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Hollywood Noir 

*Mulholland Drive (R)
Universal Pictures

David Lynch subverts cinema with his signature surreal analytic approach to narrative structure and character with a movie no less enjoyable than it is paradoxical. After his Disneyish anomaly The Straight Story and the disastrous Lost Highway, David Lynch returns with a vengeance to the lovely and depraved vision that made movies like Blue Velvet and Wild at Heart such stunning examples of the director's palpitating nature. Set in the area surrounding the famous Hollywood sign in Los Angeles, Mulholland Drive is, in the director's words, "a love story in the city of dreams."

But one woman's dreams are another woman's amnesia-fueled nightmares. Betty (Naomi Watts of Tank Girl) and Rita (Laura Elena Harring of Exit to Eden) are love-locked duelists in a modern noir quest to find Rita's true identity while Betty hunts for fame as an actress. Then a shift occurs that turns the plot and characters on their ears when lust, violence, death and a world of abstraction take over.

Originally created, but rejected, as a television pilot for ABC, Mulholland Drive taps directly into the Billy Wilder Sunset Boulevard ethos of Hollywood filmmaking before leaping wildly off into a canyon of warped reality. After a car crash, Rita (as she names herself after the crash from seeing a poster of Rita Hayworth in Gilda) survives to seek refuge in an apartment whose tenant has just left on vacation. Betty Elms arrives from Deep River, Ontario to stay in her aunt's apartment while she looks for acting work only to find a shell-shocked and amnesia-ridden Rita showering in the bathroom. Betty presumes Rita is a friend of her aunt and strikes up a friendship. The connection between the two women is immediate and the story takes off on a lyrical path of daunting reversals and multilayered subtext.

The consummation of Betty and Rita's love for one another is probably the hottest lesbian love scene ever filmed for a non porn movie. It represents a shifting point that complicates their relationship just as the introduction of sex does to any budding romance. But in this story the sex act is a bomb that explodes the characters' already variable identities and throws the narrative into a retrograde spin that transfers and redefines reality.

One subplot involves Hollywood director Adam Kesher (Justin Theroux of American Psycho), who is pressured into a casting decision that he's adamantly against by some hard-ass producers who wield intimidation for sport. There's not a little self-parody on Lynch's part with the Adam subplot that also provides some signature Lynch set pieces. When a saucy actress with a beehive hairdo lip-synchs Connie Stevens's "Sixteen Reasons" at an audition for Adam, the movie floods over with a kittenish, come-hither charm that's a perfect balm to the abstraction at hand.

Production designer Jack Fisk (art director on Badlands and Carrie) gives the film an immaculately crisp look that is well supported by composer Angelo Badalamenti's non-intrusive score. But the big surprises are the pitch-perfect offerings by Naomi Watts and Laura Elena Harring. Both actresses give finely tuned naturalistic performances in roles that demand micro to macro character shifts while maintaining glamour that is all Hollywood.

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