NARCISSUS IN HOLLYWOOD

Here are two of my favourite films: “Sunset Boulevard”, directed by Billy Wilder in 1950 and “Mulholland Drive”, directed by David Lynch in 2001.

“Sunset Boulevard” – to quote Richard Corliss, movie critic and editor at Time Magazine – is “the definitive Hollywood horror movie”.

The story takes place in 1950. Joe Gillis (played by William Holden), a penniless Hollywood screenwriter, fortuitously lands in a house where 50-year-old Norma Desmond (played by Gloria Swanson), a former silent film glory, lives in seclusion.

Norma Desmond, who had not worked in years and who is obsessed by the thought of her return to the silver screen, insists that Gillis moves into her mansion in order to work on the script that she is writing for her grand return as the lead in, “Salomé”.

From screenwriter to editor, Joe Gillis slowly becomes a caged gigolo, under the influence of a vampire-like Norma, reminiscent of Dracula. Norma Desmond offers her reworked screenplay to Paramount and to one of their directors, Cecil B. DeMille (playing himself). No one dares to tell her that her return to fame is just a pipe dream. Norma is locked in her madness and will stay that way, even when confronted with a murder.

“Mulholland Drive” is the strangest film on Earth. One could write an infinite number of theses about this troubling film, with its non-linear narration, which transforms the viewer into a detective.

The film takes place in 2000 and recounts the story of a lively blond and aspiring actress named Betty (played by Naomi Watts) and her arrival to Hollywood. She befriends Rita (portrayed by Laura Harring) who suffers from amnesia following a traumatic car accident linked to a murder. The two women go on a journey to understand the true identity of Rita.

Suddenly there is a plot twist (word to the wise, if you’d like to watch this film spoiler-free, I’d suggest that you stop reading beyond this point 😉 )

We are still in Hollywood, the duo is still the same, but the cards have been reshuffled because the two no longer have the same names nor the same storylines. Betty is now called Diane and Rita is Camila.

Madness and murder will ensue, clearly.

Lynch’s film is nightmarish, multi-faceted. I think the aforementioned film critic, Richard Corliss, could have also called “Mulholland Drive” “the definitive Hollywood horror movie”.

The two films are masterful – each in their own way. David Lynch never hid his admiration for “Sunset Boulevard”, and his film “Mulholland Drive” made many references to it (notably the street sign of Sunset Boulevard or a shot of the exact same car that Norma Desmond had parked at the gate of Paramount studios).

One of the common themes of both these films is, in my opinion, the myth of Narcissus – or how the selfish pursuit of oneself and one’s own image invariably leads to madness, death and destruction.

In Greek mythology Narcissus was a beautiful hunter. Anyone who crossed his gaze would immediately be charmed by his good looks. One day he stopped for a drink of water and fell in love with his own reflection in the pool of water, which he stared at until he died.

And where better than in Hollywood – the temple of the image – to situate one (or two) narcissistic tales?

Norma Desmond, in “Sunset Boulevard” is the perfect incarnation of a modern-day Narcissus. She is self-obsessed, focused solely on her past glory and her pending career. The many photos adorning her home are studio shots in which only she invariably appears; and the only movies she watches to death are those in which she appears. Totally cut off from the world, she has little interaction and cannot tolerate any dissenting voices.

Betty/Diane in “Mulholland Drive” isn’t quite there. She is not a past star and nor is she a current one. She wants to break into Hollywood and will quickly lose herself in the city of Los Angeles.

Jealousy and rivalry between aspiring actresses will eventually lead Betty/Diane on a path of madness, loss of identity and the whole thing will obviously end in death.

Returning to Narcissus, Betty/Diane is not strictly in love with her own image, but she is in love with a life that could have been, and this causes her to lose her identity. In a moment of extreme madness, she confuses her personality with that of Rita/Camilla, who is the epitome of what she wishes to be and have.

In both cases, “Sunset Boulevard” and “Mulholland Drive” are stories of broken Hollywood dreams.

The two films are tales by Hollywood about Hollywood which is meta on so many levels! They are both exercises of pure narcissism – Wilder and Lynch were big Hollywood names (although the preview of “Sunset Boulevard” created a scandal, as producers felt Billy Wilder was biting the hand that fed him – and “Mulholland Drive” was produced by French Studio Canal).

While “Sunset Boulevard” depicts the treatment of the former glories of silent cinema by a Hollywood system that has been quietly shifting to talkies, “Mulholland Drive” depicts the fate of aspiring actresses, whose freshness is crushed like cinematographic cannon fodder.

It’s nightmarish in both cases.

I didn’t go to L.A. for this photo shoot, but this long black dress always reminded me of the glamorous Hollywood of the 50s. It will be my respectful but distant (because I don’t want to be Narcissus) tribute to Hollywood.

Roberto Cavalli dress – YSL vintage fur – Chanel sunglasses – Vionnet clutch – Roger Vivier cuff