Director: David Lynch
Cast: Kyle MacLachlan, Isabella Rossellini, Dennis Hopper, Laura Dern
Watch Blue Velvet online in the UK: Netflix UK / iTunes / Prime Video (Buy/Rent) / TalkTalk TV / Google Play
2017 may not have many fans, but it’s been good to David Lynch. New episodes of Twin Peaks have returned after 25 years, while just last week, Cannes gave the Auteur of the Absurd the standing ovation he’s thoroughly deserved. Yes, David Lynch appears to be back in vogue. A truly unique artist, his macabre work has varied from The Wizard of Oz riffing Wild at Heart (1990) to the gentile, Disney-produced The Straight Story (1999). His stories are often drenched in surrealist dream logic and stretched to absurdism (particularly post-1997) in a way that has tested and frustrated audiences for over 40 years. To get to the core of what Lynch is all about, however, Blue Velvet has always been the text to use.
Blue Velvet has long been considered as Lynch’s coming out party. Released two years after the box office disappointment of Dune (1984), it not only bagged the filmmaker his second Oscar nomination for direction but became a milestone for Lynch himself. Blue Velvet begins to fully encompass one of the main threads in Lynch’s work; the fragility of picturesque Americana.
The likes of Eraserhead (1977) hinted at Lynch’s probing of social norms, but it’s Blue Velvet that launched proceedings into bold colour. Opening with blooming roses drenched in bright sunlight, friendly waving firemen and children ambling to school, this sleepy yet picturesque view is suddenly shattered by a middle-aged gardener suffering a stroke. As the man falls to the floor and his pet dog drinks from the garden hose, which is still held in the gardener’s hands, the camera pans into and under the grass to where we see a multitude of scurrying beetles seemingly eating each other. The combination of images is simple, yet effective. Priming the audience for what they are about to see.
The gardener’s son, Jeffery (Kyle MacLachlan) cuts through a vacant lot after a hospital visit and, to his surprise, finds a severed ear – a discovery the young man takes to the local police detective. In doing so, Jeffery meets Sandy, who divulges in information that sets Jeffery into a dark mystery involving a nightclub singer named Dorothy (and her sadistic “boyfriend” Frank, a perfectly cast Dennis Hopper). What Jeffery uncovers is a perverse and disturbing world, which hides in plain sight of his hometown of Lumberton.
Blue Velvet’s main plot is not particularly out of the ordinary once it unravels, but what sets it apart is just how depraved Lynch paints the world underneath the surface. What Lumberton incubates beneath its Gee-Whizz facade is a world of twisted masochism, which titillates as much as it terrifies. Lynch’s assured craftsmanship only helps to make us feel implicit to proceedings. The camera often sits on the edge of the film’s interiors, allowing us to peer into this world like we’re watching a play. The mundanity of the surroundings melds with the transgressions that the characters divulge in. Lynch revels in these juxtaposed mechanisms. Angelo Badalamenti’s melodramatic score, and the sing-song, soap opera tone during the daytime scenes, rub violently against the abrasive intrusion of Denis Hopper’s malevolent, drug-huffing Frank. We’ve seen such friction before and after Blue Velvet, but not as many cinematic texts mark the psyche the way it does.
What is observed is a cluster bomb of neuroses. The psychosexual mommy and daddy play, the oxygen mask full of narcotics, and Booth’s ID-like behaviour are already chilling, yet it’s how the corruption spreads within both Jeffery and Dorothy that’s most affecting. Booth abuses Dorothy’s vulnerability through manipulation and aggression, but we soon witness how she begins to feed into his degradation; how the danger begins to appeal to her, and how it infects the young Jeffery, is what provides the shocks. Then again, before we even reach the film’s darker moments, we’ve spent time trapped in a closet with Jeffery, watching the sultry lounge singer with a mixture of trepidation and titillation.
The voyeuristic tendencies, the predilection for violence and heart-wrenching anguish that lies in Blue Velvet, as well as the 50’s noir aesthetic and mind twisting weirdness, can be found in many of Lynch’s other works. However, it is here in which the vision really starts to straighten itself out. The grainy black-and-white imagery of Eraserhead is smoothed, and we haven’t reached the abstract narratives found in Lost Highway (1997) of Lynch’s true Masterpiece Mulholland Drive (2001), yet here we see the singular vision of the artist take a strong step forward in finding out what makes him tick, and discovering what makes us watch through our hands in both revulsion and fascination.
Blue Velvet is available on Netflix UK, as part of an £8.99 monthly subscription.
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