The Movie Waffler What's So Great About MULHOLLAND DRIVE & IN THE MOOD FOR LOVE? | The Movie Waffler


We take a look at the two movies that topped the recent BBC poll of the 21st century's best films.

Words by John Bennett (@johnbennett812)

Any art-house junkie should know the images. Toni Leung giving Maggie Cheung a fleeting sorrowful slow motion glance as they pass each other on the stairs; the sinister M.C. and sorrowful singer of the Club Silencio. Wong Kar-Wai’s In the Mood for Love (2000) and David Lynch’s Mulholland Drive (2001) are both drenched in unforgettable mood: In the Mood for Love swells and swoons with sad yet achingly hopeful romanticism, while a piercing, nameless, otherworldly menace emanates from every frame of Mulholland Drive. Both films are also completely open: they leave gaps for the viewer to fill and ask questions for the viewer to answer. This openness makes you mentally revisit these movies again and again - they resonate powerfully in the memory. And when polling time comes around, you don’t vote for a film you’ve forgotten. Clearly the 177 critics polled in the recent BBC poll gauging the best movies of the 21st century hadn’t forgotten them; Mulholland Drive was voted #1 and In the Mood for Love was hot on Lynch’s film’s heels at the #2 spot.

To a certain extent, this is old news. Both films were the only 21st century works to appear on the list of the top 50 films of all time in the famous BFI poll in 2012. An annual 21st century poll aggregator at (a great resourceful site run by Bill Georgaris) has named these two films as the best of this century for nearly a decade. But why these movies? There have been plenty of films from this millennium with merits that rival In the Mood for Love and Mulholland Drive, so why is it that these two movies so consistently appear as the #1 and #2 movies of our adolescent century? The answer could be found in examining artistic influence. Both films, chronologically situated at the dawn of the 2000s, are part of stylistic and narrative traditions - traditions that vastly differ from one another. In the Mood for Love feels like a culmination of many 20th century cinematic tropes while Mulholland Drive feels like a launching pad for art films of the past 15 years. That is to say, In the Mood for Love was influenced by the past; Mulholland Drive looked towards the future.

In the Mood for Love is not only a romance - it’s an adult romance. Some of the 20th century’s most popular films and most important filmmakers dealt with what Wong Kar Wei chose to depict: a man and a woman, well into adulthood, tentatively falling in love. When Chow shows up at his old apartment building, only to just miss seeing Su, we see an exemplified sort of quiet, breathtakingly sad, adult desire for connection. In this regard, In the Mood for Love owes an obvious debt to Lean’s Brief Encounter (1945), Naruse’s When a Woman Ascends the Stairs (1960), Truffaut’s Jules and Jim (1962), Lelouche’s A Man and a Woman (1966), and Wilder’s Avanti! (1972). These are international movies that stand out, but consider also that Hollywood romances centered almost exclusively on adults from the medium’s inception until about the '50s, and even after the '50s, up until the end of the 20th century, many high-profile romantic films focused on adults falling in love. The romantic dramas and comedies of the 21st century either focus on teenagers or thirtysomethings who behave like teenagers. Even Blue Is the Warmest Color (2013), an astoundingly romantic film, complete with all the requisite ecstasy and pain of romance, centres around young people. The few exceptions include Linklater’s Before trilogy - which, of course, has 20th century roots. When we do see an adult romance in something like a James Gray film, it almost feels like a museum piece. In the Mood for Love consistently ranks as one of the top two films of the century because it stays in the mind as one of the last great efforts in depicting an adult affair, complete with all the ensuing subtle details one dwells upon when in love.

Stylistically, In the Mood for Love takes many 20th century modernist art cinema conventions to a natural terminus. Groundbreaking influential romances like Resnais’ Hiroshima mon amour (1959) don’t detail an entire story. Instead, they give elliptical impressions that distill their narratives to the most important and evocative moments of emotional truth and power. Simply seeing a cigarette stained with lipstick is all Chow needs to feel something, and, consequently, it’s all we need to feel something. With a 98 minute running time, In the Mood for Love is rather lean as an art film - but one can tell in the first 10 minutes alone that anything - anything - remotely inessential has been omitted. We do the rest. As the 2010s have progressed, prominent world filmmakers like Ceylan, Arnold, Ade, Puiu, Gomes, Jia, and even Hou Hsiao-Hsien have embraced bigness and sweep of running time, narrative, and/or style. But what In the Mood for Love reminds us is that Breathless (1960) was 90 minutes long, that Rashomon (1950) was 88 minutes long, that Persona (1966) was 83 minutes long, that Daisies (1966) was 74 minutes long, and that L’Age d’Or (1930) was 63 minutes long. Wong reminds us that a story told expediently and with an intimate impressionist style could be as effective as any art epic. In the Mood for Love is remembered as a superlative film from this century because it reminds us of last century’s cinematic tradition that not all masterpieces were painted on huge canvasses or even used the whole canvas.

Mulholland Drive, on the other hand, does dedicate some of its time to romance, but the film’s narrative is not driven by interpersonal relationships anymore than it’s driven by other plot-forwarding devices. Instead, the film’s élan is best summed up by Rita’s (Laura Harring) teary amnesiac declaration: “I don’t know who I am.” Since Mulholland Drive was released, many of the most discussed and remembered art-house films have involved extensive personal exploration. As the century progressed, we can see this trend exhibited by films like Pan’s Labyrinth (2006), The Diving Bell and the Butterfly (2007), Enter the Void (2009), Black Swan (2010), The Skin I Live In (2011), The Tree of Life (2011), Holy Motors (2012), The Great Beauty (2013), Birdman (2014), and Staying Vertical (2016). Before Mulholland Drive, even some of the headiest art films still relied on plot and character to a greater extent than these films. That Elisabet Vogler was an actress in Bergman’s Persona (1966) was of more thematic importance than the fact that Betty (Naomi Watts) is one in Lynch’s film - just like Marcello’s job as a reporter or Guido’s job as a director in Fellini’s La Dolce Vita (1960) and 8 ½ (1963) seem more crucial to the ideas of those films than Jep’s (Toni Servillo) work as a novelist in The Great Beauty. The 21st century characters are complicated selves before anything. Consequently, Mulholland Drive distances itself from any semblance of coherent plot - even more so than even Lynch’s previous bizarrerie like Blue Velvet or Twin Peaks. Could plot arcs be easily traced for any of the aforementioned recently made films? These surreal movies are more concerned with getting us into the minds of a complex central character, and by abandoning plot - even by abandoning normal outside influences - these films help us reflect on the mysterious idea of personal identity. This is a 21st century art-house trend and we have Lynch to thank for popularising it.

And as if to get the most accurate vantage point for exploring the murkiness of identity, Mulholland Drive approaches this material by delving into a visceral subconscious aesthetic - a heady style that derives massive amounts of thematic significance from the most inconsequential occurrences. In the Mood for Love boiled a romance down to its visual essentials to convey its ideas; Mulholland Drive is sprawling. If In the Mood for Love is ambiguous, it’s to eliminate unnecessary information; Mulholland Drive is vast in its ambiguity because the self is a vastly ambiguous thing, a point that was not lost on The Tree of Life or Holy Motors. What’s more, Mulholland Drive, in its nightmare depiction of a miniaturised elderly couple terrorizing the “second” Betty, used CGI for artistic purposes. In demonstrating that computer generated effects weren’t for big budget crowed pleasers alone, Lynch’s film paved the way for other self-exploratory art movies to use CGI to create complex landscapes of the soul. In this regard, Mulholland Drive’s palpable influence can be felt in Enter the Void, Holy Motors, and The Great Beauty; Mulholland Drive anticipated the integration of modern extra-filmic technology with existing art-house traditions. Lynch’s film was voted the best of the 21st century because it’s unforgettable - both because of its own extraordinary merits and because those merits seeped and solidified in critics’ and filmmakers’ imaginations regarding what effective contemporary cinema looks like.

The Twitterverse has been abuzz during this film-fest season about how movies are not, as some mopey-browed misanthropes would argue, dead. Despite Pauline Kael’s not-inaccurate claim that critics “feel decay in their bones,” the art form is vibrant with variety, and contemporary cinephiles attentively follow big budget blockbusters and art gems alike. In this age of total cinema love, old masterpieces can be taken in with as few clicks as new ones. With our current ability to see the entire history of cinema so clearly and quickly, we can understand and feel how important In the Mood for Love and Mulholland Drive are. The films have consistently been #1 and #2 of the century because as we watch them, we vicariously feel the excitement of major change. We can see how In the Mood for Love, elegantly looking at what came before, passed the art-house torch to Mulholland Drive, which looked boldly to the future.