Blue Velvet was David Lynch’s real breakthrough film, catapulting him from a Hollywood oddity to the most provocative art film director of the 80’s. Before Blue Velvet Lynch had been responsible for the small-scale success Eraserhead (1977) and the relatively successful The Elephant Man (1980), but his conscription to direct the big-screen adaptation of Frank Herbert’s Dune ended in disappointment. With Blue Velvet he demonstrated he wasn’t just a one hit wonder, delving once again into that unique milieu that spawned its own adjective—Lynchian. It is as sharp and uncanny today as it was in 1986, and though some of its violence may seem somewhat tame in light of thirty years of CGI explosions, its climax is still just as unsettling.
Director: David Lynch
Producers: Fred Caruso, Richard A. Roth
Writer: David Lynch
Cinematographer: Frederick Elmes
Editor: Duwayne Dunham
Music: Angelo Badalamenti
Cast: Isabella Rossellini, Kyle MacLachlan, Dennis Hopper, Laura Dern
Genres: Crime/Drama/Mystery Country: USA
Premiere: August 1986 – Montréal World Film Festival
US Theatrical Release: September 19, 1986
US Distributor: De Laurentiis Entertainment Group
On the surface, Blue Velvet is a mystery film set in Lumberton, a fictional industrial town in the Pacific Northwest that would become the blueprint for the town of Twin Peaks. Jeffrey (Kyle McLachlan) returns home after his father has a heart attack and, while out for a walk, finds a human ear in a field. With nothing to do and no friends left in town, Jeffrey becomes completely fixated on the mystery surrounding the ear and soon solicits the help of Sandy (Laura Dern), a police detective’s daughter, as he digs himself deeper into the mystery. The search leads him to Dorothy (a stunning Isabella Rossellini) and her tormentor/lover, the terrifying ether-huffing gangster Frank (Dennis Hopper). Eventually, as Jeffrey dives deeper into Frank’s sadistic world, he finds himself torn between his feelings for the darkly alluring Dorothy or Sandy’s more conventional charms. But the film is more than the sum of its parts. Though it owes much of its style and conventions to film noir and gangster movies, its mood is as bizarre and disturbing as they come, with Frank and all of his cronies easily burying their way into our collective nightmares.
In Roger Ebert’s famous 1-star review of Blue Velvet, he criticized it for its heavy-handedness and small scope, calling Lynch false for his treatment of small town America (a treatment Ebert saw as insincere and belittling). Of the film’s focus, Ebert wrote:
And though this is Ebert’s most lambasted review, he is right here; if Blue Velvet were a film about revealing the “dark and dangerous passions” hidden beneath the surface of Americana, it would be a poor and slipshod affair without much purpose. Luckily for us, Blue Velvet has about as little interest in revealing the true nature of American society as Ebert does. Blue Velvet is about dreams, about nightmares, fears, and unacknowledged desires.
Nearly all of Lynch’s work operates in the subterranean realm of dream. Be it the bizarre doubling and incongruities in Lost Highway, Mulholland Drive, and Inland Empire, or the nightmares in Twin Peaks, Wild at Heart or Blue Velvet, Lynch’s world has always been that of the prostrate dreamer. Of all of his films, though, this one is his most Freudian, with its references to dreams themselves (like the twice-repeated performance of Roy Orbison’s “In Dreams”) and literalization of various Freudian concepts—from castration anxiety, as Dorothy holds a kitchen knife up to Jeffrey’s crotch, to the Oedipus complex as Frank calls Dorothy “mommy” and screams “Baby wants to fuck!” This is no Spellbound, a film that demonstrated Hitchcock’s shallow understanding of psychoanalysis—with Blue Velvet, Lynch digs deep into his Id and its eerie desires are what makes the film compelling. As Jeffrey bounces between his feelings for Dorothy and Sandy, he fights between the two poles of his own identity, his libidinal Id (which wants to engage in rough sex, giving in to Dorothy’s repeated pleas to hit her) and his Ego, which wants him to find himself with the chaste and responsible good girl, Sandy.
But as much as the film centers on Jeffrey, can he really be its main character? We watch him lie and deceive, playing these women against each other, all toward the ethereal goal of a story, toward discovering what’s happening and where this ear came from (a mystery that dissolves as soon as Jeffrey finds Dorothy and Frank). As he explains to Sandy when she asks him why he keeps risking his life needlessly, he tells her “I’m seeing something hidden. I’m involved in a mystery.” As Nicholas Rombes, a critic and film writer who spent a year looking at this film, put it in the end of his experiment:
Like Rombes’ archetypical young woman, I too fear just how much I identify with the psychosis that fills Frank. While his motives are just as obscured as Jeffrey’s, his authenticity just as difficult to discern, he offers genuine freedom, if a sadistic one. If there is any one character not trapped by the confines of neurosis-inducing society, it is Frank. He is like so many psychotic antiheroes of 70s cinema— like Badlands’s Kit or Taxi Driver’s Travis Bickle—standing outside of society and also terrifyingly free of its taboos against violence and sexuality. His freeform madness, reminiscent of a child’s pre-societal megalomania, is enticing and profoundly perturbing at the same time. His seductive appeal and repulsive actions meld into an ambivalent dialectical that just helps him burrow down deeper into the nightmare dreams of this small town world.
There’s not much more to say about Blue Velvet, a film that stands on its own, a film that has topped many lists (Rolling Stone called it the best film of the 80’s), and one that is close to my heart—and some part of my brain I’d rather not admit to in polite company. It is, for me, Lynch’s masterpiece and a better summation of his directorial interests than any other. As Jeffrey and Sandy both utter, “it’s a strange world.”