(1986) Written and directed by David Lynch; Starring: Isabella Rossellini, Kyle MacLachlan, Dennis Hopper, Laura Dern; Available on Blu-ray and DVD.
“I like things that are different… and I like distortions because I see so many distortions either inside of people or on the surface. I see this kind of confusion and darkness and distortions, and it’s sort of fascinating to me.” – David Lynch (from documentary, Mysteries of Love)
“Why are there people like Frank? Why is there so much trouble in this world?” – Jeffrey Beaumont (Kyle MacLachlan)
There are a handful of directors whose names routinely prompt a visceral response from filmgoers. Depending on what side of the fence you’re on, a David Lynch movie promises a transformative experience or an exercise in confusion. One thing is for certain: his films, if nothing else, are unlikely to elicit a neutral reaction. Blue Velvet features the elements that we’ve come to expect from Lynch, with iconic imagery, eccentric characters and uncomfortable situations. It’s a formula that paradoxically attracts and repels, garnering fans and detractors in equal measure.
After the debacle that was Dune, Lynch returned to his roots with a smaller, more personal film in which he could exercise creative control. With Blue Velvet he does what he does best, by peering beneath the glossy veneer of a Norman Rockwell-esque town to reveal the sordid secrets that lurk beneath. Wilmington, North Carolina stood in for the idyllic Lumberton, a sort of Anytown U.S.A. The film opens with shots of a neighborhood with rows of perfect little homes, neatly manicured lawns, white picket fences and red roses. A fire engine replete with Dalmatian rolls by slowly, as if on parade, while a fireman waves to an imaginary crowd. Just as we’re lulled into a false sense of security, everything falls apart as an elderly man watering his yard suddenly collapses with a heart attack. As the camera zooms into the grass, we see the bugs crawling in the soil and hear them scuttling about. Underneath this prim exterior lies a world of entropy and filth.
Kyle MacLachlan stars as Jeffrey Beaumont, a clean-cut college kid who returns to Lumberton to take care of his father’s hardware store. Jeffrey gradually uncovers the town’s dirty little secrets one layer at a time, starting with the discovery of a severed human ear in a field. His mind starts to reel about the owner of the ear (Is he dead or alive?) and the story behind his find. He befriends Sandy (Laura Dern), a police detective’s daughter, and they try to piece together the clues, which lead to a singer’s apartment. When Jeffrey hatches a plot to sneak into the apartment to find out more, the situation escalates quickly. In spite of the danger to himself and the people around him, he feels an unshakable compulsion to continue his investigation. He later confides to Sandy, “I’m seeing something that was always hidden. I’m involved in a mystery.”
MacLachlan is an appealing choice as lead,* with his "aw shucks" demeanor and preppy boy-next-door appearance, which belies his dark side.
* Some have speculated that MacLachlan was cast due to his resemblance to Lynch, in an effort to reinforce the autobiographical components of the story.
Isabella Rossellini plays night club singer Dorothy Vallens, whose husband and son have been kidnapped by a dangerous psychopath. She lives in constant fear and sadness, tempered only by the prospect of one day being reunited with her family. After she catches Jeffrey spying on her, she turns the tables and we witness a brief reversal of roles, as she exercises a level of control she’s powerless to exert over anyone else (“Don’t touch me or I’ll kill you!”). As Jeffrey is drawn into her dysfunctional life, and inadvertently becomes her lover, she brings out his more unsavory aspects. In one scene of lovemaking, he initially refuses to comply with Dorothy’s demands to hit her, but eventually gives in, suggesting he’s not exactly the white knight he envisions himself to be. Dorothy and Sandy represent opposite ends of the spectrum for Jeffrey. While Dorothy represents something dangerous, a template to satisfy his illicit desires, he feels an opposing compulsion to shelter the virginal Sandy from the ugliness he’s uncovered.
Dennis Hopper leaves a lasting impression as the sadistic, mentally unstable small-time criminal Frank Booth. Hopper’s performance is unpredictable and scary, oozing menace from every pore. We never know what he’s going to do next, but it can’t be any good. Frank’s world is ruled by dominance, verbal and physical abuse. He carries a tank of nitrous oxide wherever he goes, so he can stay in a constant state of detached euphoria as he uses Dorothy as his personal sex object. She becomes the focal point for his uncontrollable rage and mother fixation. We feel on edge when Frank eventually discovers Jeffrey at Dorothy’s apartment and takes him on a hellish joyride. Lynch underscores the class divide between the two, as prim college student Jeffrey drinks Heineken, while blue collar Frank prefers Pabst Blue Ribbon. Although Frank and Jeffrey appear to be polar opposites, there is a kernel of truth as Frank tells him, “You’re like me.” Jeffrey has already crossed the line, based on his own treatment of Dorothy. Hopper commented that he was cautioned by his agent not to take the part, due to his character’s “irredeemable” nature, but the role helped pave the way for his comeback as an actor. It’s a fascinating study of a man driven by only his base impulses, who lives to manipulate others.
Blue Velvet features some standout supporting performances, notably by Dean Stockwell as Ben, one of Frank’s partners in crime. Ben’s role is never made entirely clear, but he appears to be involved in drug dealing and prostitution. Like everyone else in Frank’s gang, he seems to live in constant awe and fear. In one scene, he placates Frank with a memorably creepy rendition of Roby Orbison’s “In Dreams.” George Dickerson is also notable as Sandy’s father, Detective Williams, one good cop swimming in a sea of corruption.
Is Blue Velvet art or exploitation? The late great film critic Roger Ebert famously lambasted the film for what he considered Lynch’s demeaning, reprehensible treatment of Rossellini. While Ebert’s intentions were noble, he failed to differentiate between the humiliation Rossellini’s character experiences, versus the actress humiliating herself onscreen. The particular scene in question depicts Dorothy wandering nude, beaten and bloodied in front of Jeffrey’s house. It’s a strong scene that’s uncomfortable to watch, but Lynch isn’t sexualizing Dorothy or glorifying the violence that was perpetrated against her. Rather, the scene underscores the depths her character has sunk, and the trauma she has experienced at the hands of a madman. It’s a risky scene that works, thanks to Rossellini’s courageous performance and conviction.
Like many David Lynch films, Blue Velvet is a typically hypnotic and polarizing experience, virtually impossible to take in on an initial viewing. It remains one of his most challenging films, running the gamut of tones – at times darkly comedic, melodramatic and mysterious. Lynch consistently plays with your expectations and dashes them at every turn. Nothing is quite as it seems, and no one is as squeaky clean as they appear.