Blue Velvet (David Lynch, 1986)


Isabella Rossellini (Dorothy Vallens), Kyle MacLachlan (Jeffrey Beaumont), Dennis Hopper (Frank Booth), Laura Dern (Sandy Williams), Hope Lange (Mrs. Williams). Directed by David Lynch. Screenplay by David Lynch.

At the start of Blue Velvet, we see a man engaging in one of the most casual and common of home activities; namely, he’s watering his front garden in what appears to be a nice little suburban neighborhood. When he collapses, however, presumably due to a heart attack, the camera descends towards ground level, and it continues past the man in question and instead focuses on the bugs crawling beneath the grass, hidden to the human eye. Jeffrey Beaumont, the collapsed man’s son, later finds a severed human ear buried in another patch of greenery. The implication seems to be that an underworld exists beneath this seemingly tranquil town, and despite most people being oblivious to its existence, Jeffrey will discover it and as such we will enter it. We do, and we thus observe the behaviour and twisted actions of people that we secretly hope only exist in the very warped mind of David Lynch.

He had made a sufficiently disturbing film prior to Blue Velvet in the shape of Eraserhead, but whilst that effort was relatively subtle and quiet in its impact, this does not hold back. Blue Velvet bursts with sadism, masochism and everything else repulsive, no more so than when Jeffrey decides to do some investigative work of his own, and out of excessive curiosity reminiscent of Rear Window, breaks into the apartment of Dorothy, the woman suspected of being responsible for the ear-incident. She returns, and soon discovers him hiding in the closet. But rather than kill him or act angrily, she uses the knife in her hand to force him to strip and caress her. This could go a lot further, and there are signs of her desire to be abused, but it soon ends with a knock at the door. Enter a man named Frank. Jeffrey’s back in the closet now, and he observes Frank inflicting the most bizarre yet disgusting range of sexual activities on Dorothy imaginable. She has to sit with her legs open and look away. Frank also sits, psyching himself up, inhaling some kind of gas that fuels his desire further. He lunges in, seemingly with his fist, and starts beating Dorothy around and dry-humping her in an ecstatic fit of rage.

It’s very hard to explain just how powerful and petrifying this scene is, and the intrigue deepens when Frank leaves and Jeffrey exits the closet to comfort Dorothy. But all she seems interested in is continuing to seduce him and getting him to fulfill her desire to be beaten, even after the episode we have just observed. The arrangement with Frank doesn’t seem to be mutually agreed. The implication is that Dorothy’s child and husband are being kept hostage by Frank. But, somehow, she far from hates the way he treats her. Isabella Rossellini, as the actress behind Dorothy, endures an insane amount of abuse in her role, and the character she creates, along with Dennis Hopper’s Frank, are undoubtedly the most frightening and jointly best things about Blue Velvet.

What David Lynch has in mind, though, is unsurprisingly a little harder to dissect. But it seems that the rest of Blue Velvet is committed to doing what the first half-hour does perfectly: namely, to draw a contrast between the corny, calm and conventional lives of suburban families and teenage lovers, almost to the stage that the clichés feel lifted off cheap TV sitcoms, and the parallel dark world inhabited by Dorothy, Frank and other similarly sick people. We gain further insights into Frank’s world, and follow Jeffrey’s love life outside of his time with Dorothy simultaneously. Typically Lynchian and cryptic imagery continue to persist throughout, as candles flicker alone on the screen and red curtains keep blowing in the wind…

I’m not sure how Blue Velvet could have mapped out to make itself a better film, but something definitely feels wrong in the way it progresses from those tense, horrific opening scenes. It almost feels like we are supposed to just feel their repulsiveness and the raw energy behind them, and applaud accordingly. They are praiseworthy, and no doubt a lot of work went in to generating the power they contain. But this power feels like it demands a continuation of some sort that makes those scenes feel even greater. Unfortunately for Blue Velvet, and especially for its actors, that progression never comes. It feels confused towards the end, and fails to live up to the incredibly high expectations it creates for itself.

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