Blue Velvet (1986) written and directed by David Lynch
What’s it about?
Jeffrey Beaumont (Kyle MacLachlan) is a young man in the sleepy town of Lumberville who covers for his ill father in the family hardware store. One day when wandering through the local woods he comes across a severed human ear on the ground, and promptly takes it to the local police station to hand it to Detective John Williams (George Dickerson) for forensic examination. The latter invites him round that night to give him the results of his examination, only to tell him on arrival to keep quiet about it and not ask any more questions. However, when Jeffrey leaves the house John’s daughter Sandy (Laura Dern) calls after him and reveals that she had overheard something connecting the ear to a singer named Dorothy Vallens who lives in an apartment nearby.
The pair decide to investigate the matter together, with Jeffrey hitting upon the idea of getting into her apartment by impersonating a pest controller. Once there he steals a key while she isn’t looking, and uses it to gain access again and hide in her cupboard. What he gets is an initiation into a nightmare world of the singer’s abusive relationship with a violent mobster named Frank (Dennis Hopper).
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Why is it significant?
After his disastrous experience making Dune (1984) David Lynch vowed from that point on to make solely low budget films for which he had maximum creative control. Blue Velvet was the first fruit of that decision - and remains amongst the most well-regarded of all of his films.
How does it hold up?
In structure and, to some extent, its characters, suspense devices, aesthetics and even themes, Blue Velvet resembles something Hitchcock might have made. However in overall style and modus operandi it’s an entirely different beast altogether - something very distinctively Lynch and frankly confounding until you let it sink in and connect on an entirely subconscious plane.
The opening, complete with the titular song playing serenely in the background, feels like a cheesy satire of an all-American small-town suburban idyll. Red roses, white picket fences and blue sky are part of a slyly chosen opening colour scheme. A cheery fireman smiles and waves as his bright red truck drifts past as Jeffrey’s father hoses his perfectly manicured, brilliantly green lawn in slo-mo. However, the tone quickly turns dark with a near-subliminal flash of a gun on television, and a zoom in on the lawn grass revealing a seething mass of bugs as he collapses next to them. It’s revealing a life so blatantly unreal that the rug is waiting to be pulled away - and that’s exactly what happens.
A classic screen psychopath
The deeper Jeffrey goes into his investigations the darker the colour palette goes, with pitch blackness enveloping in from the corners of the screen to imbue an oppressive atmosphere, while even the visible areas of vision are bathed in a sickly yellow light. Frank (played by Dennis Hopper) is one of the silver screen’s greatest human monsters - a terrifying bully who sees sexual relations as something to take from others and mold to his own twisted shape. Like any bully he has a pathetic side; his reliance on inhaling a mysterious gas via a medical mask, coupled with his role-playing with Dorothy by making her a surrogate “mommy” in the manner of a less poised Norman Bates. His way of seeing love and hate as part of the same coin is redolent of another great screen psychopath - Harry Palmer (played by Robert Mitchum) from Night of the Hunter. He is incapable of the former so he replaces it with the latter; he calls a gunshot a “love letter” for instance.
There’s also the love triangle into which Jeffery is drawn; between the fuzzy jumper-wearing “nice girl” Sandy and the experienced (and heavily corrupted) sensuality that Dorothy draws him into. During one sweet nightclub embrace between Sandy and him we think the nice girl will win the guy - only for, moments later, to see her tearfully witnessing him falling into Dorothy’s needy, naked embrace.
WARNING - SPOILER AHEAD:
Good does win out and most wrongs are put to rights, and yet the triumph feels so unreal and so hollow. The folk tale relayed by Sandy earlier in the film about a robin bringing light back to the world manifests itself with the bird appearing in a blatantly mechanical form. The happy ending about good triumphing is delusional and manufactured in the mind; even with Frank defeated there are others to take his place, such as Sandy’s football player boyfriend whose car - along with his threatening demeanour - bears an uncanny resemblance to that of the former.
The true beauty of Blue Velvet isn’t in the faux-idyllic visions - it’s in the fact that there is so much hidden thematic treasure in here that rewards repeated viewings.
Runtime: 120 mins
Dir: David Lynch
Script: David Lynch
Starring: Kyle MacLachlan, Isabella Rossellini, Dennis Hopper, Laura Dern, Hope Lange, Dean Stockwell, George Dickerson, Priscilla Pointer, Brad Dourif, Jack Nance