Review: Blue Velvet (1986)


Watching David Lynch’s much-venerated film, Blue Velvet is akin to seeing an artist creating a solid outline for a painting and then proceeding to ruin it with sloppy brush strokes that are delivered in an infuriatingly lackadaisical manner. The narrative weaves the tale of a young college student called Jeffery Beaumont, (Kyle MacLachlan) who gets a glimpse of the seedy and macabre underworld that exists within the underbelly of a pristinely picturesque American suburban town.

The picture deftly illustrates the inherently voyeuristic nature of the cinema in a scene when Beaumont is watching singer Dorothy Vallens (played with sobering fragileness by Isabella Rossellini) undressing through the shutters of a closet in her apartment. A static wide angled shot depicts the apparent unravelling of the seductive singer as she takes off her wig and goes into the bathroom to have a long agonised look in the mirror. Lynch’s unflinching directorial choice makes the audience equally as complicit in the act of watching as Beaumont.

And the film’s central metaphor of darkness residing even within the most peaceful and seemingly innocuous small-town is wonderfully encapsulated in the opening sequence. Lynch’s lush imagery primarily encapsulated in the shot of blooming red flowers set against the backdrop of a white picket fence and clear blue sky is juxtaposed with interesting elements. These include a woman watching a black and white scene on television showing a shadowy figure sneaking around a house with a gun in his hand that pervades the frame.

Blue Velvet is at its most cinematic fulfilling in moments such as this. However, the film is woefully marred by a conceptual confusion and overt melodrama- resulting in awkward writing and Lynch’s least satisfying portrait of surrealism in his entire oeuvre.

If one is to take Lynch’s central metaphor at face value, then it can be inferred as wanting. Crucially, the underworld Beaumont discovers existing within his hometown feels about as threatening as a pack of hyenas snarling at a parade of elephants.

The problem is compounded by the picture’s villain, Frank Booth. (Dennis Hooper) Sure, his introductory scene is a disturbing portrayal of torture, made, even more, frightening by Rossini’s emotionally anguished performance and Angelo Badalamenti’s score that is the musical equivalent of a sting from a scorpion’s tail.

However, the scene introduces various elements that remarkably diminish his character. Most notably, the extended sequence reveals that Booth is impotent as he gains sexual satisfaction from non-penetrative straddling Dorothy in a low lit environment while repeatedly asking the singer not to look at him during the act. There is a sense with this last part in particular that if Frank cannot be seen, then he cannot be judged for his lack of sexual prowess.

With his previous actions in the sequence, particularly the small moment when he looks at a naked Valance while repeatedly uttering Mummy, one could read the situation as a possible recreation of a memory of childhood abuse at the hand of his maternal figure.

Elsewhere, Booth comes across as a pathetic man whose various attempts at being tough becomes laughable. His repeated uses of the expletive “Fuck!” , asking Beaumont to feel his muscles after beating him up and his general shouty manner all combine to create an oafish and outdated portrait of masculinity. The film is under the delusion that it is still the 1950s and greasers remain the toughest and scariest people on the block.

The choice feels whiplash-inducing particularly when our young characters start moralising about the nature of evil in the world. Booth is held up as a terrifying figure of malevolence and the so-called satanic figure of Lumberton, however, the conception of the character combined with Hooper’s performance feels like an incongruous misstep in Lynch’s vision for the picture.

On reflection, the flaw also chips away further at a much more problematic aspect of the film. In essence, Lynch has conceived of a black and white tale that has aspects of the grey at the edges of its foundations. While I applaud the renowned director for crafting a counter-intuitive picture that stands out from the rest of filmography, on closer examination, some of the thematic similarities have been expressed with far more wit, sophistication and cinematic potency in his other films.

Consider the sequence when Jeffrey Beaumont and Sandy Williams (Laura Dern) are sitting in a car reflecting on Frank Booth and the strangeness of the world. They park next to a Church where an organ serves as the primary source of music in the scene. In many ways, it is the centrepiece of the film as it expresses that love will always overcome the seemingly never-ending force of evil in the world. The theme is expressed in the form of a dream that Sandy has where thousands of Robins are unleashed upon a world of unending darkness.

The pervading humanity should make the scene engage the senses and mind. However, contrived dialogue, awkward line deliveries and the choice of the Church organ make the scene feel like an overwrought mess.

Compare the sequence with the multiple numbers of scenes in The Elephant Man when John Merrick (John Hurt) is expressing his gentle and joyous observation of humanity. Or even the awkward moments of humanity in Eraserhead, with particular reference to Henry Spencer having dinner with his girlfriend’s parents and the moments that involve Spencer and his mutant spawn. One can see from these examples that Lynch’s humanism is alive, authentic and wonderfully moving.

Finally, the film’s most surreal sequence that involves a lip-synch rendition of Roy Orbison’s In Dreams draws comparisons with the far superior scene involving Rebekah Del Rio’s Spanish version of Roy Orbison’s Crying from Mulholland Drive. In Blue Velvet, the scene is a quirky flourish that attempts to make Booth’s world much more interesting. In Mulholland Drive, the scene is a cinematic manifesto where Lynch illustrates the illusory nature of film-making and how the audience can still be moved by the evidently presented facade.

In essence, Blue Velvet proves that Lynch’s surrealism falters when his portrait of reality is seemingly ordinary and mundane.

About Sartaj Govind Singh

Notes from a distant observer: “Sartaj is a very eccentric fellow with a penchant for hats. He likes watching films and writes about them in great analytical detail. He has an MA degree in Philosophy and has been known to wear Mickey Mouse ears on his birthday.”
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