Blue Velvet (1986)
Directed by David Lynch
In the autumn and winter of 2014-15, an exhibition of David Lynch’s early pieces, The Unified Field, was on display at the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts (PAFA) in Philadelphia. Lynch spent several years studying here, creating a body of work with a je ne sais quoi only identifiable as his own. The exhibit featured sculpture, painting, and short films, all of which explored the same paradigms that are at the forefront of his films, specifically the looming and inescapable darkness in moments of light. Blue Velvet is the blackest expression of that darkness; it’s the raincloud over a sunny town in Middle America. The cantankerous, sadomasochistic villain Frank Booth (Dennis Hopper) is the crowned head of the night; he drives fast, lives faster; he yearns to be coddled by a woman whose family he’s kidnapped and dismembered, but will still address you as neighbor. Frank’s got a soft-spot for Roy Orbison, and making him even more unpredictable and dangerous, melts into a maudlin trance each time “In Dreams” plays over a speaker; Orbison’s operatic ballad of unrequited love lingering more like a nightmare in this DCP restoration.
Onto Frank’s hijinks is Jeffrey Beaumont, a svelte, fresh-from-the-barber-shop Kyle MacLachlan, who comes home to Lumberton to see his family while on break from college, when his father has a sudden heart attack and he must take over the family hardware store. Jeffrey spends little time at the store, however, he’s busy cruising around with Sandy Williams (Laura Dern, in a soft-focus that’s never looked gentler) the daughter of a local detective and his daytime love interest.
Though wholesome, Jeffrey’s carefully placed earring hints to his dark side, and Sally clearly prefers this to her football-toting high-school boyfriend. Sandy and Jeffrey are a sexually charged Encyclopedia Brown and Sally Kimball, searching for answers to the mysterious case of a lonely nightclub singer and her befallen family.
The singer, Dorothy Vallens (Isabella Rossellini), is trapped in a turbulent world; she must succumb to Frank’s carnal advances to keep her family alive, and for moments of sanctity she allows Jeffrey to satisfy his libidinal curiosities. Dorothy represents the fetishization of Jeffrey and Frank’s desires, she provides for them when they are at their darkest, without a light of her own to cling to.
Blue Velvet is less of a whodunit and more of a sinister exploration into human weirdness and the myriad ways it presents itself. There are moments where Jeffrey is no better than Frank, where Dorothy is more virginal than Sandy, where Lumberton itself is more gloomy than the seedy nightclub where Dorothy performs her act. In Lynch’s subconscious, nothing is safe, not even a made-up Dean Stockwell crooning over a few Pabst Blue Ribbons. Samantha Vacca (March 30, 31 at Film Forum; showtimes daily)