From the moment those velvet curtains are lifted and we descend into the painfully idyllic suburbs, it is clear that David Lynch’s Blue Velvet (1986) will make for uncomfortable viewing.
A slight pitch-shift in Bobby Vinton’s rendition of the titular song alongside slow motion, Rockwell infused postcard images seem to instantly transcend notions of tranquil suburban utopia and begin to resemble something creepy, something unnatural, or as protagonist Jeffery Beaumont would put it, “something that was always hidden”.
Lynch’s depiction of the fictional suburban town of Lumberton wastes no time in delving beneath the surface, quite literally, as the camera leads us below the beautiful green grass to dwell amongst the insects, now magnified and monstrous. These insects consistently permeate the world within Blue Velvet, becoming a recurring motif for the infestation and perversion of suburban paradise and the nuclear family. It is, of course, an ant-infested severed ear that leads young college student Jeffery Beaumont (Kyle MacLachlan) to the troubled and mysterious nightclub singer, Dorothy Vallens (Isabella Rossellini) and her hidden domestic nightmare involving kidnap, abuse and sadomasochistic extortion.
Jeffrey’s unwavering curiosity and child-like excitement over coming across a real mystery in his own backyard gives way to voyeuristic peeping and a traumatised innocence as he unwittingly becomes part of Lynch’s alternate nuclear family. This could be seen as subverting a stereotypical suburban mystery of what goes on behind closed doors through the use of bizarrely savage visual motifs and its willingness to explore the more depraved end of the spectrum of human desire.
In subverting the picture perfect stagnancy of Lumberton, Lynch presents his audience with a sinister and vulgar union in the relationship between Dorothy and her prisoner, Frank Booth (Dennis Hopper). Frank has kidnapped Dorothy’s husband and son, using her to fulfil his cruel and sadistic Oedipal sex fantasies, often referring to her as “Mommy”.
Watching through the cracks of the closet like a naughty child, Jeffery is exposed to a new kind of perversion in a man so utterly depraved and evil that his traits seem to lie beyond any sense of reason or rationality. The further we go beneath the surface, the more we discover. In the case of Blue Velvet, we drift further and further away from the safe realistic normality of white picket fences, friendly neighbours and happy families. The film presents us with these images, only to pervert each element through its presentation of unsavoury, voyeuristic curiosity, absurd character actions, sexual abuse and inhumane evil.
Although the film maintains many surreal Lynchian motifs, post-modern characteristics, dark humour and horror, it manages to allow Lynch’s inherent Boy Scout innocence (being an Eagle Scout in his childhood clearly had an impact on his probing fascination with nature) to triumph. As Jeffery’s innocence is increasingly compromised, the familiar clichés within his blossoming relationship with the police chief’s daughter Sandy (Laura Dern) seem to remind audiences, and at times the characters themselves, that there is still light to match the overbearing darkness.
Sandy is presented as your typical happy-go-lucky high school sweetheart, who endures Jeffery’s moral decay and saves him from the hideous underbelly of the suburban dream, where sex is torture, rationality is non-existent and law enforcement is compromised.
This is most apparent in the scene in which Sandy comforts a shocked and disturbed Jeffery by recalling a dream involving robins bringing light and love when there seemed only to be darkness. And she really believes in it too. It’s easy to label such dialogue as ironic in a film as dark as Blue Velvet, yet the message is so sincere that we are almost blinded by its light.
We are almost assaulted with Sandy’s sincerity by the end of the film when our attention is shifted toward a (quite clearly stuffed) robin, happily perched on a tree branch and chewing on a bug on a bright and beautiful day. The robin is indeed fake, (keeping in tune with the relayed postcard suburban tropes from the film’s opening) yet the sentiment moderates the façade as Dorothy Vallens sings, “And I still can see Blue Velvet through my tears…” The camera drifts back up into the clear blue sky, out of this dream town, and the curtains descend. Much like Jeffery, we’re allowed a glimpse into the nightmarish underbelly of the suburban dream before Lynch closes the curtains on us.