Blue Velvet

US | 1986 | Directed by David Lynch

Logline: A college student becomes willingly embroiled in the dark and dangerous world of a nightclub singer, and the psychopath who has kidnapped her husband and child.

Thirty years ago David Lynch delivered a comedy as dark as he likes his coffee, as black as midnight on a moonless night. It wasn’t seen as a comedy back then, it was perceived as a shocking neo-noir, the underbelly of small-town Middle America being slit open, its innards steaming in the smoky haze behind a seedy jazz bar. It’s a strange tale, distinctly Lynchian; the dreary normalcy of the mundane turned upside down, made perverted and grotesque. 

Blue Velvet is the kind of movie that I doubt would get made now. Certainly not funded in the same way, and certainly not with the kinds of actors who graced David Lynch’s deep crime melodrama three decades ago. Even more curious is that the executive producer, Dino De Laurentiis, had financed Lynch’s previous movie, Dune, which was a huge budgeted box-office bomb. It seems surprising Dino gave Lynch such a long leash again, but interesting to note the producer went uncredited.

Lynch was contractually obligated to deliver a two-hour movie to Dino. With his faithful editor, Duwayne Dunham (who would later direct episodes of Twin Peaks), they cut the original four-hour version down to exactly one frame shy of two hours. A few years ago, when the movie was being given the Blu-ray treatment nearly an hours’ footage of deleted scenes surfaced, long thought lost, and were included as a bonus featurette on the BD release. For some reason Lynch decided not include a couple of the most interesting lost scenes, so only a bunch of stills exist for those (first seen in the 2002 DVD release), in particular the “Look down” ear flush bathroom segment (a still of which ended up being used by media at the time), which was part of a longer scene inside Dorothy’s apartment, and a very curious “epilogue” debriefing scene with Sandy and Jeffrey at the sheriff’s department sitting at a table with a large branch/log in front of them.

Lynch’s story plays on classic noir tropes, the visual narrative uses many of the genre’s shadow play, mystery elements, while the classic femme fatale role is curiously perverted in the character of Dorothy Vallens (Isabella Rossellini), who spends much of her screen time exuding a mysterious and dangerous allure, part victim, part seducer. She encompasses the movie’s title of fear and desire; of loose sexual attraction – to naïve young Jeffrey (Kyle MacLachlan) and violent thug Frank Booth (Dennis Hopper) – and freak show ("He put his disease in me!") to Jeffrey’s chaste love interest Sandy (Laura Dern) and her conservative family.

The sexual symbolism, especially the Oedipal complex, and Lynch’s burrowing orifice fetish, provides the movie with much of its grotesque fascination. From the camera probing inside the severed ear that Jeffrey finds in the grass, to the bugs and beetles - Jeffrey’s Aunt Barbara (Frances Bay) is fixated on a terminate problem – and shooting Dorothy’s face in extreme close-up, sideways, her red lipstick mouth essentially becoming a vagina. But it’s not a titillating kind of sensuality, more of an oppressive, overwhelming force, beckoning and imprisoning.  Lynch returns several times to the close-up image of flames flickering, suggesting a strange mutability echoing our lead characters.

What became most apparent on this 30th anniversary screening was the satirical tone that Lynch injects into this subversive, yet surprisingly simple thriller. He plays with the conventions of wholesome Americana (note the red, white and blue in the opening scene), daytime soap television, the conservatism of bygone eras, such as the 40s and 50s, the stilted dialogue and both wooden and hysterical performances, elements he would return to, but with greater crossover appeal and success in his masterful TV series Twin Peaks.

The enigmatic qualities of Blue Velvet are still evident, but the movie feels more conventional, a little less shocking. Certainly Dennis Hopper’s menacing, volatile Frank is still the movie’s main draw card (infamously Hopper contacted Lynch during the audition process insisting he cast him as he declared, “I am Frank!”), and in his one scene, Dean Stockwell’s high-as-a-kite Ben, steals the limelight as he mimes to Roy Orbison. It’s a shame the terrific character actors Brad Dourif and Jack Nance weren’t given more screen time.  

Blue Velvet is a movie that has aged in curious fashion, teetering on the precipice of “deep trash” - the mechanical robin with the bug in its mouth – yet its absurdist streak and nightmarish fabric keeping the soap from washing the darkness clean.