“How Had I Never Seen” Blue Velvet

This article original appeared on The Film Experience

I’m not a David Lynch person.  My first exposure to anything he made was The Straight Story, the most un-Lynchian thing he ever did.  I wasn’t around the people who cared about Twin Peaks the television show, the film or the subsequent revival series.  I enjoy the levels of surreal like David Cronenberg and Yorgos Lanthimos, but Lynch is a level of bizzare I wasn’t willing to commit myself to caring about.

But, being the Oscar completest that I am, I gave a shot to Mulholland Drive, and I really took to it.  It was during the viewing of Mulholland Drive that I realized what made Lynch different from other filmmakers…

If you were to take the overall narrative of that film and give it to a mainstream director, they would craft a straightforward crime story with dutch angles and a twist ending.  In Lynch’s hands, it turns into an unforgettable amalgamation of metaphors, dreamscapes, and the darkest of dark comedy.

With that idea in mind, I dove headfirst into Blue Velvet.

Kyle MacLachlan stars as college student Jeffrey Beaumont, who returns home to Lumberton, North Carolina after his father suffers a debilitating stroke.  When Jeffrey walks through a vacant lot, he finds a severed human ear.  Jeffrey gives the ear to Detective John Williams (George Dickerson) and takes an interest in his daughter Sandy (an angelic Laura Dern).

Jeffrey can’t shake the unknowable.  He wants details that Detective Williams won’t give, but Sandy points him in the direction of Dorothy Vallens (Isabella Rossellini).  Jeffery eventually infiltrates her apartment and encounters her sexually.  He also sees Dorothy interact with psychopathic gangster Frank Booth (Dennis Hopper) and witnesses the devastating power he has over her.

Despite the obvious danger and chaos, Jeffrey can’t stay away.  There’s a fascinating dichotomy between the world he experiences with Sandy, where everything is sweet and innocent and chaste, and the world he has with Dorothy, where everything is lurid and visceral and lustful.  He never waivers from which side he wants to dive into, even when both worlds unexpectedly collide.

On paper, the plot is as basic as it gets.  Small town kid investigates a crime where a woman is being tormented by a criminal.  But, all of that is too easy for Lynch.  Why do things according to expectation, when instead you can have a quietly treacherous drug dealer played by Dean Stockwell lip sync to Roy Orbison?

Let’s talk about Frank Booth and the performance of Dennis Hopper.  It is often difficult to portray true danger in film.  But Hopper is such a live-wire and takes such wild turns that your are honesty horrified at the insanely violent or sexual thing he is going to do next.  Every sentence is punctuated with expletives and every raunchy thought or desire is implicitly described.  Hopper is not in the film very often, but his absence is just as palpable as his presence.  Every character is keenly aware of what Frank is capable of and it’s a testament to Hopper’s performance that it comes through the screen.

MacLachlan’s role is tricky as it is meant to elicit sympathy despite his obvious self-destructiveness.  We appreciate the role he takes in Dorothy’s life, actively caring about her situation, but we also want him to come to his senses and stay safe with Sandy.  Despite the contrasts in relationships with the women, we never doubt his own morality.  Specifically, after Dorothy tells Jeffrey to hit her during sex, he obliges and feels terrible guilt for days afterwards.

Isabella Rossellini’s performance didn’t do much for me initially. I thought she was fine, but nothing special.  The more time away from the film, the more I couldn’t shake her performance out of my head.  She is a mix of femme fatale, exasperated and broken, and a blur of abused mania.  The chaotic energy she shifts between her scenes with Frank and then Jeffrey is a masterclass in a character who doesn’t trust her own broken self.  This woman has resorted to whatever lengths it takes to keep her family alive and it has cost her soul.  It’s a true masterwork the Academy should be ashamed to have overlooked.

Blue Velvet has stayed in the public consciousness 35 years on, and I suspect it will now be lodged in my mind.  I still don’t consider myself a David Lynch person, but I keep falling in love with his films.  Maybe I am a Lynch person after all…

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