Director: David Lynch.
Screenplay: David Lynch.
Starring: Kyle MacLachlan, Isabella Rossellini, Dennis Hopper, Laura Dern, Dean Stockwell, George Dickerson, Hope Lange, Brad Dourif, Jack Nance, Priscilla Pointer, Frances Bay, J. Michael Hunter, Fred Pickler, Ken Stovitz, Jack Harvey.
“I’ll send you a love letter straight from my heart, fucker”
The debacle of adapting Frank Herbert’s Dune in 1984, is now pretty much common knowledge among film enthusiasts. To put it plainly, it didn’t do well at the box office and was even tagged with the appellation ‘the Heaven’s Gate of science fiction films‘. So upset was David Lynch with studio interference and losing final cut of the film that he vowed never to work with a big budget again. He regrouped, however, and two years later he delivered one of his own original scripts in the form of Blue Velvet. Not only did it put him back on the map but it’s still widely regarded as one of the best films from the 1980’s.
Jeffrey Beaumont (Kyle MacLachlan) is an impressionable young man who return’s back to his home town to care for his ill father. After a visit at the hospital he takes a short cut through an abandoned field and finds a severed human ear. He takes it to the police before embarking on his own investigation. This leads him to nightclub singer Dorothy Vallens (Isabella Rossellini) and a criminal underworld that he had no idea existed.
The opening of the film has such a striking beauty to it with crisp and colourful cinematography by Frederick Elmes while Lynch doesn’t mince his words on his message; White picket fences with vibrant red roses, a fire truck strolls by with a waving fireman while a man hoses down his manicured garden. It’s quaint and calming imagery. Suddenly, the hose gets stuck on a branch, the water splutters and the infuriated gardener suffers a stroke. He falls to the ground while a toddler looks on and a dog’s only interest is in catching the water from the hose which is still in the grasp of the fallen gardener. It’s here that Lynch turns his camera to the grass and the dark underbelly of this picture-perfect, suburban lifestyle is exposed in a colony of insects. We then cut to a billboard saying “Welcome to Lumberton” – where it is later described as “a town where the people really know how much wood a woodchuck chucks”. There’s a playfulness on show and Lynch imbues the whole affair with satire and a deep cynicism.
From here, Lynch takes his time with his narrative – which, when you look at it now, is deceptively simple. He uses a very linear approach throughout the beginning of the film. Lumberton is a middle class suburbia where seemingly everyone is pleasant and there’s a feeling of safety. It has an air of mystery to it, though, after the discovery of the severed ear and it’s from the proceeding investigations and uncovering of the truth that the film gets more bizarre by the minute and the Lynchian weirdness begins to creep in. This is predominantly with the arrival of Dennis Hopper’s Frank Booth. From the plethora of Lynch’s obscure and unhinged characters, Frank is the one that seems to get the most attention. It’s not hard to see why, though, as this deranged, amyl-nitrate huffing psychopath is a character that lingers long in the memory. It’s an Oscar worthy performance from Hopper but, strangely, the Academy choose to nominate him in the supporting category for Hoosiers that same year. As good as he is in that film, Frank Booth has become one of, if not, the most iconic performance of his career.
For all it’s strangeness, though, Blue Velvet is effectively a film-noir. It has all the hallmarks of the sub-genre but, as is usually the case, Lynch puts his own spin on the proceedings. It’s dark, gloomy and hugely atmospheric. It’s also not without its disturbing elements as it delves into the darkest recesses of the psyche and explores the psychosexual motivations of its characters – which is hinted at with a quote from Laura Dern’s angelic Sandy – “I can’t figure out if you’re a detective or a pervert”. This line perfectly sums up the juxtaposition that courses throughout the film. Lynch is interested in capturing the different extremes; in society, human relationships and Freudian and Oedipal subconscious desires. All the while, he keeps us reminded that dreams can so easily lead to nightmares.
If there’s one moment that showcases Lynch’s ability to project mood and capture the extremes it’s with a cameo from Dean Stockwell as the suave, glad-handling dandy, Ben. His miming rendition of Roy Orbison’s In Dreams using a worklight is simply one of the best scenes Lynch has ever put onscreen. It’s at once hilariously comical yet also surreal and deeply fuckin’ creepy.
A startlingly beautiful yet genuinely horrific tale and proof that Lynch is probably the most subversive of filmmakers working today. This erotic and perversely self indulgent piece of work remains one of his best films. To think that this came out in the mid 80’s is proof of Lynch’s untamed brilliance and majesty.
Trivia: The character of Frank was to breathe helium at various intervals in David Lynch’s original script, but Dennis Hopper suggested this be changed to amyl nitrite which he knew was used to enhance sexual experiences. Hopper only realized years later how bizarre the concept of a helium-breathing maniac talking with a high voice was. Lynch, however, felt that using helium might elicit laughter in the audience which would have been undesirable.