Through a century-plus of cinema, Hollywood has helped create and canonize audience intuition as to how a narrative setup will play out. And while storytelling tropes serve their purpose, astute filmmakers understand that a subtle subversion of the audience’s expectations can greatly enhance a story’s dramatic pull. Filmmaker David Lynch is an expert in the technique, and a new video essay from Nerdwriter uses a pivotal scene in Mulholland Drive to explore Lynch’s methods.
As the video points out, Lynch spends much of the film setting up Naomi Watts’ Betty as a “bright-eyed, bushy-tailed” out-of-town actress whose lack of depth and street smarts leave her vulnerable to Hollywood’s many dangers. By the time she arrives at her big midmovie audition, set in a room of seasoned, possibly ill-intentioned industry players, we’re ready for her to be exploited. True to form, the scene’s opening moments reinforce our expectations, as a male scene partner gets overly handsy and seems ready to pounce. But then a curious thing happens: Betty takes control of the audition and the room with a self-assured intensity that we didn’t know she had in her. The sudden transformation defies cliché and alters what we think not only of the character but of the story we’ve been watching. And like any good master of deception, Lynch has left us delightfully off balance.