Those celebrating the success of Sam Mendes’s Oscar- nominated American Beauty as a scorching exposure of American suburbia might benefit from taking another look at David Lynch’s Blue Velvet, a much more radical fable on the same subject. It is one of the seminal films of the 80s, from which sprang a good many inferior imitations. I wouldn’t say the more mainstream Mendes film was seminal. But it would have looked more original had the Lynch film never been made.
Lynch is not a director everyone likes, except when it comes to The Straight Story, his latest and most orthodox film, and The Elephant Man, an earlier, comparatively straight narrative. Both these were excellent films, but the power and originality of Eraserhead, Blue Velvet and possibly the first Twin Peaks were what makes his place in cinema history secure.
Blue Velvet, like American Beauty and Todd Solontz’s Happiness, places sex at the base of domestic trauma. So much so, in fact, that what Lynch delivered to his audiences was considered reprehensible by many. This is because it was taken literally. But as Isabella Rossellini, who plays the masochistic nightclub singer, has said, Lynch’s films are not so much psychological studies of character as surreal impressions – “more of a sensation than a story”.
It is the different levels of Blue Velvet that puzzle people. On the one hand we have an ironic, deadpan portrait of small-town Lumberton that encourages us to think that the film is some sort of satire. On the other, what lies behind this often ludicrous facade also qualifies the film as a horror story.
When the college student played by Kyle MacLachlan finds a severed ear in a field and he and his girl (Laura Dern) try to solve the mystery, the film takes an abrupt turn. The trail leads to the nightclub singer in whose flat, hidden in a closet, the student first watches Dennis Hopper submit her to a sadomasochistic ritual and is then horrified when she discovers him after Hopper has left and forces him to undergo similar treatment. This is the disturbing core of the film. And Rossellini’s selfless performance, during which she has to submit to a myriad of indignities, is the equal to Lynch’s curious imagination.
If this caused the outrage at the time, it was the director’s capacity to change tack and revert to an irony verging on parody that disturbed audiences further. Was this simply a joke in very bad taste?
Actually, it wasn’t. It was a recognition that behind even the most banal of circumstances and people lie some pretty peculiar truths. “Are you a detective or a pervert?”, asks Dern of her boyfriend at one point. The answer is a bit of both – and maybe, Lynch suggests, that goes for all of us.
The film is one of the most uncomfortable I have seen, and it is by no means flawless. For instance, Hopper’s character is never fully explained, and there are passages of psychotic excess that don’t make much sense. But the power of the whole is undeniable, and distinctively augmented by Angelo Badalamenti’s music.
Perhaps the best summation of it comes from Lynch himself, quoted in Chris Rodley’s book Lynch on Lynch: “Well, film is really voyeurism. You sit there in the safety of the theatre, and seeing is such a powerful thing. And we want to see secret things, we really want to see them. New things. It drives you nuts, you know! And the more new and secret they are, the more you want to see them.”