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Blue Velvet

June 17, 2017

BVBlue Velvet is now widely regarded as one of David Lynch’s major works

Anyone who has ever lived in a small community where normality is assumed probably also suspects that beneath the surface of everyday life lurk malevolent happenings

Coming of age is usually connected with an individual’s sexual awakening. Blue Velvet explores the dark side of human relationships built upon power and perversion.

Jeffrey Beaumont returns to his logging home town of Lumberton, North Carolina, from Oak Lake College after his father suffers a near-fatal stroke. While walking home from the hospital, he cuts through a vacant lot and discovers a severed ear. Jeffrey takes the ear to police detective John Williams and becomes reacquainted with the detective’s daughter, Sandy. She tells him details about the ear case and a suspicious woman, Dorothy Vallens, who may be connected to the case. Increasingly curious, Jeffrey enters Dorothy’s apartment by posing as an exterminator, and while Dorothy is distracted by a man dressed in a yellow suit at her door (whom Jeffrey later refers to as the Yellow Man), Jeffrey steals her spare key.

Jeffrey and Sandy attend Dorothy’s nightclub act, in which she sings “Blue Velvet,” and leave early so Jeffrey can sneak into her apartment to snoop. He hurriedly hides in a closet when she returns home. However, Dorothy, wielding a knife, discovers him and threatens to kill him. Believing his curiosity is merely sexual and aroused by his voyeurism, Dorothy makes Jeffrey undress at knife-point and begins to fellate him before their encounter is interrupted by a knock at the door. Dorothy hides Jeffrey in the closet. From there he witnesses the visitor, Frank Booth, inflict his bizarre sexual proclivities—which include inhaling an unidentified gas, dry humping, and sadomasochism—upon Dorothy. Frank is a foul-mouthed, violent man whose orgasmic climax is a fit of both pleasure and rage. He continually refers to her as “Mommy” and to himself as both the “Daddy” and the “Baby,” who “wants to fuck.” Frank has kidnapped Dorothy’s husband and son to force her to perform sexual favors; to “Do it for van Gogh.” When Frank leaves, a sad and desperate Dorothy tries to seduce Jeffrey again and demands that he hit her, but when he refuses, she tells him to leave. When Jeffrey moves to leave, she asks him to stay, though he leaves anyway.

Jeffrey relays his experience to Sandy, asking her why there are people like Frank. Sandy in turn tells him of a wonderful dream she had about robins that she interprets as a sign of hope for humanity. Jeffrey and Sandy find themselves attracted to each other, though Sandy has a boyfriend.

Jeffrey again visits Dorothy’s apartment and she tells him that although she knows nothing about him, she has been yearning for him. Jeffrey attends another of Dorothy’s performances at the club, where she sings the same song. At the club, Jeffrey spots Frank in the audience fondling a piece of blue velvet fabric he cut from Dorothy’s robe. Jeffrey follows Frank and spends the next few days spying on him. Shortly afterwards, two men that Jeffrey calls the Well-Dressed Man and the Yellow Man exit an industrial building that Frank frequently visits. Jeffrey concludes the men are criminal associates of Frank, and tells his new findings to Sandy. The two briefly kiss, though she feels uncomfortable about going any further. Jeffrey immediately visits Dorothy again, and the two have sex. However, when he refuses to hit her, she pressures him, becoming more emotional. In a blind rage he knocks her backwards and is instantly horrified, but Dorothy derives pleasure from it.

Afterwards, Frank catches Dorothy and Jeffrey together and forces them both to accompany him to the apartment of Ben, his suave, effeminate partner in crime who is holding Dorothy’s son. Ben lip-syncs a performance of Roy Orbison’s “In Dreams,” sending Frank into maudlin sadness, then rage. Frank takes Jeffrey to a lumber yard and when he molests Dorothy, Jeffrey stands up to Frank by punching him. Frank’s cronies drag Jeffrey out of the car and Frank kisses Jeffrey’s face, intimidates him, and then savagely beats him to the overture of “In Dreams.” Jeffrey wakes the next day at the same place and walks home, overcome with guilt and despair. He goes to the police station, where he notices that Sandy’s father’s partner is the Yellow Man—an officer named Lieutenant Detective Tom Gordon. Later, at Sandy’s home, her father is amazed by Jeffrey’s story, but warns Jeffrey to stop his amateur sleuthing lest he endanger himself and the investigation. Jeffrey and Sandy go to a dance together and profess their love, only to be confronted by Sandy’s boyfriend. A confrontation is averted when the group finds Dorothy—naked, battered, and distressed—on Jeffrey’s front lawn. Barely conscious, Dorothy reveals her intimacy with Jeffrey, causing Sandy to become upset and to slap Jeffrey, although she later forgives him.

Jeffrey insists on returning to Dorothy’s apartment and tells Sandy to immediately send the police there, including her father. At Dorothy’s apartment, Jeffrey finds Dorothy’s husband, who is dead from a gunshot to the head and identifiable by his missing ear, as well as the Yellow Man, who bears a gruesome head wound and appears to have suffered a crude lobotomy. When Jeffrey tries to leave, he sees the Well-Dressed Man coming up the stairs and recognizes him as Frank in disguise. Jeffrey talks to Detective Williams over the Yellow Man’s police radio, but lies about his location inside the apartment. Frank enters the apartment and brags about hearing Jeffrey’s location over his own police radio. While Frank searches for him in the wrong room, Jeffrey retrieves the Yellow Man’s gun and hides in the same closet in which he hid during his first visit to the apartment. Frank fires sporadically, knocking over the dead Yellow Man, who had still been standing up, and when he opens the closet door, Jeffrey fatally shoots him in the head. Detective Williams, gun drawn, enters with Sandy a moment later. Jeffrey and Sandy now go ahead with their relationship and note the unusual appearance of robins in their town. Dorothy and her son are reunited.

Characters all seem exaggerated (icons of either apple-pie goodness or diabolical malice), giving the thing a faintly satirical edge, and while Jeffrey shows suitable disapproval at Dorothy’s plight and good triumphs over wickedness, a sense of perversity and weirdness lingers even past the happy-ending closing sequence.

The film owes a large debt to 1950s film noir, containing and exploring such conventions as the femme fatale, a seemingly unstoppable villain, and the questionable moral outlook of the hero, as well as its unusual use of shadowy, sometimes dark cinematography. Blue Velvet represents and establishes Lynch’s famous “askew vision,” and introduces several common elements of Lynch’s work, some of which would later become his trademarks, including distorted characters, a polarized world, and debilitating damage to the skull or brain. Perhaps the most significant Lynchian trademark in the film is the depiction of unearthing a dark underbelly in a seemingly idealized small town; Jeffrey even proclaims in the film that he is “seeing something that was always hidden,” alluding to the plot’s central idea. Lynch’s characterization of films, symbols, and motifs have become well-known, and his particular style, characterised largely in Blue Velvet for the first time, has been written about extensively using descriptions like “dreamlike,” “ultraweird,” “dark,” and “oddball.” Red curtains also show up in key scenes, specifically in Dorothy’s apartment, which have since become a Lynch trademark. The film has been compared to Alfred Hitchcock’s Psycho (1960) because of its stark treatment of psychotic evil. The premise of both films is curiosity, leading to an investigation that draws the lead characters into a hidden, voyeuristic underworld of crime.

Feminist psychoanalytic film theorist Laura Mulvey argues that Blue Velvet establishes a metaphorical Oedipal family—”the child,” Jeffrey Beaumont, and his “parents,” Frank Booth and Dorothy Vallens—through deliberate references to film noir and its underlying Oedipal theme. The resulting violence, she claims, can be read as symbolic of domestic violence within real families. For instance, Frank’s violent acts can be seen to reflect the different types of abuse within families, and the control he has over Dorothy might represent the hold an abusive husband has over his wife. Michael Atkinson reads Jeffrey as an innocent youth who is both horrified by the violence inflicted by Frank, but also tempted by it as the means of possessing Dorothy for himself.

The most consistent symbolism in the film is an insect motif introduced at the end of the first scene, when the camera zooms in on a well-kept suburban lawn until it unearths a swarming underground nest of disgusting bugs. This is generally recognized as a metaphor for the seedy underworld that Jeffrey will soon discover under the surface of his own suburban, Reaganesque paradise. The severed ear he finds is being overrun by black ants. The bug motif is recurrent throughout the film, most notably in the bug-like gas mask that Frank wears, but also the excuse that Jeffrey uses to gain access to Dorothy’s apartment: he claims to be an insect exterminator. One of Frank’s sinister accomplices is also consistently identified through the yellow jacket he wears, possibly reminiscent of the name of a type of wasp. Finally, a robin eating a bug on a fence becomes a topic of discussion in the last scene of the film. The robin, mentioned earlier by Sandy when she recounted her dream, represents love conquering evil.

The severed ear that Jeffrey discovers is also a key symbolic element, leading Jeffrey into danger. Indeed, just as Jeffrey’s troubles begin, the audience is treated to a nightmarish sequence in which the camera zooms into the canal of the severed, decomposing ear. Notably, the camera does not reemerge from the ear canal until the end of the film. When Jeffrey finally comes through his hellish ordeal unscathed, the ear canal shot is replayed, only in reverse, zooming out through Jeffrey’s own ear as he relaxes in his yard on a summer day.

Dorothy Vallens: [to Frank] I have a part of you with me. You put your disease in me. It helps me. It makes me strong.

Sandy Williams: I had a dream. In fact, it was on the night I met you. In the dream, there was our world, and the world was dark because there weren’t any robins and the robins represented love. And for the longest time, there was this darkness. And all of a sudden, thousands of robins were set free and they flew down and brought this blinding light of love. And it seemed that love would make any difference, and it did. So, I guess it means that there is trouble until the robins come.

Jeffrey Beaumont: Do you see that house? I used to know a kid who lived there, he had the biggest tongue in the world.

Sandy: “It’s a strange world, isn’t it?”

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From → Film, Sexuality

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