Lynch, Mulvey, and the Femme Fatale


When attempting to understand the field of writing studies, it is important to study many forms of media. In our class, we covered diverse topics, ranging from Plato to comic books. The earlier works by rhetoricians, in a way, are easier to study because they are so detached from our own lives that we inherently study them from an academic position. With comics, music videos, film, etc, we bring along our own cultural baggage when we view them. In order to analyze modern media from a writing studies point of view like we would Plato, we need to change the way we view them. To do this, we must become aware of and challenge the assumptions we make about these forms of media. Some assumptions, such as Laura Mulvey’s “Male Gaze” are so ingrained in our culture that we take them for granted. When we watch a blockbuster Hollywood film, we don’t even notice the trend. However, if we force ourselves to watch a film that takes a novel approach to these cliches, such as the work of filmmaker David Lynch, we are forced to use an analytical eye.

Lynch’s films often call attention to these assumptions by providing a perverse satirical version of them. In her article “Visual Pleasure in Narrative Cinema,” Laura Mulvey describes the scopophilic male gaze, in which the view of the audience is from a male main character. The man looks, the woman is looked at. In the case of the femme fatale, a hollywood convention dating back to the early 20th century, the male gaze is especially troublesome. The femme fatale is a woman who is mysterious, she cannot be understood by the male character. She is also oftentimes dangerous. The femme fatale is often turned into a Morgan Le-Fay type generic “evil woman” in many noir films, and she has become a particularly nasty sexist stock character that continues to pervade films. At first glance, Lynch’s films are a perfect example the sexist use of the femme fatale. The films Blue Velvet and Lost Highway both contain instances of a mostly innocent male youth being brought into a criminal underbelly by women who are textbook example of the femme-fatale. However, the characters are not used in the way the femme-fatale typically is. Both films actually subvert the audience’s expectations about the women in a way that is surreal and uncomfortable.

Lost Highway (1997) centers on a man, Fred Madison, who lives a boring and unfulfilling life. He is professional saxophonist, but doesn’t appear to gain any joy from his work. Also, his relationship with his wife is strained. In Slavoj Zizek’s The Pervert’s Guide to Ideology, Zizek takes a psychoanalytic view of the protagonist, explaining him by saying “What we get in Lost Highway is the drab grey upper class suburban reality. [The] hero, married to patricia arquette, obviously terrorized by the enigma of his wife who doesn’t respond properly to his advances. When they have sexual intercourse, he miserably fails. What he gets from her is kind of a patronizing pat on the shoulder. Total humiliation. After killing her in an act of frustration, the hero enters his fantasy space where he, as it were, reinvents not only himself but his entire social environments in a universe which we usually find in film noir” (Zizek).The main character, Fred, is seen sitting next to his wife’s corpse. After that, Fred goes insane and almost the entire rest of the film takes place in his head, a dreamlike “fantasy space,” as Zizek calls it.

It is the existence of the dream-space that subverts our expectations about the femme-fatale. Without it, the story simply would have been of a man who goes insane and kills his wife. According to Frida Beckman, in her article  “From Irony to Narrative Crisis: Reconsidering the Femme Fatale in the Films of David Lynch,” such a story would fit into a traditional patriarchal role of the femme-fatale. “If the deaths of both Renee (his wife, portrayed by Patricia Arquette) and Fred had been the culmination of the narrative, Lost Highway would have fit well into Doane’s identification of the correlation between the unfolding of the femme fatale and the unfolding of the narrative—the disciplining of female sexuality as narrative climax.” The femme-fatale character would have led to the deaths of both her and her husband. Her mystery would finally be “unfolded,” and the narrative would reach its conclusion alongside her “unfolding.”

However, this is not what happens, and it is where the film veers from traditional narrative. Fred creates a fantasy version of his wife, a perfect version based on the film noir femme-fatale. This character is not his wife, and she isn’t even a real character in the common sense. She is entirely a creation of Fred’s, one that was created to act out the fantasies he could not have in his real life. “In reality,” Zizek says,  “the obstacle was inherent, their sexual liaison simply didn’t function. Within the fantasy space, the obstacle is externalized.” All of the problems Fred has, for which he himself is to blame, are blamed on a fake crime-lord. The real reason Fred’s wife was distant was because she simply didn’t love him. In his dream world, it is because she is being threatened by the crime-lord, Mr. Eddy.

By creating this dream-world, Fred functions as the audience. He is taking these assumptions about women, garnered from his own masculine desires and, and placing them all on an objectified woman who doesn’t really exist. This is the same thing we as an audience are expected to do when we watch a movie. Fred is the male gaze personified. His dreamscape is the dreamscape we create when we enter into the escapist activity of watching a movie. This is something that happens in many movies, and it is taken for granted. However, because of this meta-commentary that Lost Highway provides on the subject, we are forced to acknowledge it.

It is important to note that the film doesn’t ever come out and explicitly state that most of the movie in fact takes place in a dream. In fact, the film tells the audience very little about what is going on. Todd Mcgowan says, “Lost Highway is, admittedly, a difficult film to watch.” The film is unsettling in a way most films, even horror films, aren’t. The narrative of the films seems at times confusing, and at other times nonsensical. “On a first viewing, it is tempting to chalk up these difficulties to the obscurantist proclivities of the film’s director and to conclude that the film is unconventional just for the sake of being unconventional or that the point is simply that there is no point… this conclusion seems to have been that of audiences and critics alike.” I would be quick to disagree with that assessment, (and Mcgowan goes onto refute it himself in his article) and I would argue that the “obscurantist proclivities” are what give the film it’s meaning and, more importantly, make the film’s meaning unpredictable. The film doesn’t beat you over the head with its message. It almost seems like the film doesn’t even want you to know its message. This obscurity is what makes the film so effective. If it flat out told you what you should take away from it, it would not be as powerful, and certainly not as unsettling. That is why the film can challenge our assumptions. It doesn’t simply list what we take for granted in films and tell us to change them, it organically creates a sense of unease that makes us question ourselves. And of course, questioning yourself is always far more likely to lead to change than simply being told to change.


Lynch’s 2001 film Mulholland Drive also employs a femme fatale, and it similarly deconstructs the stock character. Mulholland Drive and Lost Highway are remarkably alike in how they represent the film noir atmosphere. “Lost Highway and Mulholland Drive are two versions of the same film. What makes both films, especially Lost Highway, so interesting is how they posit the two dimensions–reality and fantasy–side by side, horizontally, as it were.” (Zizek) In Mulholland Drive, like in Lost Highway, the main character commits a murder and escapes into a dream world as a means of coping with the guilt. In that dream world, the main character falls in love with a fantasy version of a woman who was unattainable to them in the real world. However, in this case, the protagonist is a woman, portrayed by Naomi Watts. The effect this has on the use of the male gaze is obvious. The fantasy woman, portrayed by Laura Harring, is gazed at in a way extraordinarily reminiscent of the “Golden Age” of cinema. Her name, Rita, is a direct reference to Rita Hayworth, a famous actress from the time. The real Rita Hayworth was born to Spanish parents. Her given name was Margarita Carmen Cansino. She was forced to change her name to Rita Hayworth in order to appear caucasian. She was also persuaded by Columbia Pictures to dye her hair strawberry blonde and undergo a procedure to have her hairline raised and her widow’s peak removed, all in an effort to appeal to the white demographic of Hollywood (Wood). This was done in the name of giving the audience what it wanted. They took a real person, and altered her into a white, buxom, blonde starlet for the movies. This is precisely what Naomi Watts does to the character of Rita in Mulholland Drive. She takes the real person, a woman she cannot attain, and warps her into an idealized version of herself as part of her fantasy. Once again, the main character is representing the audience.

The fact that the main character is female also affects the overall meaning of the film. The gaze is decidedly male; Rita is a model femme fatale. She is “gazed at” all throughout the film. What makes it interesting is that the gazing, while ostensibly done by the presumed male audience, is done by a woman, Naomi Watts. This has a hardly noticeable, but still unsettling, effect on the audience. We are not used to seeing women in films represented this way. Naomi Watts essentially fulfills the role of a male protagonist, but she is presented in the most feminine way possible. Again, this isn’t immediately noticeable to the audience but it still leaves its impression as a strange feeling of discontent.

An earlier film by Lynch, 1986’s Blue Velvet, deals yet again with the portrayal of women in classic cinema. This time, there isn’t just a femme fatale, but also a foil to the femme fatale, a good-girl stock character, whom Frida Beckman refers to as the “classic virginal heroine” (36). Beckman says that it is “almost ‘too easy’ to list the noir elements in the film, including the discovery of evil behind a pretty surface; corrupted police officers; homoerotic relationships; and most important in the present context, a tension between a dark, sexually challenging woman and a blonde and bland one between which the male protagonist is torn.”

The beginning of the film plays heavily on these noir elements. It stars Kyle Maclachlan as Jeffrey Beaumont, a student who returns home from college after his father has a stroke. While home, he comes across a severed ear in a field. He takes the ear to the police, but eventually decides to conduct an investigation of his own. This leads him to the home of Dorothy Valens, a nightclub singer who embodies all the aspects of a femme fatale. She is mysterious, and has what Beckman calls “dangerous sexuality.” As the story proceeds however, we come to find out that she is not at all what she originally appeared to be. She is a victim. Her husband and child were both kidnapped and she is being kept hostage by an insane man, portrayed by Dennis Hopper. All of the presuppositions we as an audience had about her were totally wrong. By the end of the film, she is entirely “unraveled,” as Beckman says a femme fatale traditionally is, but it doesn’t leave us with any sense of closure. Her unravelling doesn’t create the climax of the movie, it only makes the hero (and the audience) feel bad for her situation and for prematurely judging her based on our ingrained notions of the femme fatale. One specific instance of her abuse almost directly calls out the male gaze. In what is possible the most famous scene in the movie, Jeffrey is hiding in Dorothy Valen’s closet, watching as Frank commits his strange sexual behaviors. Both Frank and Jeffrey here are exhibiting scopophilic desires as they stare at Dorothy. However, when Dorothy glances back at Frank, he responds with the famous line, “Don’t you fucking look at me!” Even the mere consideration of reversing the male gaze is met with extreme violence.

If the purpose of these films, arguably, is to make us think critically about films, why does Lynch employ so many cliches in the first place? Why not create something entirely original? Frida Beckman writes that “Lynch’s use of Hollywood clichés in general, and the film noir genre in particular, exceeds the playfulness of intertextual reference. His references to conventions and clichés are not just on a level of advanced coding; they play a central role in rethinking the function of characterization” (31). These cliches are necessary because they force us to “rethink the function of characterization.” We have seen characterization used this way time and time again throughout all of cinema. An entirely new approach would be too surreal. It wouldn’t feel grounded since the audience would have no reference point for it (looking at you, Eraserhead). It also wouldn’t be effective because it wouldn’t be playing with our expectations. The way Lynch consistently starts by loading his films with cliches and then systematically tearing them down to their basics exposes their flaws in a way we can digest. Then, after exposing these cliches, we are able to think more critically about the film conventions we take for granted, and can look at films in a more academic context, like we would any other piece of literature or media.

Works Cited


Mulvey, Laura. “Visual Pleasure and Narrative Cinema.” Screen 16, no. 4 (1975): 6-18.


Beckman, Frida. “From Irony to Narrative Crisis: Reconsidering the Femme Fatale in the Films of David Lynch.” Cinema Journal 52 (2012): 25-44. Project Muse. Web.

Blue Velvet. Dir. David Lynch. Perf. Kyle Maclachlan, Isabella Rossellini, Dennis Hopper. Paramount Pictures, 1986. DVD.

Lost Highway. Dir. David Lynch. Perf. Bill Pullman, Patricia Arquette, Balthazar Getty. October Films, 1997. DVD.

McGowan, Todd. “Finding Ourselves on a “Lost Highway”: David Lynch’s Lesson in Fantasy.”

Cinema Journal 39.2 (2000): 51-73. JSTOR. Web.

Mulholland Drive. Dir. David Lynch. Perf. Naomi Watts, Laura Harring, Justin Theroux. Universal Pictures, 2001. DVD.

Mulvey, Laura. “Visual Pleasure and Narrative Cinema.” Screen 16, no. 4 (1975): 6-18.

The Pervert’s Guide to Cinema. Dir. Sophie Fiennes. Perf. Slavoj Žižek. Mischief Films, n.d. Internet. Mount Pleasant Studios. Web.

Wood, Gaby. “In Search of the Real Rita Hayworth.” The Telegraph. Telegraph Media Group, 1 June 2013. Web. 13 Dec. 2014.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s