Film Review by Lauren Randall
Crushed blue velvet, shimmering behind the elegant opening credits, stretches out into a clear summer’s sky. White picket fences loom over red roses as children walk to school. In the midst of this picture perfect suburbia, a man collapses watering his garden, the knotted, straining, bursting hose a paradigm for the aneurysm exploding in his body. The camera falls too, moving closer and closer to the manicured grass until it seeps beneath the surface, the lens suddenly bombarded with the pulsating and vicious movement of bugs tearing at the soil.
Thus, the scene is set for David Lynch’s masterpiece, Blue Velvet (1986). Whipping up a storm of controversy when first released with its unflinching depiction of S&M, rape and surreal violence, the film embraces both Gothic and noir traits to create a disturbing pastiche of suburban living. A nightmare of the American dream, it is the film that marks the beginning of what are now recognised as Lynchian trademarks and propelled the director into the echelons of cinema.
Set in the quiet town of Lumberton, a precursor to Twin Peaks’ eponymous logging town, all seems wholesome enough until good college-kid Jeffrey Beaumont (Kyle MacLachlan) returns home to help look after his hospitalised father and stumbles across a severed ear, a MacGuffin to make Hitchcock proud. Reporting it to the police does nothing to satiate his piqued curiosity and Jeffrey, along with sweet high-school student and cop’s daughter Sandy (Laura Dern), sets about uncovering the mystery for himself, beginning by snooping into the life of nightclub singer Dorothy Vallens (Isabella Rossellini) and breaking into her apartment. As he puts it to Sandy, “Nobody would think two people like us would be crazy enough to do something like this”.
There’s the focal point of Lynch’s vision: what looks sane and sensible on the outside – and who looks more sane and sensible then the pastel twinset-wearing Sandy? – is often a mask for the irrational urges lurking within us all, a point emphasised further with the arrival of Frank Booth (Dennis Hopper), a snarling, drug-inhaling, sexually violent psychopath, on the screen. The real showpiece of Blue Velvet, Frank is the raging Freudian id, the buried subconscious of Lumberton, the bug writhing beneath the landscaped lawn who opens up our naive, repressed hero’s eyes to the darkness that lurks beyond the picket fence.
Hopper’s portrayal is quite majestic and certainly one of the finest depictions of evil to ever grace cinema. In lesser hands Frank could have wound up a caricature, whose actions were too ridiculously extreme for the character to have true potency on the screen. With Hopper he is a villain uncanny, a Hyde-like bully and an explosion of emotion, spewing hatred with some of cinema’s most recognisable dialogue (“Don’t you fucking look at me!”) before moving swiftly into hysterical sobs. He is the prototype Lynchian bad-guy: hypnotic, unapologetic and a presence that lingers uncomfortably with you long after the credits roll.
MacLachlan delivers a more muted, but no less impressive, performance as the affable good-guy pulled into a macabre wonderland of grotesque figures. Indeed, if Hopper’s Frank is the equivalent of the unpredictable Red Queen calling for people’s heads, MacLachlan’s Jeffrey is certainly Alice-esque, stumbling blindly in his curiosity as he plays first amateur P.I. and then white knight. His natural charisma ensures the audience is always with him, trusting him even when things start to go wrong, feeling every knock he takes in his faltering efforts to save the damaged Dorothy.
There are few characters, if any, who have looked as haunted and haunting on the big screen as Rossellini’s chanteuse, an effect only made completely possible by the actress’ devastating performance. Dorothy Vallens is a heartbreaking femme-fatale, unintentionally destructive through her own pain and suffering, seductive only in the sense that her shocking fragility calls out to Jeffrey’s better nature. Intelligently imbuing her Dorothy with a raw honesty, Rossellini inverts the glamour of traditional noir anti-heroines by laying herself bare both literally and metaphorically for all to see.
Lynch revels in his noir recreation, moulding the Hitchcockian motifs of voyeurism and corrupted innocence into his own warped vision with the wonderful assistance of production designer Patricia Norris and set decoration by Edward LeViseur. Of equal importance is the deliciously disconcerting score from Angelo Badalamenti, woven around the chilling refrain of the film’s title song.
Yet, despite justifiably earning its masterpiece status the film is not quite the finished article. Whilst always a tricky issue to criticise the plot of a Lynch film the mystery at the centre of Blue Velvet is an element that is quickly overshadowed by its characters. Certainly, in Twin Peaks (1990) Lynch presents an equally (if not more so) disturbing offering complete with a mystery that kept a hold of its viewers attention as much as its residents.
But that’s a minor quibble for a film so ahead of the game. Indeed, Twin Peaks (and Mulholland Drive and Inland Empire) might not even have ever come to fruition were it not for Blue Velvet’s resounding cultural impact. The same goes for work as diverse as Edward Scissorhands (1990), Six Feet Under (2001-2005) and Donnie Darko (2001), the latter of which even opens with a version of Lynch’s opening montage and hinges on the actions of an unnerving figure called Frank. Pre-empting, maybe even kick-starting, a new kind of Gothic-noir, a Gothic-suburban-noir, that the nineties and noughties would indulge in, and shows no sign of abating now, Lynch’s film left an indelible mark on cinema and television. Jeffrey may have been the first to fall down Blue Velvet’s dark rabbit-hole but the rest of us quickly followed.