s Hollywood dreamland. On the night the two women attend a musical performance at Club Silencio, they make love before slipping off into the dark LA streets to visit the club. Rita, it seems, is a puzzle. Her true identity has vanished in an amnesiac fog, and she is menaced by ill-defined yet threatening figures. The pair hope that Club Silencio will hold the clue to Rita’s obscure past.
Rita and Betty are afraid, but they are also giddy, delirious and in love. For Betty, in particular, the entire affair seems to mirror the classic Hollywood films whose glamour and intrigue lured her to California in the first place. Rita is the sensual, enigmatic femme fatale; while Betty is the sunny, resourceful optimist – Doris Day meets Nancy Drew. Their romance is threatened by dangerous villains, gangsters and assassins, but their commitment to each other is resolute. Their love is the stuff of silver screen enchantment, however as the film progresses, it becomes clear that this is precisely what their relationship is. It is a dream, a fantasy shaped by the conventions and iconography of Hollywood cinema. The final third of the film reveals – somewhat equivocally – that Betty is the idealised, imaginary double of Diane (Naomi Watts again), a failed actress whose lover – the beautiful and successful Camilla (Laura Harring again) – has abandoned her. Although Mulholland Drive remains fundamentally ambiguous, the last part of the film suggests that everything we have witnessed thus far has been a comforting fantasy concocted by the desperate, suicidal Diane in the last, excruciating moments of her life. The Club Silencio scene is central to the unravelling of this fantasy as the entire sequence speaks, through staged performances, of the impossibility of maintaining such a fantasy. It is here that Diane’s imagined world of Hollywood glamour and fairy-tale romance falls apart, exposed as an illusion by the theatrics on stage.
The Club Silencio sequence begins with a strange instance of doubling, as Rita and Betty enter the club sporting the same short, blonde bob. Rita’s life has been threatened by sinister assassins and she disguises her own dark locks by wearing a wig that closely mirrors Betty’s hairstyle. That Rita here appears as a reflection of Betty, an ersatz blonde who echoes the form of her lover, is significant. It is an early suggestion that Rita is not real and is instead simply a facet of Betty, a projection of her hopes and desires rather than a real woman of flesh and blood. As the pair walk to their seats, the silence of the darkened theatre is broken by the booming voice of a diabolic emcee who intones “No hay banda”, or “There is no band”. What follows is an amusing performance – part cabaret act, part magic trick – wherein the emcee appears to conjure musical cues out of thin air, all while reminding the audience in English, Spanish and French that there is no band: “No hay banda”, “Il n’y a pas d’orchestre”. He tells us repeatedly that there is no band, yet if we want to hear a clarinet, a clarinet plays as if by magic; fantasy conforms to our desires. Moments later we see a man playing a trumpet on stage. He removes the instrument from his mouth and the music continues to play. No matter how convincing the illusion it will always remain just that, a deception.
The emcee’s repeated intonations reminding us that there is no band also appear to serve as an intertextual allusion to the surrealist artist Rene Magritte’s iconic 1929 painting “The Treachery of Images”. In the painting we see a perfectly rendered pipe with the words “Ceci n’est pas une pipe” – “This is not a pipe” – written underneath. And the words do not lie, what we see presented on the canvas is not a pipe, but the image of a pipe, a representation or reflection of the real thing. In his article on labyrinths and illusions in David Lynch’s later films, Ebrahim Barzegar writes that the Club Silencio scene “has close affinity with the Belgian surrealist Rene Magritte’ famous painting La Trahison des Images [in] which the written sentence and the image are in striking contrast with each other” (178). Indeed, this sequence and its intertextual gesture towards Magritte’s painting could serve as a thesis statement for the entire film: what we see is not real; it is an illusion or a fictive representation of reality. Yet, as both Magritte and Lynch know all too well, even when we know that what we are witnessing is a fantasy, we are still prone to fall for its illusive charms and simulacratic pleasures.
By the time the club’s main performer walks on stage, the audience should be aware that what they are watching is an illusion. Both within the diegesis of the film and for the viewer, it should be clear that Club Silencio’s music is always recorded. Yet, we are entranced; Betty and Rita are entranced. When the emcee conjures lightening as part of his act, Betty begins to shake. The lightening is a stage trick, but it affects her nonetheless and signals a traumatic rupture in her fantasy world. The emcee vanishes and is replaced by an announcer who introduces, in Spanish, the star attraction: La Llorona de Los Angeles, Rebekah Del Rio. Heavily made-up and tottering onto the stage in high heels, Del Rio initially appears fragile and uncertain, but when she begins to sing it is powerful, emotive and heart-wrenching. The song itself is strange and beautiful; familiar yet distant and alien. It is a Spanish-language version of the popular Roy Orbison song “Crying”, here retitled “Llorando”. A fairly conventional pop song, “Crying” is sung from the perspective of a person who unexpectedly encounters a lost love, casually says hello and reflects on the fact that their former lover never realises that the singer had been “crying over you”. The final lines of the song speak to a depth of sorrow: “Yes, now you’re gone and from this moment on/ I’ll be crying, crying, crying, crying/ Yeah, I’m crying, crying, over you”.
The tune is familiar and the song is well known. A popular hit of the 1960s, it has featured regularly on film and television in the intervening decades and has received extensive airplay on radio stations around the world. In the context of Mulholland Drive it could, of course, be said to reflect the real-world heartbreak that impelled Diane to create the dream world of Betty and Rita. The song can therefore be understood as an intrusion of painful reality onto the escapist realm of fantasy. At the same time, the song is strange, rendered alien by its translation into Spanish and the slow, a cappella style of Del Rio’s version. Los Angeles is a city with a large Hispanic population and Spanish is ubiquitous in the streets, on signs and in announcements played on public transport. English-speaking residents of the city will probably have some familiarity with the language, even if they only recognise certain sounds without ever fully comprehending their meaning. The translation of the song into Spanish thus renders it alien while at the same time imbuing it with a sense of familiarity derived both from the popularity of the song itself and the pervasiveness of Spanish in Los Angeles (a city whose name speaks to its Spanish origins). The uncanniness of the song – the sense that it is at once strange and intimately known – again signals the return of a reality that Diane seeks to repress. As Del Rio continues to sing, her voice filling the almost empty auditorium, Betty and Rita begin to cry and shake. In a sense, they mirror Del Rio and her song; they cry, fully and helplessly relinquishing themselves to tears.
The song reaches its crescendo, and as both the diegetic audience and those of us observing the film become increasingly invested in her performance, Del Rio collapses in a heap on the stage. The song, however, continues to play. The beautiful performance has been a recording, a fantasy, all along. As attendants and the announcer run on stage and carry away Del Rio’s motionless body, the song continues. Its emotional resonance lingers even after the illusion has been shattered.
It is at this moment, still tear-stained and stunned, that Betty discovers a strange blue box in her handbag. Later, she will return home, open the box and be returned to the drab reality where she is the broken suicidal Diane. That she discovers this box only after a performance in which her fantasy has been exposed is significant. Every aspect of Rebekah Del Rio’s performance spoke not to the comforting lies of the theatre, but to the dark reality it masks. Her song of heartbreak echoed Diane’s own failing relationship with Betty. Translated into Spanish, it is rendered strange, an uncanny reminder of repressed pain. Del Rio’s stage name, La Llorona de Los Angeles, references a well-known Mexican and Southwestern US folktale about a woman who is abandoned by her husband and in her grief drowns herself and her children. Her spirit is said to wander rivers and watery places, weeping and searching for her children. The image of a grief-stricken woman murdering those she loves mirrors Diane’s real-life tragedy, as poisoned by sorrow and the desire for vengeance, she pays a hitman to kill Camilla. The melancholic song performed by a woman bearing the name La Llorona reflects Diane’s pain and ruptures the fantasy she has created to obscure it.
The Club Silencio scene is one suffused with meaning. It is a treatise on the nature of fantasy, on our infinite capacity to invest ourselves in narratives and performances we know to be false. Like Betty and Rita, I invariably find myself overcome by the sorrowful beauty of Del Rio’s performance. I am implicated in the scene, sobbing as Betty and Rita do. The scene evokes lost love, the pain of nostalgia and the agonising way in which past traumas can destroy even the most beautiful of dreams. The sequence is also, as Lynch would say, filled with secrets. The performance is presided over by a mysterious blue-haired woman who watches from a balcony overlooking the stage. She is visually connected to the lightening that causes Betty to tremble, and she appears again at the end of the film to whisper the word “Silencio”. She seems, at least to me, to be some sort of guardian, residing at the point where fantasy and reality meet. There has also been some speculation by critics and fans that Club Silencio represents a sort of afterlife or purgatorial space. It has even been suggested that the club is somehow linked to the Black Lodge, the mysterious extradimensional space from Lynch’s Twin Peaks. Indeed, numerous commentators have observed two women sitting in the audience who closely resemble Laura Palmer and Ronette Pulaski.
I’ve also been lucky enough to teach Mulholland Drive, and when I do I always pay particular attention to this scene. Over the years, students have put forth a myriad of insightful, original and often contradictory interpretations of this sequence. And that’s the beauty of the scene. It can be read in so many different ways; it pulsates with symbolism and meaning. Yet, its power is essentially emotive. Del Rio’s performance is powerful and melancholic. The viewer is drawn into the scene and experiences it as Betty and Rita do. We too heed the emcee’s warning that everything in Club Silencio is a recording, an illusion. Logically, we know that the ghostly clarinets and trombones are fake. We see a man remove the trumpet from his lips and hear the instrument continue to play. It is demonstrated to us repeatedly that there is no band, no real music. When Del Rio begins to sing, we understand intellectually that like the previous performances, hers too is a beautiful lie. She is lip syncing and the beautiful melody emanating from her lips is not really her voice. Yet, like Betty and Rita, we are enchanted by it. The emotionality of the performance draws us in, and we are hypnotised by its mournful beauty. When Del Rio collapses, the illusion is exposed as trickery, a stage magician’s sleight of hand, however we are still invested. Her falls seems to be a consequence of the pain expressed in the song and we remain involved. In some ways, we can view this sequence not just as the laying bare of Diane’s fantasy, but as a treatise on fantasy in general and a metatextual commentary on the nature of cinema. As humans, we give ourselves over to stories we know to be false and surrender emotionally to narratives despite their fantastical nature. Our emotion overwhelms our logic and we inevitably surrender to the illusion – that is the lie and the beauty of film.
Barzegar, Ebrahim. “Labyrinths and Illusions in David Lynch’s Mulholland Drive and Inland Empire” CINEJ Cinema Journal <https://pdfs.semanticscholar.org/1dda/d8e44528983278cb4fd9a654c870961ca084.pdf> Accessed: 12 Oct 2019.
Dimuro, Gina. “The Legend Of La Llorona: ‘The Weeping Woman’ Of Your Nightmares. All That’s Interesting <https://allthatsinteresting.com/la-llorona> Accessed: 12 Oct 2019.Horton, H. Perry. “Fan Theory Friday: Is ‘Mulholland Drive’ a ‘Twin Peaks’ Movie?” Film School Rejects <https://filmschoolrejects.com/fan-theory-mulholland-drive-f80c481945e8/> Accessed: 12 Oct 2019.