After finding a severed ear in a vacant lot, Jeffrey Beaumont (MacLachlan) becomes drawn into a mystery in the town of Lumberton. Jeffrey and Sandy (Dern), the daughter of the local police detective, begin investigating a woman named Dorothy Vallens (Rossellini), who is somehow connected to the case. Jeffrey soon finds himself hiding in a closet in Dorothy’s apartment, watching intently while a psychopathic stranger named Frank Booth (Hopper) visits her and engages in a disturbing sexual interaction. As the story unfolds, Jeffrey becomes increasingly drawn to Dorothy and her dark sexuality, while Sandy declares her love for Jeffrey. Frank later catches Jeffrey with Dorothy, and forces them both to accompany him to the apartment of Ben (Stockwell), who is holding Dorothy’s young son hostage. Frank beats Jeffrey and leaves him lying in a lumberyard. Jeffrey recovers and returns to Dorothy’s apartment where he finds the aftermath of a violent confrontation, including the dead body of Dorothy’s husband, he of the missing ear. Frank returns to the apartment and hunts for Jeffrey, but Jeffrey shoots him. A disturbed Jeffrey ultimately repudiates the dark world he has glimpsed, reconciling with Sandy and her hopeful worldview. Dorothy is reunited with her son.
One of the most important American films of the 1980s, Blue Velvet has bewildered and divided audiences since its release. A mystery film that hardly bothers to solve its crime, a teenage love story with sadomasochism, a film that completely remakes the meaning of the songs on its needle-drop soundtrack, Blue Velvet seemed completely original to most moviegoers when it appeared in 1986. The film proved so influential that one could say it changed the tone of a certain kind of US cinema, broadening the art film beyond the domain of European filmmakers and preparing the way for the American independent films to come in the 1990s.
At first, the film inspired either lavish praise or outrage and disgust. While some critics gushed about the film’s greatness (J. Hoberman, Pauline Kael), others found its violence unredeemable (Roger Ebert). Initial theatrical audiences famously squirmed in their seats, yelled at the screen, or walked out in droves, even while others sat transfixed and dumbstruck. Blue Velvet is that rare thing: a film that has the genuine ability to shock and haunt the viewer. In the context of the 1980s, Blue Velvet stood out; its moderate success at the box office demonstrated that a segment of the commercial audience in the USA would occasionally be receptive to challenging material. In the context of the 2010s, it has become clear that this is one of the more accomplished American films of recent decades, a film that is trickier than it seems.
To the uninitiated (or analysis-averse), film criticism sometimes seems redundant, an exercise in rehashing what already appears so obvious. Lynch himself encourages this sort of untutored attitude, always attributing his method to intuition. When speaking of his films, he has said, ‘I don’t know what a lot of things mean. I just have the feeling that they are right or not right’. 1 However, Lynch’s films are hardly naïve; in fact they virtually cry out for interpretation. While many things in Blue Velvet seem plain and clear, this bluntness is in fact one of Lynch’s techniques and it is anything but simple. The film opens with a famous montage of happy small-town life complete with white picket fence, bright red and yellow flowers, and waving fireman, only to descend into the dirt and insects swarming underneath the neatly mown grass. Thus in the first four minutes, the film announces that it will unearth the dark underbelly of American life. In case we didn’t get it, the film’s protagonist Jeffrey Beaumont says later: ‘I’m seeing something that was always hidden’.
This kind of symbolic obviousness is a signature Lynch trait, and once one understands that this film can and should be read flatly, what feels disquieting begins to look quite logical. Dorothy wears a wig: she is deeply uncomfortable, and wants to disguise herself. A bird holds a worm in its mouth at the film’s conclusion: Sandy’s sunny dream-world perspective has won out, but the dark side is still present. These heavy-handed symbols reflect Lynch’s interest in banality and naïveté. But despite the obviousness, there is still that uneasy feeling, and this is the important thing: the film’s affect. If 1980s audiences were already well able to interpret obvious meanings in film, today’s audiences are even more suspicious of such blatant symbols. Blue Velvet works with its audiences’ knowing gaze, enticing us in with familiar images, and then disorienting us by making those familiar images seem strange. In more ways than one, Blue Velvet disturbs with its peculiar explicitness.
Despite these moments of apparent transparency, and perhaps because of its powerful affect, Blue Velvet (like all of Lynch’s work) has been subjected to many different interpretations, and a veritable cottage industry of Lynch analysis has sprung up over the decades. Depending on who one reads, Blue Velvet is a critique of American suburban life, or it demonstrates the Freudian concepts of the Oedipus Complex or the Primal Scene, or it enacts violence against women, or it depicts a child’s eye dream of sexuality, or it is a brilliant example of postmodern cinema, replete with references to film history and popular culture – and so forth. And certainly, Blue Velvet is a postmodern film, filled with references to film noir (with its moodiness, crime, and a mysterious woman at the centre of the plot) and to other films (The Wizard of Oz (Victor Fleming, 1939), Night of the Hunter (Charles Laughton, 1955), and It’s a Wonderful Life (Frank Capra, 1946)). Despite these influences, however, Blue Velvet manages not to feel like an empty exercise in referentiality, but instead it creates an affect that is powerful and distinct. Part of the film’s singular importance is due to the way it resonates with so many cultural hot points – and yet despite all this, it still holds together as a tightly woven, formally brilliant film.