BLUE VELVET (1986)

  • Director: David Lynch
  • Writer: David Lynch
  • Starring: Kyle MacLachlan, Isabella Rossellini, Dennis Hopper, Laura Dern, Hope Lange, Dean Stockwell, and George Dickerson
  • Accolades: 2012 Sight & Sound Top 100 list (#70), 1951 Venice International Film Festival – Special Jury Prize, 1 Oscar nomination (Best Director – David Lynch), 1 Independent Spirit Award (Best Female Lead – Isabella Rossellini), 6 additional Independent Spirit Award nominations (Best Feature, Best Director – David Lynch, Best Male Lead – Dennis Hopper, Best Female Lead – Laura Dern, Best Screenplay, Best Cinematography)
  • Where to Watch: Stream with subscription on Starz app, buy or rent of Amazon Video, YouTube, or Apple TV

What has attracted me to the work of David Lynch over the years is its intense, inveterate weirdness, but was has always pushed me away is the deep earnestness he contrasts that weirdness with. The bit of David Lynch that the mainstream public is probably most familiar with today is Twin Peaks. Blue Velvet feels a bit like a dry run for Twin Peaks. It’s also set in the very dark underbelly of a small town, and it has the same star in Kyle MacLachlan. It wasn’t some huge financial success, but it did cause a great deal of critical debate. Some critics (Roger Ebert among them, though he would later reconsider to a degree) absolutely reviled it. For other critics (mostly a younger crowd, at the risk of generalizing), it has become something of a touchstone, as has much of Lynch’s other work. If anything, I come out the other side and end up in the same place as Ebert and other Lynch skeptics. He wants to contrast the weirdness with normality, but too much normality can make me nauseous.

MacLachlan stars as Jeffrey Beaumont, a kid back in town from college after his father (Jack Harvey) has a stroke. Behind the hospital he randomly finds a severed human ear, which he takes to the police, but after they vaguely tell him they’ll look into it, he takes matters into his own hands. With the assistance of the seemingly innocent, young, beautiful blonde daughter of the detective (Laura Dern, only 19 at the time of filming) he investigates, engaging in elaborate scheme to break into the apartment of a local lounge singer named Dorothy Vallens (Isabella Rossellini). What has, with the exception of the ear, been a fairly bucolic digression into the small-town life of Lumberton soon takes some very hard left-turns, and Jeffrey is drawn into the orbit of the insane crime lord Frank (Dennis Hopper).

Some have called Blue Velvet a “neo-noir,” though I would say to place it into a genre would involve being able to coherently describe its plot, something I have trouble with. Lynch is more interested in evoking specific feelings than in telling us a story (which is what always drove some people nuts). Part of doing that is shocking us. When Dorothy finds Jeffrey in her closet, her reaction isn’t what we’re expecting: she holds him at knifepoint, makes him undress, then starts giving him a blowjob. “If you look at me, I’ll kill you!” she tells him. That’s where we start for the rest of this. There was a time when Psycho, with its unmarried couples lounging in bed in their underwear, actually showing toilets, and guys in women’s clothing murdering naked ladies in the shower, was considered shocking. In 1986, Blue Velvet, where the femme fatale keeps insisting the whitebread heroic lead hit her while they’re having sex, had the same effect.

Hopper’s memorably batshit performance as the villainous Frank, who swears easier than breathing, huffing oxygen while super-creepily insisting Dorothy call him “Daddy,” is probably the thing that people know about from this movie who haven’t actually seen it. Reportedly Hopper read the script and insisted he had to play the part because “I am Frank.” Look, I’m not going to say that Hopper isn’t a very good actor, but the idea that he identified so personally with one of cinema’s most irredeemably awful villains (Frank has absolutely no redeeming qualities that I can discern) does not make me think he and I would enjoy hanging out with each other. But maybe I already knew that.

Blue Velvet represented something of a turning point in David Lynch’s career. He had been on his way up, Eraserhead and Elephant Man representing escalating underground successes, and then he was handed to the keys to a blockbuster Dune adaptation starring Sting that was pretty much an epic disaster from a financial perspective (though the movie has many defenders to this day). That Hollywood considered it such is shown by the way it took over thirty years for us to get another big-budget adaptation of one of the biggest sci-fi properties of all-time. Denis Villeneuve’s Dune is scheduled to finally hit theaters later this year, by the way. Anyway, nobody would ever let Lynch direct a big blockbuster again, which sucks, but he responded by going much smaller. No studio would finance Blue Velvet, but Italian transplant mega-producer Dino De Laurentiis (who had also financed Lynch’s Dune) was interested. De Laurentiis was based out of Wilmington, North Carolina, at the time, so the fact that the fictional town of Lumbarton is vaguely in eastern North Carolina is probably not a coincidence.

Earlier today, apropos of nothing, somebody on my Twitter posted that “Twin Peaks was about the darkest recesses of humanity, but it also has the best jokes.” Blue Velvet can go further (nobody on the original Twin Peaks could talk like Hopper’s Frank does here) in terms of darkness and sexual frankness, but it mostly lacks that wit that made me love Peaks. It’s replaced with these super-earnest scenes between MacLachlan and Dern, where they complain about how terrible the world is where things like Frank happen. In addition to MacLachlan, Dern would also become a Lynch muse as time went on, starring in his less-seen indie films Wild at Heart and Inland Empire, as well as appearing in Twin Peaks: The Return (I haven’t seen it, I know, blasphemy). Here, however, she doesn’t have much to do other than seem innocent.

Which really is what Blue Velvet is about, innocence that is entirely unjustified. I don’t really want to describe more about it, I’m not sure I can, and it’s hardly my favorite movie. I haven’t even got to the very weird and brief, but very memorable, turn by Dean Stockwell, which includes him doing an extended lip-synch performance of Roy Robison’s “In Dreams.” Look this is different from any other movie you’ve seen, and you might find it interesting if you give it a shot.

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