Blue Velvet: satirising American suburbia as cartoony more important than plot, characters and issues of exploitation

David Lynch, “Blue Velvet” (1986)

A beautiful film to watch with noirish elements and a lot of symbolism yet oddly not very suspenseful or satisfying. “Blue Velvet” is set in some vague representation of 20th century small-town America with a mix of white picket fences surrounding wannabe Cape-Cod houses with manicured green lawns and lush gardens. A middle-aged man watering his patch suddenly suffers a stroke and keels over. The camera tracks down close and low and fixes its gaze on a horde of ravenous beetles tearing at a carcass deep in the garden’s undergrowth amid a soundtrack of roaring chainsaws. The message is clear: no matter how gleamingly clean and tidy a community looks, its core is bound to turn out grimy and seething with corruption. The early scene is a metaphorical introduction to the community of Lumberton, a showcase of Tidy-town suburban Americana, and it’s here that college student Jeffrey Beaumont (Kyle MacLachlan) returns on hearing that his father is in hospital. He visits Dad and is relieved to see he’s recovering so he goes home, cutting across a field. He discovers in the field a severed ear and brings it to the attention of a police detective (George Dickerson) whose daughter Sandy (Laura Dern) he meets for the first time. Sandy already knows of the Case of the Severed Ear – the police seem unable to solve it – and tells Jeff that a night-club singer Dorothy Vallens (Isabella Rossellini) may have a connection to the ear. Egged on by Sandy and keen to investigate and solve the case himself, Jeff poses as a pest exterminator to enter Dorothy’s apartment and steals the singer’s spare key; he uses this key later to enter the apartment again late at night while it’s vacant but Dorothy comes back early and catches him. She attempts to seduce him but then a strange man, Frank (Dennis Hopper), enters the apartment so Jeff is quickly stashed into Dorothy’s wardrobe. Through slats in the wardrobe doors, Jeff watches Frank, an apparent drug addict and local criminal, abuse and rape Dorothy. Perhaps at this point Jeff realises amateur sleuthing is going to be more difficult than a diet of crime mystery novels and thriller movies has led him to believe.

Quite why Jeff believes he can succeed where the police have failed isn’t explained; maybe he’s studying forensic science and psychology at college and wants to put his knowledge to work. His involvement however takes him into the town’s underworld of violence, trafficking of illegal substances, kidnapping, blackmail and exploitation of women dominated by Frank’s gang, the local brothel owner (Dean Stockwell) and a police officer Jeff calls the Yellow Man; but the real underworld may be in his own psyche as uncovered by Dorothy when she attempts to seduce him a second time and begs him to beat her. Jeff resists at first but goaded by Dorothy, he ends up slapping her. From this point on Jeff is torn between two women, Sandy and Dorothy, who are polar opposites in many ways, and must choose one or the other if he is to fight Frank and a corrupt police force to solve the Severed Ear case .

An overarching meta-theme of polarities is evident everywhere in this film: good paired with evil; perfection paired with decay, corruption and rot; innocence paired with its loss and the psychological burden that fills the vacancy left; the good girl paired with the bad woman; love and romance paired with oppression and exploitation leading to violence. There’s a suggestion that if one of the pair exists, the other also exists. In trying to do good, Jeff also has to confront his dark side; he can keep it in check but this demands vigilance. Sandy presents as the “good woman” – loving, caring, forgiving, supportive – but perhaps also bland and sexually unadventurous; Dorothy the “bad woman” awakens Jeff’s sexuality and makes him aware of his own potential for violence and corruption. The acting reflects the love triangle as presented: MaLachlan and Dern are understated to the extent of appearing wooden though there are occasions in the film when they both break down and cry and it’s then you realise they’re not bad actors, they’re just following director’s orders. Rossellini puts in a credible performance though she seems awkward in her role: as a night-club singer, she’s a better model and reporter (Rossellini’s former occupations before she took up acting) and her early encounter with Jeff looks clumsy. Perhaps this is due to her character being a disturbed and frightened woman forced to submit to degradation in order to save her husband and son. The film never explains why Frank is holding the family hostage.

A plot filled with holes, loose ends and discontinuities (like severe knife-cuts to the face healing in less than 24 hours without leaving scars) eventually leads to a definitive resolution and a happy and idealised coda which jars with the ideas and themes presented. The forces of evil are held at bay, temporarily perhaps. Dorothy appears healthy and happy with her son; in real life, without therapy and support, she’d just find another Frank and the vicious cycle of exploitation and degradation will start again. Jeff might be sadder and wiser but keeps his feelings and thoughts in check as Sandy drags him from resting in the garden into the kitchen to look at a robin with a beetle in its beak. Has Jeff become sloth-like and domesticated? Might he not welcome the occasional secret tryst with Dorothy behind Sandy’s back? Lumberton appears as squeaky-clean as ever but would Jeff be satisfied living a life with Sandy, having tasted something of the world Dorothy has revealed to him?

The film’s style is low-key in keeping with MacLachlan and Dern’s underplayed characters who dominate the film. The early half of “Blue Velvet” tends to be quiet with not much background music, lending the plot an air of oppressiveness. Most of the action takes place at night when the town is asleep and the underworld awakes; the film emphasises dark colours, greys, shadows, hints of things unseen but lurking in the background. Dorothy’s apartment may have pink walls but the colour looks muted, even dark, and the red curtain by the open window is always moving. Maybe it’s fidgety. Maybe it’s a metaphorical invitation to sexual activity. Maybe the whole apartment represents a womb. Scenes in the apartment involve voyeurism, a tableau of two dead men and one scene where all the action happens in the bathroom right at the back of the set viewed in the left-hand corner of the screen while nothing happens in the foreground. Throughout the movie shots of industrial decay and close-ups of machines or objects are inserted into the action for no apparent reason other than to remind the audience that death and decay are ever present behind life and perfection. Perfection itself is presented in clear and bright though saccharine colours and imagery which suggests a view of Lumberton and its prevailing culture as perhaps childish and dumbed-down; the other more likely possibility is that Lumberton denies that corruption exists within its boundaries at all.

For all the foregoing, the film is remote and lacks suspense. The plot degenerates into a predictable series of highs and lows culminating in a stand-off between Jeff and Frank over Dorothy which astute viewers can see coming from a mile away. In spite of the film’s forays into voyeurism, the deliberate and subdued woodenness of Jeff and Sandy’s characters make viewer identification with them difficult and their odd behaviour at certain points in the movie – kissing each other just after a murder right in front of them? – might leave not a few viewers cold. The happy ending is unrealistic for characterrs like Jeff and Dorothy: you simply can’t imagine them, after all they have gone through, settling into tranquillity unless they undergo brain transplants. The symbolism present and the importance of close-ups of machines and various objects to the plot may easily pass over audiences’ heads.

It seems that Lynch is more interested in sending up small-town suburbia and exposing what rot and corruption may exist behind it – as if other directors before had never thought to do anything the same or similar – than in crafting credible characters to demonstrate the corruption, how it affects their psyches and behaviours towards others, and call attention to how exploitation and abuse of others plus their consequences occur in the absence of love and empathy. This does an injustice to Rossellini and Hopper in particular who were willing to play highly disturbed characters whose actions and experiences could have affected the actors deeply. Indeed Lynch didn’t even have to invent an underworld for Lumberton to find a dark side – the cartoony Tidy-town character of Lumberton itself is a symptom of social and cultural decay – but then I guess there’d be no “Blue Velvet”.

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