Blue Velvet captures Lynch’s fixation on the contrast between purity and depravity, all while crisscrossing the line between idyllic surfaces and their vile underbellies.
To land the frightening villain role in David Lynch’s fourth feature film, a fresh-out-of-rehab Dennis Hopper famously called up the director and declared, “I have to play Frank Booth, because I am Frank Booth.” You could also say that, more than any of his other work, David Lynch the auteur is Blue Velvet. Roger Ebert, who lambasted the film in a one-star review, may have gone on to designate 2001’s nonlinear fever-dream Mulholland Drive as finally achieving what Lynch had long been trying to do. And his surreal, anxiety-manifesting debut Eraserhead may routinely be described as Lynch’s “most personal film.” But it’s 1986’s Blue Velvet that most captures Lynch’s fascination with duality, his fixation on the contrast between light and dark, between purity and depravity, all while crisscrossing the line between idyllic surfaces and their vile underbellies.
Of his sensibilities, Lynch largely credits his seeing through the veil of a charmed upbringing. “My childhood was picket fences, blue skies, red flowers and cherry trees,” Lynch said in 1982. “But then I would see millions of little ants swarming on a cherry tree, which had pitch oozing out of it.” Four years later, Blue Velvet opened with a shot of blue sky panning down to roses and a white picket fence. A cherry red fire truck, complete with Dalmatian and waving firefighter, slowly rolls past. A man dressed in khaki waters his lawn. But in a very direct metaphor, the hose kinks and sprays as the man suddenly topples to the bright green grass, stricken by a massive stroke. The camera zooms into the water-speckled grass to reveal a throng of clambering insects. Years later, long after the critical acclaim and cult status of Blue Velvet was solidified, Lynch would expound on that original quote about his childhood, adding, “I discovered that if one looks a little closer at this beautiful world, there’s always red ants underneath.”
In Blue Velvet, Lynch allows the viewer to look closer at the beautiful small-town world through the male gaze of Jeffrey Beaumont (Kyle MacLachlan), who returns home from college following his father’s stroke. It doesn’t take him long to find the red ants literally crawling all over a severed human ear. After turning it over to the authorities, Jeffrey’s inquisitiveness gets the better of him and he seeks out the detective at his home to learn more about the case. We’re then given a surreal close-up shot of the decaying ear, and as we travel down the auditory canal (accompanied by a rushing, discordant noise recalling Eraserhead), the viewer joins Jeffrey on his trip down the rabbit hole.
What’s telling about how Lynch introduces Jeffrey to Sandy (Laura Dern), the detective’s daughter, is how the blonde high-schooler emerges from the shadows. As the odious odyssey unfurls, Lynch’s protagonist splits his time between the naïve Sandy and the tortured yet lascivious lounge singer Dorothy Vallens (Isabella Rossellini), whose husband and son are held hostage so Frank can get his rocks off with Dorothy through a very specific sex ritual. Jeffrey’s nights are soon filled with snooping and eventual rough sex with Dorothy (followed by even rougher retribution from Frank), but he mainly meets with Sandy during the cleansing light of day. That Lynch chooses to have Sandy—who first points out Dorothy’s apartment to Jeffrey—initially emerge from the shadows of night reveals how even she, for all her common sense and purity, sets him down his dark path.
Even more telling is Lynch’s use of color. For a director who made his unforgettable debut in stark black-and-white (and also used it in 1980’s Oscar-nominated The Elephant Man), the vividness of color in Blue Velvet is impossible to ignore. Red plays prominently early: defining small-town life in rose bushes and hardware store vests, hinting at excitement in the red convertible Jeffrey drives or warning of danger in the bright red fire alarms and extinguishers that stand out in the dark hallway leading to Dorothy Vallens’ apartment.
Naturally, blue takes on a much more sinister significance than the opening blue skies, as the nitrous-huffing Frank carries out fetish-rapes with a swath of Dorothy’s blue velvet robe crammed into his mouth—which Jeffrey witnesses through the slats in a closet door. Even the famous “Heineken? Fuck that shit! Pabst Blue Ribbon!” quote from Frank takes on added meaning in this context. Crucial, then, is Lynch’s choice to deck out Dorothy’s apartment, from walls to carpet, in purple—the blending of red and blue. Dorothy’s apartment is Jeffrey’s conduit between the small town’s charm and its seamy side. Meanwhile, Sandy most often appears in a precious shade of pink. While Frank’s associate, a turncoat detective whom Jeffrey dubs “The Yellow Man” for the color of his jacket, embodies both deceit and cowardice.
Though it may be reductive to construe Sandy and Dorothy within the psychoanalytical framework of the Madonna-whore complex, Lynch certainly poses them as one of many dualities. Jeffrey’s cognitive dissonance in carrying on romance with one and taboo passion with the other must be confronted when a naked Dorothy shows up on Sandy’s front lawn. That Frank also regresses into a Freudian wet dream of calling himself “baby” and Dorothy “mommy” (while otherwise referring to himself as “daddy” when not staring at her spread legs) speaks to their horrific arrangement acting as a commentary on the violence against and subjugation of women that often lurks under the surface of so many seemingly happy households in suburbia. Even Frank’s fixation on the song he calls “Candy Colored Clown” (as best captured in Dean Stockwell’s iconic lip-synch of Roy Orbison’s “In Dreams” into a work-light) has added significance in retrospect: In his 2006 book on meditation and consciousness, Lynch describes what he refers to as the “suffocating rubber clown suit of negativity,” and his 2011 debut LP is titled Crazy Clown Time.
Lynch would go on to further explore the duality of light and dark within small-town life in his work on “Twin Peaks” and its subsequent prequel Fire Walk with Me, this duality manifesting literally in 2017 with both good and evil versions of Cooper in Lynch’s masterful “Twin Peaks: The Return.” In blurred, slow-motion scenes of sexual ferocity, Blue Velvet borrows a few surrealist sound editing tricks from Eraserhead while remaining far more linear than Lost Highway, Mulholland Drive or Inland Empire. Most importantly, after the all-out failure that was Dune, Blue Velvet allowed Lynch to find his voice again, one unafraid to shine a light on the red ants underneath.