Sex Scenes: LA Is a Lesbian

On queering the City of Angels in "Mulholland Drive."

by Rachel Rabbit White
Oct 5 2018, 2:12pm

Mulholland Drive, the 2001 film directed by David Lynch, is a neo-noir thriller that centers the concept of queering the femme fatale. Using noir tropes like amnesia and employing the same actor for different roles, Lynch creates a dreamlike romance between Rita/Camilla (Laura Herring) and Diane/Betty (Naomi Watts). It’s femme fatale for femme fatale, and in unraveling the film’s mystery, we slowly discover the two women are in danger—from each other.

The film revels in the question of fascination, that from which we can’t look away. Lynch doesn’t put the focus on the sexuality of the couple; it’s instead teased and used for surprise, furthering the mystery element. When the film debuted in 2001, queerness (and especially femme-for-femme queerness) had reached peak fascination in mainstream (straight) culture. The figure of the femme fatale is itself a focus of fascination, no matter our gender or orientation. We can’t seem to look away, our eyes fixed on her features, her sideswept hair, her dress glittering in a cloud of cigarette smoke.

Is Los Angeles itself a femme fatale? The city is also a theme of the film. What is it about Hollywood that relentlessly holds our gaze? Hollywood, before being an industry, is a location, one that has become a metonymy for LA at-large. LA is a woman, it’s been said; LA is a lesbian, Lynch seems to suggest.

In his essential documentary Los Angeles Plays Itself, Thom Andersen gives the Angeleno directive: “If you don’t like one thing, complain about its opposite as well.” The opposite, the doppelgänger, and the switch are constant tricks of Lynch’s seating, with him in a lineage tracing back to Hitchcock’s Vertigo and Bergman’s Persona. Lynch plays with doubling of character in Twin Peaks and offers a vision of Hollywood that is absolutely two-faced in Inland Empire, with its reversals and contradictions. In Mulholland Drive, this is first apparent in the shots of the city itself: parking lots and unremarkable landmarks cut with the glimpses of modernist villas. He suggests how the city in itself could have been otherwise.

In Mulholland Drive, Betty is a naive, fresh-faced girl who moves to LA hoping to be, first of all, a great actress, and then maybe also a celebrity, if she can. She is so trusting and nice that when she finds a stranger in her aunt’s house, she apologizes for startling them. But in the second part of the movie Watts plays Diane, a bitter spurned lover who puts a hit on her ex. Both versions are seduced by and in love with Rita, both have their own sex scenes with her. The movie industry too is represented in this duality; it’s irremediably under the heel of the mafia, dependent on its money but filled with idealists as well as genuinely generous people.

The first sex scene rolls at the cliched moment expected for a noir. Betty is helping Rita, who has amnesia, try to investigate what happened to her, when they come upon a dead body. The two return home, finally realizing the danger they might be in, yet for all the buildup the hookup plays stilted.

Rita enters the bedroom wearing only a a merlot-colored towel and a blonde wig. The latter is necessary to conceal her identity, and upon seeing her Betty remarks that she “doesn’t have to wear that,” leaving enough ambiguity for Rita to drop the towel. Their lips touch, “Have you ever done this before?” asks Betty, “I don’t know,” says amnesiac Rita between kisses, “have you?” Betty breathes heavily, “No, but I want to, with you.”

Cut to Rita seemingly asleep, staring open-eyed at the ceiling, entranced, repeating over and over the word “silencio.” Our fascination with the expected sex scene is returned to us, and the movie demands a response. It’s the moment the movie is looking back at us, questioning our silence. We are silenced, incapable, interdicted by this questioning, fascinated, attracted by the possibility of seeing, and now, as Maurice Blanchot says, “Stuck in the impossibility of not seeing.”

The sex scene replays itself, inside out, inverse image, as Diane sexily and dominantly writhes over Rita on a sofa. “We should stop doing this,” Rita says, and moments later Diane becomes aggressive, foreshadowing what comes when she orders the hit on Rita.

In last week’s column, I noted that the femme fatale is marked by her refusal to fit into prescribed roles; she refuses the traditional role of wife or mother, using her wiles, ambitions, and resources to get what she wants. It’s this desire for autonomy that makes the femme fatale, and in 2001, it makes sense the femme fatale would be queer.

The queerness in Mulholland Drive is normalized, it’s not thematic: at a party, a female guest gives a casual, sensual kiss to Rita/Camilla, and there are scenes suggesting Diane’s former girlfriend has moved out. Lynch doesn’t make a big deal of the film’s queerness. And why would he? LA, since the days of the silent film, has been a safe haven for misfits and teenagers who ran away from home looking for celebrity or somewhere to belong. LA glamorized sin, so sinners flocked to it. Betty says she moved to LA to be an actress, but she also moved to LA to be gay, where it isn’t a big deal. Mulholland Drive has become queer canon exactly because of this. Lynch treats this as a love story, period. Its queerness isn’t its point.

The horror emanating through the film is fixed in the beginning scene when, scaring the shit out of the viewer, a demonic-looking person, faced blackened, eyes red, emerges from behind a LA corner in broad daylight. This face is terrifying and freezes the characters before it, like the head of Medusa. The injunction is not to look compounded by the feeling that we are not supposed to look, which is what forces us to look and become petrified. It’s eerily similar to those feelings of first exploring queerness. The Medusa head also seems to be a symbol for LA itself as well as Hollywood’s ambivalent relationship with crime and sin, scolding moralizer on one side, glamorizer of evil on the other; that classic noir conflict of values, leaving the viewer questioning for themselves, seized at the heart of the grasp these images have.

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