Blue Velvet (1986)

With Blue Velvet, David Lynch's career at last picked up where his stunning, unique debut feature Eraserhead seemed to leave off. In his Victorian gothic docudrama The Elephant Man and sci-fi spectacular Dune - respectively a surprising critical and commercial success, and an expensive fiasco - Lynch was incorporating elements from the highly distinctive style he had established in only one feature. In Blue Velvet, he returns, albeit in gloriously saturated colour rather than espressionist monochrome, to the fractured vision of small-town normality of Eraserhead. The film's opening sequence is incredibly lush, suggestive and unsettling: As Bobby Vinton's subtly fetishist title song plays, the camera tracks from a striking red, white and blue shot of blood-roses against a pristine white picket fence against an unnaturally clear sky to a deliriously idyllic, slow-motion vision of an idyllic small town that would have done Andy Hardy or Judy Garland proud. A fire engine rolls by, the firemen waving cheerfully, a lollipop man safeguards innocent schoolchildren, an adorable dog scampers, and a proud homeowner waters his garden. But the gardener is struck with a siezure and collapses, entangled in his hose and snapped at by the dog, and Lynch takes his camera in for a closer view and penetrates the thick grass of the garden to find a teeming, ravenous, carnivorous, cannibalistic and physically revolting horde of insects chewing away at the underside of Norman Rockwell's America.

Essentially, the rest of the film follows up this opening sequence as Jeffrey Beaumont (Kyle MacLachlen, held over from and making up for his performance in Dune), a college student home because of his father's heart attack, gets involved in a local mystery and is exposed to the horrors that lurk underneath the Eisenhower-style perfection - it is impossible to tell whether the film is set in the '50s, the '60s or the '80s - of Lumberton, U.S.A. Jeffrey first suspects something is amiss when, walking to the house where he grew up after visiting his trussed-up father in hospital, he discovers a severed human ear in a vacant lot. The ear, naturally, is crawling with ants and Lynch later, in an awe-inspiring effect, has Frederick Elmes' camera explore its interior as Alan Splet's unsettling sound effects track suggests a universe inside the head as twisted and bizarre as those of Eraserhead or Dune. With the aid of Laura Dern's Sandy Williams, the daughter of the kindly local cop, Jeffrey plumbs into the mystery, which revolves around Dorothy Vallens (Isabella Rossellini), a melancholy nightclub singer known as 'The Blue Lady', and Frank Booth (Dennis Hopper), a frighteningly fiend-like and primal gangster who snorts gas through an insectlike mask, speaks only in the most basic terms ('baby wants to fuck!') and forces Dorothy to have animalistic sex with him (Splet turns his orgasmic cries into the roar of a wild beast) by threatening to further torture her kidnapped husband, the owner of the ear.

'I don't know if you're a detective or a pervert,' Sandy tells Jeffrey when he proposes to trespass in Dorothy's apartment in search of clues, and when he finds himself in her closet as she undresses or is sexually humiliated by Frank the distinction vanishes completely. The most disturbing aspect of Blue Velvet is that it refuses to let its Nancy Drew and the Hardy Boys-style hero and heroine off the hook as Jeffrey becomes less an observer and more a participant in the sordid, insectile nightlife of Lumberton, overcoming his resistance to hitting Dorothy as she begs him to when they have sex, being dragged out on a wild ride with Frank, and standing around while Frank's associate Ben (Dean Stockwell), who resembles a kabuki homosexual and is referred to as 'one suave fuck', mimes to Roy Orbison's In Dreams, the song that Frank later plays as he brutally beats Jeffrey up. One of the surprises of the film is that the thriller-whodunit plot does eventually add up, although not before the nightmarish has thoroughly invaded Jeffrey's world with the appearance of a bruised and naked Dorothy on Sandy's front lawn and a final confrontation with Frank in an apartment that contains a still-standing, still-twitching corpse. By the time of the coda, which replicates the opening sequence, in which all the proprieties are restored - Frank is dead, a mechanical robin is eating the insects, the ear probed by the camera is Jeffrey's and still attached to his head, families are united - the all-pervasive horrors have been so effectively summoned that we know they can never really be vanquished. As a character remarks early on, 'It's a strange world, isn't it?'

First published in The St James International Dictionary of Films and Filmmakers.

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