20 years later, ‘Blue Velvet’ is surreal as ever


By Leonard Quart

It begins with a stylized version of sunny, aqua blue-skied, serene small town America, where well-kept homes, manicured green lawns and overly bright yellow tulips abound, along with iconic-looking firemen on red fire trucks. But underneath this mythic, small town facade lays a dark, bizarre world where ominous bugs nest, and murderous violence, kidnapping, and perversity are the rule.

The film’s narrative centers on two young innocents, products of utterly respectable, middle class families — handsome Jeffrey (Kyle MacLachlan) and his blond, sweet girlfriend, Sandy (Laura Dern). They begin to investigate the mystery of a severed ear that Jeffrey has discovered on an overgrown vacant lot near his home. Of the two, it’s Jeffrey who falls headlong into the “strange world” of a hysterical, masochistic nightclub singer and victim, Dorothy Valens (Isabella Rossellini), and the sadistic, creepy, ether-sniffing thug Frank Booth, an over the top, beautifully regulated performance from Dennis Hopper, who threatens and abuses her.

Jeffrey is not only obsessed with solving the mystery of the ear, but is sexually drawn to the febrile, needy Dorothy who, in turn, ravenously desires him. In a sense, “Blue Velvet” is about Jeffrey’s voyeuristic and intimate introduction into a dark, erotically charged adult universe, which he is both hungry to experience and frightened of.

Lynch’s vision of life on the underside is so excessive that it is as comic as it is terrifying. The film’s nightmare sequences are filled with sado-masochistic sex, wild car rides, a preening sexually ambiguous, bordello owner Ben (Dean Stockwell), miming a Roy Orbison song,’ “In Dreams,” and an out of control, obscenity-spouting Frank who can shift from sociopathic beatings to infantile dependency in a moment.

Lynch directed this film with great aplomb and visual originality. The film noir darkness of the town’s night streets, with its canopy of trees rustling in the wind, and the steep back stairs of Dorothy’s apartment house, are shot in an exquisitely threatening manner. In contrast, the day streets are bland and devoid of menace.

Though the nightmare ends, and the American dream is resurrected — albeit in a highly artificial way — it’s the film’s destructive, hidden life that one remembers. Lynch is not a political or social filmmaker; what he’s gripped by is the dark, primal, often odious impulses that lie just beneath the surface. In “Blue Velvet” they come alive in a most strikingly, inspired manner.

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