Director: David Lynch
Stars: Kyle MacLachlan (Jeffrey Beaumont), Isabella Rossellini (Dorothy Vallens), Dennis Hopper (Frank Booth), Laura Dern (Sandy Williams), Dean Stockwell (Ben), George Dickerson (Det. Williams)
Genre: Mystery / Thriller
When Blue Velvet first came to DVD, it was in a hell of a state. Dirty, dingy, faded… it did not look good. Consequently it didn’t make a great first impression. I came to the film eager to digest all of David Lynch’s works, having been so bewitched by the dreamlike film noir of Mulholland Drive. And whilst Mulholland Drive had been celebrated on release as a ‘return to form’ for the director, I had quickly come to understand that Blue Velvet was the film it was being judged against. I needed to see it.
Well, I didn’t like what I saw. Where was Peter Deming’s slick cinematography? Where was the corkscrewing narrative? The dream logic? And what was this awkward suburban mystery I was watching? It was disgusting and disturbing. Nothing about Blue Velvet was nice. I had loved the horror odyssey of Lost Highway, but this? This was… difficult.
A cleaned up version was released in a lush special edition in the mid-2000s, and I warmed to it a little more. The re-master made the film visually impressive for the first time, albeit still dark and imposing. At times oddly formal. And with the nasty distractions of the poor presentation removed, and with the benefit of knowing what I was in for, I was able to respect the film, if not love it. It wasn’t until I saw it in a cinema that something really clicked. In the dark, and on a big screen, Blue Velvet is a revelation. I ‘got’ it. Undoubtedly this was one of the best films of the 1980s even if it doesn’t feel like an 80s film.
Typically for Lynch, it feels weirdly out of time. There is a suggestion throughout – as in Twin Peaks, Mulholland Drive and Lost Highway – that Lynch’s world is in a time-warp from the 50s. A quaint, innocent world that has been turned sour. All of Lynch’s films (with the distinct exception of The Straight Story) are inhabited by a sense of decay, both physically and emotionally. They evoke worlds out of balance, where a bad thing has happened that needs setting to rights. A rot has set in. And it can’t always be fixed. In Blue Velvet this sense of wrongness is embodied by Dennis Hopper’s Frank Booth – one of the most terrifying and exhilarating and funny villains in cinema history.
The funny comes out of the intense extremes of the performance. When Frank Booth screams “LET’S FUCK!” it’s a classic, giggle-worthy and dumbly quotable moment, but at the same time it’s entirely menacing. You’re also laughing because you’re nervous. Frank is a complicated Freudian creation, referring to himself as “baby” and “daddy” during a rape scene with fragile Dorothy Vallens. He is all ‘id’, constantly seeking gratification, always upping the ante. It is horrific, dark and seedy, and Hopper nails it. Famously he terrified Lynch in audition by telling him he was Frank Booth. It proved to be a career revival, although one that would see him typecast as the villain for the remainder of his career.
But Blue Velvet is more than a Hopper vehicle, even if he does loom large over the picture. Lynch’s signature fascinations are imprinted on every frame. Like the close-up shots of the insects crawling in the grass, here Lynch is pushing his camera into the dirt of suburban America. Jeffrey Beaumont represents us as the audience, peeking like a voyeur, getting sucked in despite the better angels on our shoulder, confronting our own darkness. When Frank tells Jeffrey “You’re like me” it’s a disturbing thought. Frank could be in all of us. Jeffrey is torn between sugary innocence and light (Sandy, first revealed in classic-Hollywood fashion, looking like a marshmallow in her sweet pink dress) and a dark, sordid, seductive world (Dorothy’s sexy S&M desires and Frank Booth’s violent mania).
Of course, by the end, Jeffrey has taken his journey into the darkness and returned triumphant. In fact, you could argue that this victory makes Blue Velvet Lynch’s feel-good movie. Good resolutely triumphs over evil here. Contrast that with the lost souls of Lost Highway, Mulholland Drive, Eraserhead or Fire Walk With Me. Yet that journey through hell leaves an indelible mark. The film’s most gripping sequence – aside from Jeffrey’s time in Dorothy’s apartment – is his nightmare ‘joyride’ with Frank, visiting the enigmatic Ben and winding up getting a beating in the outskirts of town. And these sequences all occur at night. “Now it’s dark”, Frank says, and evil can come out to play. This is where Blue Velvet’s power lies; taking our fears that there are bad people who could take us and harm us, and reminding us that they probably live right next door. You might be able to sleep at night, but bad things will still be happening.
And so Blue Velvet endures. Other Lynch movies falter. Inland Empire is too vast and impenetrable to watch any old time. Dune is a mess. Wild At Heart feels oddly childlike despite being so graphic and violent. But Blue Velvet exists in that higher body of work that makes the man remarkable. The body of work of an artist, a creative visionary being allowed to flex those impulses freely. Whether Lynch makes another feature film at this point seems doubtful, which is sad, especially when there are films like Blue Velvet to remind us that the man can achieve incredible vision.
In his book on Lynch, David Hughes mentions in anecdote overhearing someone leaving a Blue Velvet screening saying, “maybe I’m sick, but I want to see that again.” I can think of no more articulate a note to end on.