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Distant Relatives: Persona and Mulholland Drive

Robert here with the first entry in Season 2 of Distant Relatives, the series that explores the connections between one classic and one contemporary film. This week we feature a request by Nathaniel himself. Feel free to make your own requests in the comments.

Two movies about two women

When Mulholland Drive was released to perplexed but ecstatic reviews in 2001, and then again when it was being declared the best film of the decade in many places nine years later, there were few mentions of a film that seems to be an obvious influence: Ingmar Bergman's Persona. Perhaps that's because the actual influence is as indefinable as the two films themselves. The Wikipedia entry on Persona shares a few non-specific sentences about its influence on Mulholland Drive paired with a note demanding a source for this information. So how do we know these films are related? Well they certainly seem like they should be. Both are about two women living together under unusual circumstances, one sick, the other a caregiver. In both cases, at least one of the women is an actress. Both films show a general degredation of these women's relationships. So why weren't more people blathering about the obvious intersection of these two movies? My guess is because both Persona and Mulholland Drive only really inspire one question: What on earth is going on? Interpreting, explaining, "decoding" if you will, these films is the understandable immediate concern of anyone whose just been exposed to these two terrific cinematic puzzles. Yet that does them a sort-of disservice. These films are more than puzzles. You could spend a lifetime trying to figure out what they're all about and completely miss what they're all about. That said, we won't spend much more energy here trying to find answers about these films. We haven't the time, the space, or the likelihood of agreement enough to keep it from being anything but a distraction.

Bergman's Persona begins with actress Elizabeth Vogler (Liv Ullmann) experiencing a sudden fit of despair and going voluntarily mute. In the hospital, she's paired with nurse Alma (Bibi Andersson) and the two are sent off to a seaside cottage where they develop an ambiguously intimate relationship and the silent, passive judgement of Elizabeth begins to turn Alma into an aggressor. Eventually the film begins to flip on it's head, revealing its own artificiality, and it becomes impossible to know who is who, and what role they're playing. Mulholland Drive opens with aspiring actress Betty's discovery of accident victim amnesiac Rita hiding out in her apartment. Soon, between line readings and Betty's audtions, the two lady sleuths are investigating Rita's life and identity and eventually becoming lovers (or have they always been?). Eventually the film begins to flip on it's head, revealing it's own artificiality, and it becomes impossible to know who is who, and what role they're playing.

Unusual universal themes

Death. Sex. Love. Ambition. Lynch and Bergman love all the standard universal themes. But they add two more strange, dark and upleaseant universal themes to the list.... Click for full post.

The first is a known favorite of Lynch's. This is the idea that behind every sunny existence is an unspeakable darkness. It's a concept Lynch afficianatos can find easily in Blue Velvet or Twin Peaks (the latter shares the same universe as Mulholland Drive according to the director). In Muholland Drive, perky, happy Betty's optimism morphs into aggressive desperation. Her world collapses almost inevitably into a mess of crushed dreams, unfaithful lovers, drugs, and crime. Is it this hidden darkness that propels Ullmann's Elizabeth Volger to illness in Persona? She recoils at the sight of an immolated monk on TV. But even that's well after her breakdown. Is it because as an actress she knows she can never truly express real emotion like that monk's suffering? Is it because she doesn't find the joy in her family, her husband and child, that she believe she should? Her companion Alma has a carefully planned life that she claims is a source of happiness. But soon it's clear that it's lackinga too, in large part due to an innocent yet taboo sexual tryst, the details of which she provides perhaps too willingly to Elizabeth. Mulholland Drive's Betty (or is it Diane?) also seems to have problems sexual in nature. There's a mixture of guilt and serious unfulfillment that she shares with Alma. She also shares something with Elizabeth Vogler - her acting aspriations. But unlike Elizabeth, perhaps Betty is good enough to fool reality. She's certainly better than we expect.

The second "new" universal theme that Bergman and Lynch introduce to us is directly at odds with a common western view of the world. It doesn't require any advanced philisophical inquiry to know that our view of the self is simple. We're all autonomous individuals who end at our own fingertips. But someone who sees in the world, a shared consciousness might wonder: how easily can we share parts of ourselves and steal parts of each other? The innocents Alma and Betty become the aggressors after enough time and rejection. They become practically new people. How could this be a them universal in reality? After all, we don't like to think it, but our personalites are always fluid. They change based on age, education, income. People who live together for a long time slowly take on each other's personality traits. Alma and Elizabeth and Betty and Rita begin to share and swap personality traits, even though they haven't been together long, that is, unless they have.

And then there were 3

Between these two films there's a bridge worth mentioning. Another film that hits all of these marks. Robert Altman's 3 Women tells the story of the unassuming Pinky (Sissy Spacek) and the blabbering Millie (Shelly Duvall), two strange women who find themselves suddenly sharing an apartment. Together they work at a senior rehabilitation center, carry on affairs with a cartoonishly masculine man, and aspire to be liked far greater than they are (check off universal themes of death, sex, and ambition). Eventually this film too begins to flip on it's head, Pinky's shy nature turns to domination and Millie becomes the small, frightened flipped side of the coin. Meanwhile a local artist (Jancie Rule as the third titular woman) paints terrifying murals of grotesque humanoid creatures, suggesting a base, primeval reality underneath the surface of our own.

Lynch, Bergman and Altman, all fans of the human condition and the universal truths. Perhaps what this all comes to is the idea that death, sex, love and ambition are things we all experience teetering on the edge of joy and pain. They're easy gateways to a dark reality. And if we have the displeasure of seeing this reality, we can always choose to invent a new one, or steal someone else's. To underline this, we have three films that refuse to portray a definite reality. They alter characters and locations and present us with random images. They take long asides into seemingly unrelated stories or show us footage of the film crew. They leave us wondering if everything was a dream or anything was a dream. And they do so not to create a puzzle worth decoding but to underline their main point: Nothing is real; it's all an illusion.

Other cinematic relatives: Dead Ringers (1988), The Double Life of Veronique (1991), The Talented Mr. Ripley (1999), The Prestige (2006)

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Reader Comments (10)

well done & it probably explain the reason why even if Bergman (Cries & Whispers is for me THE ultimate film) is my favorite Director, "Persona" is one of my least favorite film of his. Since I can NOT stand D.Lynch (even if I truly respect him), particularly M.Drive (wich I find Boring/Pretension/Messy...It make sense

September 22, 2011 | Unregistered Commenterstjean

Ugh. i left a big long comment and it somehow vanished. BOO

September 22, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterNathaniel R

So I'll try to be more succinct this time. Thank you for doing this. I'd forgotten that I requested it but I saw Three Women for the first time shortly after seeing Persona for the first time (a long time ago) but both AFTER Mulholland Drive (which I saw in the theater) and I've always loved thinking about them in tandem.

Three Women is grossly underappreciated given the esteem that the other two are held in but i love that this topic and their themes freely invite you to smoosh them altogether, identity-wise, for your own purposes. The lines between what is what and who is who being so porous.

September 23, 2011 | Registered CommenterNATHANIEL R

This may sound like a crazy one but: The General and Edward Scissorhands?

September 23, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterVolvagia

Robert thank you for this! I have only seen one of the three films mentioned - Persona - and that was in college some time ago, whilst running the film projector for film class (ie, I saw it but probably didn't SEE it). Time for a revisit, and definitely time to check out the other two. (The fluidity of female identity is a favorite theme of mine so I don't know what's held me back.)

September 23, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterJanice

Janice -- u basically won't see a better triple feature this year if you do it :)

September 23, 2011 | Registered CommenterNATHANIEL R

Thank you so much for this insightful piece - Persona and Mulholland Drive are both in my Top 10 of all-time and I've long seen them as deeply connected - you've really articulated the core thematic resonances between them. I think it's hard to know where to stop deconstructing and interpreting each film individually, so it's a very rich but neverending strand when you attempt to unravel both films simultaneously! I admire your courage and thoughtfulness in taking it on - I've always been far too daunted and overwhelmed to set pen to paper on the matter!

I was just reading through the fifth paragraph when I thought to myself that I'd better mention 3 Women in the comments, when lo and behold, I scrolled down to see that you had it covered already! Truly a kind of holy trinity!

I love this: "But someone who sees in the world, a shared consciousness might wonder: how easily can we share parts of ourselves and steal parts of each other?" I think that's why these films end up being some kind of ultimate for me, because it explains why cinema is absolutely NECESSARY and not just an enhancement of my experience of the world. For what is it to view a film but to gain privileged access to the consciousness of another? I've always thought of spectatorship as an act of co-creation and that is why some films resonate with me more than others - it's equally about what the viewer puts into the spaces and why it is that you resist and yield in different places resulting in an experience that is simultaneously subjective and shared.

All three of the films mentioned above are not only directly concerned with the phenomena of co-constructed reality in their narrative themes and content, but also explicitly invite the viewer to co-construct their meaning, thereby placing the viewer in the same position as the protagonist(s). These films become a kind of meta-cinema and I find this this most satisfying and profound relationship moviegoing can provide.

One addition I would make to this list is Celine & Julie Go Boating, another film with two female leads whose shared experience eventually becomes interchangable with one another's, resulting in what initially appears to be a perplexingly fragmented narrative. However, C&J are actually aware of their ability to co-construct and take active pleasure in playing with the phenomenon rather than being damaged or erased by it. So, although it doesn't fit with the Lynch/Bergman concern with the dark reality beneath the surface, the films are all deeply and explicitly concerned with the possibilities and psychic implications of shared consciousness for both the characters and the audience. It's good stuff!

- Sally

September 23, 2011 | Unregistered Commenter7Bis

Sally, I think I smell a thesis brewing. Truly fantastic observations all around. I adore all FOUR films mentioned and find the concept of both 'meta-cinema' and 'fluid female identity' endlessly fascinating and discourse worthy. I was just discussing Mulholland Drive (again) recently, and drew parallels to Persona. While I also count Bergman as my (probable) favorite director - I also adore Lynch (for his strengths and aggravations!)...and I think it's time for me to re-watch Three Women - I've only seen it once, for shame! :)

I'm looking forward to seeing more entries in this intriguing series!

September 23, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterJesse

If Dead Ringers is a cinematic relative, isn't the very similar sounding A Zed and Two Noughts also a relative? (I don't buy Peter Greenaway's assertion that Cronenberg was taking from him though, mostly because I don't think Greenaway was that important before The Cook, The Thief, His Wife & Her Lover.)

September 23, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterVolvagia

Nathaniel -- It is I who thank you. By making this request, you forced me to revisit 3 Women and my original lukewarm response blossomed into fully realized love. What a movie!

Janice -- To be in the position to experience Mulholland Drive & 3 Women for the first time, I envy you. You must get thee to your DVD provider and set up this triple feature.

Sally - Thank you for your observations, they're truly fantastic. Your point about meta-cinema should definitely be a part of this conversation and it was put better than I could have.

Volvagia - While I havent seen A Zed & Two Noughts (I coincidentally have it on order from my local lib) it does sound like it warrents a mention. I've added the list of "other cinematic relatives" this season hoping it would spur conversation on how many different movies are related in many different ways. It's certainly not meant to be definitive. My hope is that people will share their own "relatives" as well. Thank you for doing so. A Zed and Two Noughts & Celine and Julie Go Boating are good choices.

September 23, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterRobert
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