An unflinchingly weird, dark, and beautiful film from a true auteur. But does it hold up?
As we close in on October 31, AiPT! will be reviewing and recommending various pieces of underappreciated scary media-books, comics, movies, and television-to help keep you terrified and entertained all the way up to Halloween.
Blue Velvet is often regarded as David Lynch’s best, most accessible film. With good reason, too, as it tows the line between Lynch’s more earnest, optimistic and affable predilections that endeared audiences to Twin Peaks and his more abrasive, grisly, and inscrutable ones which are well received by Lynch diehards (myself included) but would be further explored too an obscene degree in films like Inland Empire to less acclaim.
But, times, and film itself, have changed since Blue Velvet was initially released in 1986. While Lynch continues to create, other auteurs (David Fincher, Paul Thomas Anderson) have found their footing, and audiences expect more from movies than ever before. Does Velvet hold up?
Yes! Of course. The same things that made it so wholly unique at the time of its release still make it feel unique and different today – assuming you’re willing to go along for the ride, that is.
What’s it about?
In practice, Velvet is a strange, noir-tinged, otherworldly feeling affair that attempts to depict the seedy underbelly of idyllic white picket fence America through the eyes of college student Jeffery Beaumont’s (Kyle MacLachlan) flirt with real danger and darkness in his home town of Lumberton. In voyeuristically enjoying, and momentarily partaking in, the dark crime and lust ridden lives of the heartbroken but abusive Dorothy Vallens (Isabella Rossellini) and wholly terrifying Frank Booth (Dennis Hopper), Jeffery eventually finds his way back to the light through Sandy Williams (Laura Dern) not unscathed, but resolute and optimistic.
Blue Velvet operates primarily as a mystery film and when it’s firing on all cylinders, it’s a masterful one. The initial hook, Jeffery finding a severed human ear in a field, is a gross, compelling entry to a plot that blossoms out beautifully as we find dark nooks and crannies of depravity to explore through his eyes as he just can’t look away. Each twist and turn has meaning and significance both to the plot itself but to a larger thematic and symbolic tapestry that serve each other well. Jeffery acts a kind of morally-elusive detective, discovering more about the grimy underbelly of the town he calls home, where kidnappings, drug deals, and murders and more might be significantly more common than he thought.
It’s great writing that acts as a recursive loop, Jeffery returning time and time again to hide in Dorothy’s closet, Frank repeating the line “Now it’s dark”, and Sandy’s mentioning of a dream about robins coming – signifying a time of peace – which comes true in the end, all connected to each other and with purpose in a film that clips along, tense and fraught with anxiety, but also reveling in this exploration of darkness in a concise 2 hours.
Speaking of a larger thematic tapestry, Blue Velvet is rich with symbolism in the most Lynchian of senses – it is his namesake, after all. There’s elements of voyeurism, a takedown (or, praise of) domesticity, violence, sexuality, innocence and of pop culture all in balance and with their own avenues of exploration. Most centrally, Dorothy and Jeffery’s relationship is emotionally, and sexually charged but also abusive and horribly sad, her relationship with Frank the same, if more explicitly violent- a sharp contrast to the relationship blooming between Sandy and Jeffery – that the camera and plot hover on long enough to make audiences feel intentionally uncomfortable.
But in the peripheral, there’s the fact that the town this is all set is called Lumberton of all things, and that the film opens with red roses, white picket fences and waving firemen before panning down to roaches and beetles chewing and gnashing at each other just below the surface (don’t even get me started on all the other bug symbolism). There’s Frank’s fascination with the power of music – of the ’60s and ’50s, – which he seems to physically embody both to a sympathetic, endearing degree but also a horrible, violent one. There’s the repeated mentions of “mommy”, “daddy” and “sir” and more all thrown in with extreme sexual violence and infidelity.
It’s a lot! Each element, each viewing, could be picked apart to find new and different things that could be explored in worthwhile, valid and interesting directions. It may not all be intentional, it’s hard to tell with Lynch of course, but it doesn’t matter in the end, and the audience is given so much to take and run with here that it’s worth commending – and it certainly sets the film apart from its contemporaries and from films today even.
The Set Design
Flickering candles, spot lights, drapes and more play with the boundaries between light and dark, Jeffery begins wearing black as he flirts with ideas of breaking and entering a woman’s home – “now it’s dark”. David Lynch: The Art Life makes it apparent that Lynch considers himself a painter first and a film maker second. Blue Velvet is a testament to that. Each and every scene is carefully constructed and composed: characters fall into lines in sharp diagonals, Isabella Rossellini splays herself out dramatically as if she’s wrought with grief, sharp lights fall down illuminating Jeffery as he steps out of darkness and more. It’s very intentional, encompassing set design that feels dated but also transportive and masterful – you feel like you’re in another place while watching this film, often, one you’d rather not be in (to its benefit). The lip-syncing drug dealer, illuminated by his own halogen microphone dancing around a room with a crazed villain and hostages is especially memorable.
What Doesn’t Work
The Treatment of Women
While violence and sexuality are central themes here, they’re explored and depicted to a kind of gross, meaningless or defeating degree when aimed exclusively at the film’s female characters. Both Sandy and Dorothy are depicted as powerless, helpless figures that know better than the ways men are treating them or acting around them but seemingly don’t do anything about it in service of the larger plot. The case is especially bad for Dorothy, who endures rape, physical violence, and more without much recourse in a way that isn’t depicted as frequently in modern films, and for good reason. The camera doesn’t turn away frequently enough, the plot isn’t bettered by the abundance of these scenes, and the effect is suitably depressing but honed in other ways throughout the film well enough. It’s a detracting predilection that tips the balance of an otherwise great movie now more than ever for modern viewings.
Blue Velvet is strange, unflinching, art. It’s rich with plot and symbolism and rewards repeated viewings even today in an unparalleled way that only Lynch can achieve. It’s also needlessly violent and dark in a way that makes it less than enjoyable to watch depending on your tolerance. These things can exist in harmony, of course, and here I think they do. But your mileage may vary. The tight plotting and thematic payoff of a film such as this is undeniable, however, and it most certainly stands the test of time.