Blue Velvet

*****

Reviewed by: Chris

Blue Velvet
""

A bizarre cult thriller. A sex-crime story of middle-America's dark underbelly. A garish detective story. Or was it all a young man's dream? David Lynch's iconic Eighties movie is all of these and more. Film students pore over whether it is a modern fairytale or an Oedipal voyage through perversity.

College boy Jeff finds a severed human ear on waste ground and takes it to his dad's friend, Detective Williams. Filled with boyish adventure and amorous longing for Williams' daughter, Sandy, Jeff concocts a daring plan with her to spy on a strange woman, Dorothy Vallens, who is perhaps implicated in something dodgy. It turns out Dorothy is being blackmailed by a shockingly malevolent and vicious criminal called Frank - who gets high before committing his most gruesome acts.

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You don't want to know Frank. He's the stuff of nightmares. Sandy is apple-pie goodness and Dorothy is more a "come-to-my-bedroom", "do-you-want-to-do-bad-things" type-of-girl. But before Jeff can say Sacher Masoch or think up novel uses for soft fluffy fabrics, the semi-impotent Frank is happy to initiate him - at knifepoint down at Pussy Heaven bordello.

Dorothy sings at the local Go Slow nightclub. It's respectable enough, but hardly the place you'd think to find clean-cut kids like Jeff and Sandy. Not to mention Sandy's manically jealous boyfriend, Mike. And if the sight of a naked, half-crazed Isabella Rossellini on Jeff's front lawn is going to disturb you, please don't go and see this movie. (As inspiration for this scene, Rossellini, who plays Dorothy, says she used the famous photo by Nick Ut of the Vietnam girl walking naked after a napalm-bomb attack.)

Blue Velvet is controversial stuff. Not just for scenes of sexual violence (including non-consensual ones) but because tension between polar opposites is at the heart of the film. Long before American Beauty, Blue Velvet stripped the veneer off the popular image of the USA. Sandy's pristine (but sterile) American-dream world contrasts poignantly with the more lurid, adults-only side of America symbolised by Dorothy, who is struggling to regain - if not exactly innocence - a safe and happy medium.

A number of of the themes and motifs seem deliberate - such as Jeff's tormented sexual awakening - he's faced with either a girl who 'doesn't give out' on one hand or a dangerous vamp on the other. Some however are natural echoes of the psychology reflected in folklore (such as when innocent youngsters enter a dark wood).

Blatantly 'inappropriate' music repeatedly evokes emotional outrage in us on behalf of victims. Roy Orbison's ballad In Dreams, plays as we watch a vicious beating. Blue Velvet is Frank's favourite song and, in the film, connected with rape. Love Letters are code for bullets. The effect is unsettling, a bit like the use of the song Singing in the Rain in A Clockwork Orange. The emotional dislocation is also the stuff cult movies are made of.

References to other films abound. Dorothy suggests The Wizard of Oz, clad in red shoes but definitely no longer in Kansas. Sandy has the home-grown goodness of her namesake in the musical Grease. Jeff spying on Dorothy recalls the voyeuristic 'Jeff' from Rear Window. Many have found parallels with It's a Wonderful Life. But Blue Velvet transcends all these in its ability simultaneously to convey meaning on so many levels.

In some of Lynch's later films, surreal flights into fantasy can be subtle and obligatory. But in Blue Velvet, the audience is left to decide. Speaking of the severed ear, Lynch said, "It had to be an ear because it's an opening. An ear is wide and, as it narrows, you can go down into it. And it goes somewhere vast . . ."

New American Gothic? Shot on a very tight budget, Blue Velvet remains one of the most influential films of the Eighties. It also includes the sort of quasi-mystical mystery-dialogue that would become a Lynch staple. "I'm seeing something that was always hidden... I'm in the middle of a mystery - and it's all secret." The 'mystery' is also what eventually pulls Sandy out of her too-good-to-be-true cubby-hole in more ways than one: "You're a mystery. I like you - very much," says Jeff. Then he snogs her face off. "Where's my dream?" she asks later (Jeff having just demolished it for her).

Perhaps it is the eroticism that encapsulates the final contrast between what is known and what is not. Much of it, though undoubtedly powerful, is implied. For instance, when Dorothy's breasts are first exposed they are out of focus, whereas her bright red, sensuous lips are sharply in focus and become strongly emblematic of sexuality throughout the movie. Like the night sky, darkness in Blue Velvet lets our imagination come alive.

Reviewed on: 08 Mar 2007
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Blue Velvet packshot
A young man befriends a woman in trouble and discovers a sinister side to life in his small town.
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Read more Blue Velvet reviews:

Jennie Kermode *****

Director: David Lynch

Writer: David Lynch

Starring: Isabella Rossellini, Kyle MacLachlan, Dennis Hopper, Laura Dern, Hope Lange, Dean Stockwell, George Dickerson, Priscilla Pointer, Frances Bay, Jack Harvey, Ken Stovitz

Year: 1986

Runtime: 120 minutes

BBFC: 18 - Age Restricted

Country: US

Festivals:

Karlovy 2016

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