NOW IT’S DARK.
In his annual movie guide, Leonard Maltin expresses amazement at how Blue Velvet was a critically lauded film. Roger Ebert wrote about how Isabella Rossellini was degraded, something that should only be acceptable if it’s done for an ”important movie”. As for myself, I remember seeing Blue Velvet as a teenager and kind of liked it, but that was pretty much it. I recently saw both Blue Velvet and Dune again with fresh eyes and was stunned to discover just how great the former is. Some movies are worth revisiting, others remain the same. But enough about Dune.
Finding a severed ear
Jeffrey Beaumont (Kyle MacLachlan) is a college student who’s temporarily back home in his home town of Lumberton, North Carolina, because his father suffered a stroke. One day, he finds a severed ear in the grass and takes it to the police. He meets Sandy Williams (Laura Dern), the daughter of a police detective, who tells him that the ear must be connected to a lounge singer, Dorothy Vallens (Rossellini). Jeffrey is intrigued and talks Sandy into joining him on an adventure.
He breaks into Dorothy’s apartment but is almost caught. Hiding in a closet, Jeffrey sees Dorothy come home and get undressed, but he makes a noise and is discovered. They’re interrupted by another visitor, and Jeffrey quickly hides again, watching a brutal man (Dennis Hopper) abuse Dorothy while inhaling a mysterious gas…
Planning the film since the early 1970s
Blue Velvet became a defining film for David Lynch. This is pretty much what we think about when we hear his name; his style, along with themes and actors would return in subsequent films. Lynch had been planning Blue Velvet since the early 1970s, starting with the idea of the ear as a part of the body that leads straight into one’s head. That’s also one of the first images we get in the film: the camera finding typically suburban white picket fences, soon followed by the discovery of the decaying, severed ear, with bugs crawling all over (and into) it.
It’s typical Lynchian symbolism; the whole movie looks like it’s set in the 1950s, even though the time isn’t defined, with traditionally wholesome images of suburban (Reaganite?) America, but you only need to scratch the surface just a little bit and you’ll find dirt – and evil. That’s part of Lynch’s irony. The film became controversial because of its extreme sexual and violent ingredients, visible at first in the scene where Hopper abuses Rossellini while screaming ”Baby wants to fuck!”. Some of Lynch’s fans may appreciate just how weird some of the director’s other films are in comparison, but one reason why Blue Velvet is so successful is how Lynch finds a way to deliver real tension alongside all the startlingly odd ideas in his mind – this is for sure a gripping thriller, leading up to a satisfyingly blood-soaked climax in Dorothy’s apartment. The film is packed with interesting visuals and symbols, including, memorably, a robin devouring a bug near the end; beauty triumphing over the nasty?
Cinematographer Frederick Elmes paints the film in rich pastel colors, but brings out the shadows and darkness in places that are part of the underworld, including Dorothy’s apartment. Angelo Badalamenti’s Shostakovich-inspired music score shows great range, fitting in neatly next to Lynch’s choices of vintage pop songs.
The cast is magnificent – MacLachlan and Dern representing youthful innocence, Hopper having a great comeback as the psychotic Frank and Rossellini showing the world, as the complex Dorothy, that she was much more than just a model.
Blue Velvet 1986-U.S. 120 min. Color. Widescreen. Produced by Fred Caruso. Written and directed by David Lynch. Cinematography: Frederick Elmes. Music: Angelo Badalamenti. Cast: Kyle MacLachlan (Jeffrey Beaumont), Isabella Rossellini (Dorothy Vallens), Dennis Hopper (Frank Booth), Laura Dern, Hope Lange, Dean Stockwell… Brad Dourif.
Trivia: Molly Ringwald was reportedly considered for Dern’s role.
Last word: “I didn’t have a problem with Frank. I just understood him. I called David – I’d never met David and he’d given me the part and I called him – he was down in North Carolina already, they’d begun filming – and I said you don’t have to worry about this. I am Frank. I really understand this role. So he got off the phone and told Isabella and Kyle MacLachlan and Laura. He said ‘My god, I just got off the phone with Dennis Hopper and he said he was Frank. That may be great for the movie but how are we going to have lunch with him.’ But I just really meant that I understood the role. And I do understand Frank. I’ve known Frank. I’ve known a lot of guys like Frank…I understood his sexual obsession.” (Hopper, NPR)