The daring film-maker’s 2001 Hollywood-set thriller is as dazzling, and unknowably ambiguous, as ever

The greatest films are often the ones that we don’t completely know, that tease the mind with question marks and ambiguities, and leave you circling back to scenes or moments that linger vividly in the mind, often triggering an emotional response that can’t be immediately identified. There’s a reason why Alfred Hitchcock’s Vertigo, which opened to a mixed reception in 1958, spent the last 50 years inching up Sight & Sound’s greatest-of-all-time poll before finally upending the mighty Citizen Kane in 2012. The film’s dreamlike story of romantic obsession and psychological violence, radiant in color and intensity, first seemed like a curiosity before it was understood as a work of art.

David Lynch’s Mulholland Drive, now 20 years old, is on the same journey, one of only two 21st-century movies to place on the most recent Sight & Sound Top 100. (At No 28, it’s only a few slots behind Wong Kar-wai’s In the Mood for Love, another bewitching masterpiece.) It’s surely no coincidence that Vertigo, along with Sunset Boulevard, is the film Lynch most directly references as the identities of two very different women merge and then fracture into so many pieces that it takes multiple viewings just to start putting them back together. Lynch’s affection for classic Hollywood has been apparent since his 1986 film Blue Velvet turned noir on its head, but his own career on its fringes informs Mulholland Drive just as strongly. He’s seduced by the Hollywood dream factory, but knows how ugly it looks on the inside.

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