Directed by: David Lynch.
Written by: David Lynch.
Starring: Isabella Rossellini (Dorothy Vallens), Kyle MacLachlan (Jeffrey Beaumont), Dennis Hopper (Frank Booth), Laura Dern (Sandy Williams), Hope Lange (Mrs. Williams), Dean Stockwell (Ben), George Dickerson (Detective John Williams), Priscilla Pointer (Mrs. Beaumont), Frances Bay (Aunt Barbara), Brad Dourif (Raymond), Jack Nance (Paul), Fred Pickler (Yellow Man).
I have seen Blue Velvet at least 10 times – if not more – and yet oddly, I always forget precisely what happens at the climax of the movie – when young Jeffrey Beaumont (Kyle MacLachlan) comes face-to-face with Frank Booth (Dennis Hopper) once again in Dorothy Vallens’ (Isabella Rossellini) apartment. Much of the rest of the movie is seared into my brain, but the actual confrontation between good and evil right near the end often slips my mind. Why? I think it’s because that confrontation is inevitable – we know that it will likely happen from fairly early in the movie. That scene of what ends up being shocking violence is normal and anticipated – when so much of the rest of the movie clearly is not. Those shocking images throughout the movie never lose their impact.
Blue Velvet is a modern noir set in suburbia, where the perfect façade covers up shocking violence and depravity. Lynch does nothing to hide this – the first scene in the movie is a montage of the seemingly perfect suburban neighborhood – white picket fences, smiling firefighters, lawns being watered, dogs being walked. And then one of those men watering his lawn simply collapses, and Lynch’s camera shows us that lawn, and then the seething, writhing violence of the insects just below the surface. Filmmakers have been picking on the suburbs at least since Alfred Hitchcock’s Shadow of a Doubt in 1943 – where a serial killer (Joseph Cotton) kills a series of women, and only his niece (Teresa Wright) can stop him. Lynch himself would continue with this in Twin Peaks – although Twin Peaks could hardly be called a suburb, but simply a small town, which just makes Lynch’s point even clearer – there is violence and depravity everyone. You cannot escape.
Jeffrey Beaumont doesn’t know this at the beginning of Blue Velvet. He’s a university student who comes back to his hometown of Lumberton for a while. It was his father we see collapsing in the opening, and Jeffrey is needed to help run the family hardware store while he’s in the hospital. It’s while walking home from visiting his father, through the woods, that he finds a human ear. He brings it to the police station and shows it to Detective Williams - “That’s a human ear alright” – he confirms. Jeffrey is fascinated by this, and wants to know more, but Williams, logically, will not tell him more about the investigation when he visits his house later. That’s not true of Williams’ daughter, Sandy (Laura Dern) – a high school senior, who has overheard her father talking about a singer named Dorothy Vallens. Sandy knows where Dorothy lives – and Jeffrey cannot help himself. He breaks into her apartment to watch Dorothy – and is shocked twice. Once when Dorothy discovers him, and once again when she tells him to hide again because Frank is coming. These twin scenes sets the depravity of the movie in motion – first with Dorothy abusing Jeffrey, and then Frank abusing (much more harshly) Dorothy. A smarter man than Jeffrey would leave it alone – but he cannot do that. He’s drawn to Dorothy, and wants to protect and help her. He figures out what Frank has done, and decides to help. Meanwhile, he’s also falling in love with the innocent, virginal Sandy, which complicates things. Blue Velvet is about that pull in Jeffrey between these two women, who are film noir standards – the femme fatale the hero cannot help but be drawn to, and the innocent naïf he should be drawn to. But Lynch complicates things here more than a little. Dorothy is not a typical femme fatale – but a wounded woman, a victim of horrific crimes, who has grown used to her abuse – and sees it as normal. Jeffrey doesn’t really see her like that though – she is to him both a sexy older woman who wants him, and a damsel in distress that needs his protection. She gets him to do things to her that haunts him afterwards. It’s only near the climax – in a scene where she shows up on her lawn naked (the scene that offended Roger Ebert to no end) – that he finally grasps just how damaged she is.
Blue Velvet is as effective as it is because of how Lynch is able to play with tone throughout the movie. Those opening shots are beautiful, but deliberately phony. Other than those writhing insects, the early scenes in the movie play almost like a comedy, and certainly Jeffrey’s investigation comes across as one step removed from a Hardy Boys novel (later, in Mulholland Dr., you can see a Nancy Drew investigation!). Jeffrey’s plan to get into Dorothy’s apartment the first time – with a fake bug sprayer – so he can prop open a window or steal keys is something that would only work in those books. Then he’s got the spunky, beautiful sidekick Sandy – who first walks out of the shadows like a Hitchcock blonde. These two are hopeless innocents who do not understand the world they are entering.
Things take an abrupt turn when Dorothy finds Jeffrey in the closest. It’s no longer a game then, as she forces him to strip, and threatens him with a knife. Things go from intense to insane with the arrival of Frank Booth, who sucks some of gas out of a canister, and acts both like a psychopath, swearing every other word, and a child (“Baby wants to fuck”) – who makes an immediate and terrifying entrance into the movie in that first scene. The lightness of those opening scenes is gone, replaced by shocking violence and horror. Later, there will be another terrifying sequence with Frank – a surreal, nightmare of a car ride for Jeffrey, who may finally get what the hell he’s gotten himself into.
The performances in Blue Velvet help a great deal. Agent Dale Cooper may be MacLachlan’s most famous role for Lynch, but Jeffrey Beaumont is a close second. He has that innocent look about him – he’s smart, but not as smart as he thinks he is. He thinks himself a grown-up – the world of high school is almost quaint to him now, big college man that he is. But he’s delusional. Dern is wonderful as Sandy – who like Jeffrey, wants to believe herself to be an adult, when really she has no idea what the world is like. She is beautiful and popular – dating a football star – but her life is mundane. She wants to be involved in the investigation, until she realizes what that means. Rossellini has never been better than she is as Dorothy – which is probably the most complex role in the film. She has to hold back so much, play so many different notes. And Dennis Hopper’s Frank Booth is quite simply one of the most memorable, and terrifying screen villains in history. A depraved maniac, as only Hopper could play him, he does what so few memorable movie villains fail to do – make you hate him. He isn’t a charming psychopath like Hannibal Lecter, who you secretly (or not so secretly) root for, nor a sympathetic one like Norman Bates. He’s just a depraved, terrifying human being.
Coming off of the overly complicated Dune, Lynch kept the narrative of Blue Velvet simple. It’s got a classic noir setup and mystery – even though Lynch doesn’t seem overly interested in that mystery. It’s pretty much tossed aside, the resolution comes quickly, because he doesn’t really care about it. The whole mystery starts because of an ear in a vacant lot (but why would the people responsible for that ear no longer being attached leave it there), and ends, with a little bit of a whimper. That’s because Lynch is more concerned, as always, in the themes of the movie than the narrative. He is showing American suburbia – that white, middle class enclave (and yes, it’s almost all white in Blue Velvet – save for two, black men – who are completely non-threatening, wisecracking, hardware store employees) as being a place of delusion. The end of the movie – not the climax, the scenes after that (which, unlike the climax, I remember) – show this clearly. No matter what happened, Jeffrey and Sandy have moved on – forgotten or buried what happened. There is a robin with a beetle in his beak though – and we know he hasn’t forgotten. And neither has Dorothy – who we see in a final moment that should be happy, but isn’t. She doesn’t have the luxury of Jeffrey and Sandy – to forget and move on.