It was with some trepidation that I sat down to watch Blue Velvet, David Lynch’s most famous film, assuming from the reviews that it would be too brutal and depraved for my tastes but deciding to muscle through it anyway on the heels of the excellent Mulholland Drive. Blue Velvet was passed over by major studios for its graphic content and it eventually found financing with the independent Italian studio De Laurentiis Entertainment Group. This doesn’t sound promising so imagine my surprise when it turned out that Blue Velvet is actually reaffirming the value of traditional communities.
The surface reading of Blue Velvet takes the most obvious symbolism of the film and claims it for the whole intent. The punchline of the opening scene shows pristine flowerbeds before panning down to view the repulsive movements of ravenous insects below. Therefore Blue Velvet is a shocking expose of the rot lying beneath the hypocritical surface of small town life. From here the clichés can write themselves. Small towns, once seen as the ideal place to start a family, are constantly being reinterpreted on page and screen as seething masses of repressed sexuality, failed ambition, religious extremism, grotesque crime and plain unappetizing eccentricity.
Blue Velvet is a David Lynch film though, and it would be insulting to take such a simplistic view of one of his modern fables. Blue Velvet is actually one of his more straightforward films in terms of plot yet it is still so patently unrealistic that it can hardly function as a believable crime drama, even when compared to such unlikely films as Fargo or Leon. And so the critical interpretation claims it as a dark, sensuous, dreamlike neo-noir for film students to unpack. However, examining the subtext and soul of the film actually transforms it into a hard-to-watch but ultimately uplifting allegory.
The film is set in Lumberton, a fictional town with an overwhelming feel of the 1950s. You have your friendly neighbourhood fireman, friendly neighbourhood policeman, white picket fences, flower beds, local business, intact family units and a majority white population (although a couple of shots make it clear that the town does not actually practice segregation). It is portrayed as a good place to be and (although Roger Ebert saw all of this as a satire of 50s sitcoms) there is nothing mean-spirited in Lynch’s portrayal. The nice people in the film are not torn down by murder or humiliated by the director, nor is their decency ever revealed as some sort of sham front to help them sleep at night (all things you might expect of an actual satire). Lynch is not taking revenge on small-town America; he’s saying in some odd way of his own that their ways are good at heart. There’s a stability here missing from later films with ostensibly similar subject matter. Take Fargo (Coen Brothers, 1996): “Nice people” in Fargo are a running joke, a sideshow of yokels with exaggerated accents while the pregnant cop’s innate decency floats in a vacuum as she goes from corpse to corpse.
Blue Velvet begins with the clean-cut boy Jeffrey (Kyle MacLachlan) coming home from school to look after his father (who’s had a stroke) and his father’s hardware store. Walking through the fields, Jeffrey finds a severed ear and, being a concerned citizen, bags it and brings it to the police. He immediately asks if Detective Williams still works there, emphasizing community ties by bringing the case to a known family friend instead of a stranger (this decision inadvertently keeps the case from getting buried). I was dreading that Williams would be revealed as a crooked cop in the end but he turns out to be exactly what he seems on the surface – a just and devoted family man. He can’t share details of the case with Jeffrey but his daughter Sandy (Laura
Dern) has no such restrictions and she tells him on a nighttime walk that the case seems to lead back to a nightclub singer named Dorothy Vallens (Isabella Rosselini). Jeffrey decides to investigate and Sandy goes along for the ride. They take it as an opportunity to engage in some semi-dangerous hijinks and maybe help the police. For a while it’s just a game with unspoken flirtation underneath but as they get deeper into their detective work Sandy has doubts about the whole enterprise. “I don’t know if you’re a detective or a pervert,” she says. Jeffrey glibly replies “that’s for me to know and you to find out,” but the truth is that he doesn’t know. And he’s about to be tested.
Entering Dorothy’s apartment and hiding behind the conveniently slotted door of her closet, Jeffrey watches the older woman undress, receive an ominous phone call and don a blue velvet bathrobe. She discovers his hiding place (the boy is skilled in neither stealth nor forethought) and enacts a mating ritual while holding him at knifepoint. It’s about as hot as watching a couple of praying mantises copulate. Interrupted by someone at the door, Jeffrey again in hiding, we meet Frank (played with somewhere below .001% finesse by Dennis Hopper). In the ensuing scene he beats and rapes Dorothy while huffing amyl nitrate. This done, he leaves. Jeffrey comes out to offer some sort of assistance to Dorothy, another twisted pantomime of sex is offered to him and Jeffrey finally flees the apartment in horror.
Several plot points become clear in this scene. Frank is evil. He is holding Dorothy’s husband (to whom the ear belonged) and young son hostage to force her into becoming his sex slave. Dorothy is being driven insane, having embraced guilt-fuelled masochism and wishing to die. As the film progresses we see Frank surrounded by criminals, crooked cops, prostitutes and degenerates but he sees Dorothy as special. There is no greater emblem of corruption than that of turning a mother into a whore. Frank rules and recruits an underbelly that will one day swamp and destroy Lumberton if left unchecked. He corrupts whomever he contacts.
A few scenes ago Jeffrey and Sandy were equals. Now Sandy alone is the innocent while Jeffrey stands on the razor’s edge contemplating the darkness he has unearthed and unable to convey his despair. If this can happen, what is the point? The kids park outside of the church where light comes through the stained glass windows and organ music filters through the night air. Sandy tries to comfort him by sharing a dream she had right before meeting Jeffrey. She saw the world covered in darkness and then she saw robins arriving, bringing with them the daylight. In her dream the robins represented love. There is nothing subtle about this scene – Sandy has an angelic, faraway gaze and it fits the allegorical interpretation of this film hand in glove.
Jeffrey is not comforted by Sandy’s vision and starts having sex with Dorothy instead, who goads him time and again to strike her and finally succeeds. He starts romancing Sandy blatantly, causing her boyfriend Mike to break up with her. This is how corruption works, spreading from person to person. The boy (whose forebrain still isn’t working for shit) is finally caught cuddling Dorothy in the hall by Frank and his gang, who decide to take Jeffrey for a “ride” that is obviously going to end execution-style.
We catch a glimpse of Jeffrey’s better self in his stoicism as these psychos make sport of him. They take Dorothy to see her child in a house of prostitutes but all we hear of it through the closed door is her desperate cry “No, Donnie, no! Mama loves you!”
Back in the car, Frank starts abusing Dorothy right in front of him and Jeffrey finally loses it, punching Frank in the face. An awesome gesture, if a futile one. He’s a dead man walking and from any logical perspective it makes no sense for Frank to let Jeffrey live after what he’s seen. Yet Frank instead bids his minions to hold Jeffrey still while he makes out on (if it can even be dignified with that phrase) and then pummels the boy unconscious, sparing him. If this is a crime story then Frank becomes an idiot who’s so unstable a rival gangster or underling should have rubbed him out long ago. Gangsters have to do business and you can’t do business with Frank. But as an allegory this entire scene makes perfect sense: Frank is the corrupter. Earlier in the car he turns around to look at Jeffrey and says “you’re like me.” It’s better to let the boy fall into the pit on his own than to kill him at the very start of his descent. And so Jeffrey lives to face another day in his fallen state, screwing the woman he wanted to save and lying to everyone in his life.
We see Jeffrey sitting on his bed weeping as the epiphany strikes. He could huddle up there nursing his wounds, hiding from Frank; he could crawl on his belly and hope subservience saves him; he could turn his back on what he’s seen, split town and try to bury the memory in successive bottles of Heineken. Instead he puts his shirt on and goes to get help, coming clean about his investigation to Williams (he does leave both Sandy and Dorothy out of the story though). Now he turns his voyeurism into evidence, choosing to oppose a raving psychopath even knowing that he’s lucky to be alive after their first encounter. Good lad.
From here everything falls into place as a pattern of resolutions: Jeffrey and Sandy are hunted down on an evening drive by what turn out to be Mike and his friends (such a harmless posse after what we’ve seen) and their brewing argument is derailed by Dorothy, who has been thrown naked out of Frank’s car in front of Jeffrey’s house. Is this intimidation or is it an abhorrent gift? Why free such a damning witness unless this freedom is an illusion? Faced with a rapidly escalating situation Jeffrey mans up and takes charge. Note his demeanour against the confused and appalled boys in Mike’s group as they backtrack into apologies and he corrals the women and forgives Mike for his attempted violence. Jeffrey is truly coming-of-age here and it has nothing to do with sex.
The final secrets come out, as they had to. Dorothy the mad harlot stands shameless in the Williams’ kitchen, repeatedly saying that Jeffrey “put his disease in me” (I’ll let that stand without comment). As she’s taken away to the hospital Sandy gives Jeffrey a well-earned slap in the face.
Now the conflagration begins as Frank starts to clean house – maybe he’s just insane or maybe he’s realised that Jeffrey will defy him after all. Amid armed standoffs with the cops Frank sets out to murder all witnesses to his crimes, starting with Dorothy’s husband and the crooked cop. Jeffrey refuses to sit this one out and ends up cornered by Frank in Dorothy’s apartment. But after all he’s been through Jeffrey finally starts to think ahead and think fast. He misdirects Frank by walkie-talkie, arms himself
with the dying policeman’s gun and hides in the same closet that began his voyeuristic descent. Without panic he watches Frank stalk through the apartment, awaiting the perfect moment to open fire and then shooting the fiend right between the eyes.
Now all that’s left is the aftermath, in some ways the most important part of the film: Sandy forgives Jeffrey, which might look naive on her part but we must remember that Jeffrey manned up and took charge in correcting his error. Taking out someone like Frank earns a lot of good will and without Sandy’s telephoned well-wishing, Jeffrey would have no reason to stay in Lumberton. So the scene in which the two families mingle on a sunny day, all on good terms and with Jeffrey’s own father out of hospital, is incredibly important. Sandy, looking out of the window, sees that the robins have indeed come to the yard. The quotidian humdrum of daily life has resumed, but it brings with it love. It enabled Sandy to forgive Jeffrey when his life was on the line and has brought their families together. How different would Blue Velvet appear if Jeffrey had walked away at the end, alone and embittered by what he’s seen?
As for Dorothy’s fate, the very final scene of the film shows her in the park, alone save for her son and happy for the first time in the film. Though she is now a widow she is free from Frank’s tyranny, free from despair, restored to motherhood and mental health.
Blue Velvet is an incredibly powerful film. Contrary to what you might think from its reputation, it is not propagating degeneracy. Nor does it showcase the perverse as some kind of inevitable flip side to normality, “what you are in the dark” when all the healthy expressions of the id are repressed. Were that the case, Williams would have been the crooked cop and Sandy would have received the slap, not delivered it. But Sandy is not Dorothy and Jeffrey will not allow himself to become like Frank. In the end, however much evil has festered beneath the surface of Lumberton, Jeffrey chooses to stay in his hometown. He does not blame it for letting its guard down, allowing itself to be compromised. No, he fights for it when the time comes. The little town is a net positive and the film reflects that.
However, most people (with film critics leading the charge) seem to have missed the point of Blue Velvet. Consider the irony: In the role of a raped, beaten, brainwashed mother whose child has been stolen, who sees all sexuality as an expression of violence and who longs for death, Isabella Rossellini… became a sex symbol.