A psychosexual ‘Joyride’: Revisiting David Lynch’s 1986 cult-classic ‘Blue Velvet’
“My cow is not pretty, but it is pretty to me.” – David Lynch
The film that famed critic Roger Ebert gave a single star. I’m absolutely sure that most people don’t remember David Lynch’s 1986 cult-classic Blue Velvet just as Ebert’s bête noire and rightly so. Lynch takes us on a “joyride” through the superficial tranquillity of a suburban utopia, slowly unmasking the dark and twisted desires that operate underneath. He shows us white picket fences, friendly firemen, ornamental rose gardens (a central theme of suburban frustration in American Beauty) only to tear it all apart, to show us that appearances can always be deceiving.
Filled with interesting symbolism, Blue Velvet begins with a man who has a sudden stroke while watering his front lawn. He lays writhing on the grass as his wife watches television (the image of a gun on it). The camera descends from the sunny surface to the disgusting bowels of the world and focuses on insects scuttling over each other, signifiers of impending death. The man’s son, Jeffrey (played by Kyle MacLachlan), returns from college to take care of things at home but he finds an object that sets things in motion: a severed ear (with insects crawling out of it). He takes it to a local detective and it is at his house that he meets his daughter, Sandy (Laura Dern). She emerges from the darkness, almost as if the genre of the film demanded her presence.
There is an inherent duality in almost every aspect of Blue Velvet. There are two registers of reality: the sunny suburban world and the dark underbelly, two fragmented parts of Jeffrey’s own identity and most importantly, the two genres that Lynch combines to create something completely unique (the apparent innocence of a romantic teen film and the authentic depravity of a psychosexual thriller). Acting on Sandy’s tips, Jeffrey decides to investigate the apartment of a singer named Dorothy Vallens (Isabella Rossellini). It is never clear why Jeffrey is so obsessed with the case but that’s because it is never meant to be. This is Lynch’s way of commenting about the arrogance of the mystery genre. In a later scene, Jeffrey does explain that he’s “seeing something that was always hidden” and that he loves mysteries but such comments are meta-fictional absurdities that warn us not to rationalise what we cannot understand.
Jeffrey becomes enamoured with Dorothy and decides to break into her apartment while she is singing at the club. “I don’t know if you’re a detective or a pervert,” Sandy tells him and I don’t think we ever find out either. The idea of suspense itself gets sexualised. People who hate Blue Velvet, including Ebert, state that the serious subject matter is treated with dismissive humour by Lynch but I would argue that the surreal “comic” elements are essential for a complete understanding of the Lynchian universe. In a highly tense situation, Jeffrey decides to pee in the apartment he breaks into, he looks at a house and remembers that a boy lived there who “had the biggest tongue in the world” and suddenly breaks into a chicken-walk for no good reason. These outbursts of absurd humour are not attempts to make light of the horrific events but they are signs of our impotence, of not being able to process just how messed up the world we live in is. The absurd is our comic relief.
What follows is one of the most bizarre and iconic scenes in film history. Jeffrey hides in Dorothy’s closet when she gets back, watching her undress and talk on the phone. He is a detective and a pervert, a voyeur who spies on an unsuspecting woman. However, things get weird when Dorothy finds out that Jeffrey was hiding in the closet all along. She initiates a strangely sexual interaction with him (defying all of our expectations). This is the moment that Blue Velvet’s most memorable character makes his entrance, Frank Booth. Arguably Dennis Hopper’s finest performance (there are a lot to choose from), he enters Dorothy’s apartment and indulges in some sort of incomprehensible routine, oscillating between infantile sexuality and misogynistic sadomasochism. “Now it’s dark”, he says but there’s enough light for Jeffrey to see everything.
We find out that Dorothy’s husband and son have been kidnapped by Frank, a deplorable man who inhales a mysterious gas (later identified by Hopper as amyl nitrate in a documentary) and feeds off the aggression. Jeffrey descends deeper into this dystopian nightmare, visiting Dorothy and sleeping with her (even hitting her like Frank does). Sandy and Dorothy become distinct desires that drive Jeffrey. Sandy represents the normative ideal of a “perfect” relationship and Dorothy is the locus of all his repressed desires. The nightmare turns into a carnivalesque romp when Frank finds Jeffrey at Dorothy’s apartment, insisting that he comes along with them on a “joyride”. This is exactly where Blue Velvet reveals its surreal beauty, from the dream-like sequence in Frank’s friend, Ben’s apartment to the showdown at the lumber yard. “You’re like me”, Frank tells Jeffrey. He takes a large puff of the gas, puts on lipstick and kisses Jeffrey all over (dismantling the stereotypical masculine aggression). “In Dreams” by Roy Orbison booms from the car’s radio, a woman dances on the car as Frank warns Jeffrey with an impressive poetic rhythm:
“Don’t be a good neighbour to her. I’ll send you a love letter. Straight from my heart, fucker. You know what a love letter is? It’s a bullet from a fuckin’ gun.”
This scene is the perfect example of the beauty of Lynch’s surreal vision and his undeniable genius. Jeffrey gets beaten up and he realises that he is in over his head. He tries to tell Sandy’s father but things get complicated when he sees that Frank’s criminal associate is also a detective. Putting the fever dream behind him, he goes out on a date with Sandy (wanting to stabilise his psychosphere) but the reality of his repressed desires surfaces on his lawn again. Sandy’s boyfriend chases him down in the fervour of teenage rivalry but is stunned at the sight of a naked and battered Dorothy in front of Jeffrey’s house. Ebert’s biggest complaint about Blue Velvet was this gross mistreatment of Isabella Rossellini’s character, claiming that it Lynch was responsible for this blatant misogyny. It is true that there is no place for the celebration of misogyny in any medium but Lynch never glorifies it. If anything, it is a lamentation about a woman who has been psychologically and physically ravaged by the depraved forces of an evil that transcends all reason. She says that Jeffrey “put his disease in [her]”, claiming that we live in a world where giving birth is a curse (the central theme of Eraserhead).
Jeffrey makes his way to Dorothy’s apartment only to find her husband tied up with a bullet to his head, a piece of a blue velvet cloth in his mouth. The Yellow Man (Frank’s associate) is left standing with a gaping head wound and blood is smeared all over the walls. The television screen is cracked, signifying that the mystery-fantasy of popular culture has been completely demolished. At first, Jeffrey just walks away but is chased back into the apartment by Frank. He is forced to hide in the closet again and ultimately, shoots Frank in the head. Can violence solely be terminated by violence? From a severed ear to an attached one, the camera pans out from a close-up of Jeffrey’s ear to reveal the sunny suburban life again. Jeffrey’s father is out of the hospital, Sandy’s family has come to visit them and everything’s alright. They even see a robin (Sandy believed they represented love) with an insect in its mouth (the symbol of death). Everything’s alright.
“Blue Velvet is like the guy who drives you nuts by hinting at horrifying news and then saying, ‘Never mind,’” Ebert wrote in his scathing review of the film but it seems like this desperate need for resolution is exactly what Lynch criticised. As the ending of Blue Velvet shows, it is very easy to terminate a story in a happy way, stringing images of peace together but that’s not the point of it at all. Even though things have been forced back to normalcy, the legacy of an omnipresent violence lingers on.