In 2017, you’d be forgiven for focusing on David Lynch’s small screen work, as his iconic TV series Twin Peaks finally returns. But spare a thought for its spiritual precursor, Blue Velvet, the film that secured Lynch’s status as a legendary auteur.
Blue Velvet is Lynch’s first real foray into the dark underbelly of Reaganesque America, a surreal and disturbing dissection of suburban trauma that resonates in this most pivotal of years for the United States.
Like Twin Peaks, the film stars Kyle MacLachlan as Jeffrey Beaumont, a young man forced to return to his small-town from university following his father’s stroke. His discovery of a severed ear sends him on a discomforting investigation of Dorothy Vallens (Isabella Rossellini), a beautiful lounge singer and a victim of sexual exploitation.
Lynchian is a highly misunderstood term- like Kafkaesque, it’s too often used to signify something that’s simply strange. David Foster Wallace defined Lynchian as the point “where the very macabre and the very mundane combine in such a way as to reveal the former’s perpetual containment within the latter.”
Blue Velvet is not Lynch’s most outlandish work (that’s an honour saved for Eraserhead), but it is his most Lynchian. Blue Velvet established the prototypical Lynchian project, and solidified what Lynch’s name would become an identifier of- a fixation with surrealism, the grotesque, and trauma.
Dennis Hopper, who played Blue Velvet’s deranged, amyl nitrite huffing villain Frank Booth, once called Lynch’s style ‘American surrealism’. Originally a painter, Lynch approaches Blue Velvet through a series of potent images- the red fire-truck, the white picket fence, the blue velvet robe.
By taking the hallmarks of cheery 1950s Americana and subverting them, Lynch defamiliarizes the familiar and creates a sense of the uncanny.
Lynch doesn’t let Blue Velvet (or any of his most esoteric work) articulate itself. Meaning is rarely objective in his work, as he prefers to allow the images that his subconscious produces speak for themselves.
The film isn’t disturbing because we understand every aspect of it, but precisely the reverse. In obscurity and disconnection from meaning, we feel emotion without knowing why. It’s frightening. It’s Lynchian.
This obsession with images is as voyeuristic as one would expect. Jeffrey himself, despite his smart clothes and respectable demeanour, becomes a Peeping Tom through his obsession with Dorothy.
He investigates her, watches her undress, witnesses her rape. Jeffrey’s fascination with the darkness is mirrored in the viewer’s own scopophilia, as Lynch allows them to witness eroticised violence without consequence or participation.
The portrayal of sexual violence in Blue Velvet is visceral, and not something that should be viewed lightly. Lynch does a better job of portraying sexual trauma in Fire Walk With Me, his silver screen prequel to Twin Peaks. Dorothy Vallens, though affecting, is afforded little dignity throughout.
She is beaten, broken, and thoroughly without agency. It’s ambiguous in the final cut of the film, but Jeffrey may also become a victim of Frank’s sexual violence. It’s not an easy watch, nor should it be.
Yet despite this, Blue Velvet has an enduring appeal. Films produced today are rarely so obdurate in their discomfort, or so unique in style. For Lynch, Blue Velvet marked his definitive departure from the conventionality that hampered Dune and The Elephant Man. Thirty years on, the world is still strange enough that Blue Velvet continues to fascinate and horrify audiences.