Year: 1986
Director: David Lynch
Writer: David Lynch
Starring: Isabella Rossellini, Kyle MacLachlan, Dennis Hopper, Laura Dern

Blue Velvet dives beneath the surface of white picket fence middle-class America into a murky underworld where profound shame traps two of the film’s leading characters—Isabella Rossellini’s Dorothy Vallens and Dennis Hopper’s Frank Booth—in a deadly embrace of sexual misery. The film opens with a montage of Lumberton, a middle-American town where the fences are white, the roses are red and the fire engines only needed for parades. In this idyllic landscape—a metaphor for compliance with societal standards, particularly sexual ones—middle-aged Tom Beaumont waters his lawn while his dog toys with the spray issuing from the only visible blemish in this perfect picture, a leak in the garden hose (the bursting penis as image system!). Tom collapses with a heart seizure. The dog keeps on playing as if nothing is untoward. Lynch’s camera loses sight of the immaculately groomed garden, the regulation white picket fence and the happy-yappy dog cavorting beside Tom’s inert body. It sinks into the vegetation, disappearing between the blades of grass into a dark stratum crawling with slimy insects: a bestial, repulsive underworld poles apart from the manicured serenity of Lumberton.

Blue Velvet

Tom Beaumont’s hospitalisation leads to the recall from college of his son Jeffrey (Kyle MacLachlan). On the way back from visiting his father, the inquisitive Jeffrey takes a short cut through a field and discovers a severed human ear. He pops it into a discarded paper bag, legs it to the police station and asks for Detective Williams (George Dickerson), a friend of his father. Detective Williams relieves Jeffrey of the ear and tells him to forget about it. And this is where—in the idyllic world of Lumberton—Blue Velvet should end, with Detective Williams quarantining the good folks of Lumberton from a gruesome mystery while Jeffrey deputises for his hospitalised father at the family hardware store.

But Jeffrey can’t forget. He visits Detective Williams, only to get brushed off. Leaving the house he encounters Sandy (Laura Dern), Detective Williams’ daughter, a year younger than Jeffrey and still at high school. Sandy is the perfect middle-American girl: tall, cream-skinned, blue eyed, with blonde locks tumbling over a sunny pink flower-print dress. It’s hard to imagine she’s ever heard of sex, let alone experienced it; the only reason she would lie in the grass would be for a picnic. In the course of Blue Velvet, Sandy, like Lynch’s camera, will slip down between the lush blades into the moist, sexual loam beneath. As Sandy strolls down the perfectly safe streets of Lumberton at night with Jeffrey, telling him what she overheard her father saying about the ear, there’s a hint of her forthcoming education: beneath her dress her nipples are attentive.

The next day, Jeffrey fashions a plan and asks for Sandy’s help. He comes armed with an inspirational if somewhat mechanical speech: “There are opportunities in life for gaining knowledge and experience. Sometimes it is necessary to take a risk.” Jeffrey proposes to disguise himself as a bug-spraying maintenance man and weasel his way into the apartment of Dorothy Vallens, a nightclub singer that Sandy’s father mentioned in connection with the severed ear. Jeffrey needs Sandy to distract Dorothy by pretending to be a Jehovah’s Witness so he can search the singer’s apartment. Sandy is both appalled and enthralled.

Jeffrey and Sandy make their way to the ominously titled Deep River apartments. Jeffrey has no idea of the cataract of warped sexuality he will soon be rafting down. A petrified Dorothy admits him, he half-heartedly sprays the kitchen and—when there’s a knock at the door—steals a key. But the knocker isn’t Sandy; instead Jeffrey glimpses a man in a yellow golfing jacket (henceforth known as the ‘yellow man’) whose appearance aborts Sandy’s planned intrusion. Intrigued, Jeffrey decides to return to the apartment that night while Dorothy sings at a club. Sandy cancels a date with her boyfriend to be Jeffrey’s lookout.

Blue Velvet

First, Jeffrey and Sandy have a beer at the Slow Club where Dorothy sings the film’s title tune. It’s the first sign—all right, the second, after Sandy’s nipples—of the sexual left-turn the film is about to make. Dorothy is a thoroughly sexual creature, caressing herself through the titular blue velvet as she sings. Jeffrey and Sandy are both virgins, but their responses differ. Jeffrey is utterly fixated, not batting an eyelid as he watches Dorothy’s snake-charmer act; he’s ready to bite the apple. By contrast Sandy squirms, uncomfortable with her own budding sexuality as it pushes against Lumberton’s picket fence morality. She mimics Dorothy in stroking her own arm, but the meaning is diametrically opposite: Dorothy’s is a masturbatory gesture while Sandy shudders against the faint chill of sexual fear. Sandy represses the demons within; Dorothy summons them. It’s a subtle and beautiful moment.

Sandy mimics Dorothy in stroking her own arm, but the meaning is diametrically opposite: Dorothy’s is a masturbatory gesture while Sandy shudders against the faint chill of sexual fear. Sandy represses the demons within; Dorothy summons them.

Then it’s back to the Deep River apartment where Jeffrey pokes about. Sandy toots the horn when Dorothy arrives but Jeffrey, flushing the toilet, doesn’t hear. Dorothy enters. Jeffrey scampers into a conveniently slatted wardrobe. He watches as Dorothy strips to her underwear, his quest for “knowledge and experience” swiftly bearing fruit. The phone rings. Dorothy answers in a panic. She begs to speak to a child called Donnie. “Mummy loves you,” she says obediently to someone named Frank. The phone goes dead. With that cryptic exchange, underlined by Angelo Badalamenti’s ominous film score, a threshold has been crossed.

Jeffrey watches from the wardrobe, unsure of what he just witnessed but sensing its disturbance. He squirms and something tinkles to the floor. Dorothy, sharp as an overprotective tigress, seizes a kitchen knife and exposes him. Jeffrey is reduced to the babbling adolescent that he truly is. Most women in this situation would call the police, but not Dorothy: she orders him to strip. Like Stella in Asylum, Dorothy is sensitive to both her desire for sex and to society’s condemnation of that desire. Jeffrey’s illegal presence in her apartment presents Dorothy with an opportunity for sex that Jeffrey must not only oblige but also keep secret.

Blue Velvet

She seizes the chance with both hands (well, with her mouth, actually). Jeffrey responds to Dorothy’s ministrations by reaching for her. She recoils, knife raised: “Don’t touch me or I’ll kill you.” Dorothy is so ashamed of her socially illicit sexual desires that she can only avail of Jeffrey’s body by objectifying him into a sex tool. Before things unravel there’s a rap at the door. Jeffrey scuttles back into the wardrobe as the mysterious Frank strides in.

Frank Booth, played with mesmerising volatility by Dennis Hopper, ranks as one of the great portrayals of sexual shame in film. “Hello baby,” Dorothy whimpers. “Shut up. It’s ‘daddy’, you shit-head,” he retorts. An abusive tirade follows, Albert Spica (The Cook, the Thief, His Wife and Her Lover) minus Peter Greenaway’s bleak English humour. Dorothy shuttles obediently in response to Frank’s whims. He orders her to turn off the light, an association between sex and secrecy already noted. The sexual nature of his disturbance surfaces when he orders Dorothy to spread her legs. Frank gawks at her vagina, his face twisted with disgust—both for the object of his gaze and his own fascination with it. “Don’t you fucking look at me,” he blurts, echoing Dorothy. Frank and Dorothy are two of a kind, both so deeply ashamed of their desires they can’t abide to be seen engaging with the sexual aspect of their natures.

As already demonstrated by Marcelo in The Conformist and Robert in The Comfort of Strangers, Frank and Dorothy’s desires violate their own internal boundaries, creating a permanent sense of shame. They are attracted and repelled by sex at the same time, an endless push-pull of conflicting emotions that renders both their lives a misery. The difference is that Frank—typically male—directs the resulting rage upon others, while Dorothy—typically female—turns it upon herself. Frank doesn’t accept responsibility for his own shame. He subconsciously blames women for his misery and seeks to punish them for the treadmill of unfulfilled desire that constitutes his life. He also wants empathy; he wants Dorothy to experience the pain that the sight of her body makes him feel.

Frank pulls out an oxygen mask and inhales. With his blood fully oxygenated another layer of inhibition falls away. “Mummy, mummy,” he whimpers. “Baby wants to fuck.” Frank’s baby talk is significant: he’s a supposedly mature man but shame renders him utterly immature in all matters sexual. Frank slaps Dorothy for watching him. A look of quiet pleasure suffuses her face: she has received the punishment she feels her illicit hungers merit.

Blue Velvet

Frank sprawls onto Dorothy and, like Dave in Wish You Were Here, quickly climaxes. Premature ejaculation is common among men with significant sexual shame. It doesn’t stem from physical over-stimulation but from emotional overwhelm. It’s a defence mechanism, a means of short-circuiting the sex act—so deeply desired in the first place—to escape the fear, disgust and shame of it. In extreme cases it’s so premature that it occurs before penetration. Once again it’s the trinity of boundary, violation and reaction. Having climaxed, Frank’s emotions instantly switch polarity, a pattern that will be seen repeatedly in Sexcatraz. Lust turns to disgust, which he externalises by slapping Dorothy. Then Frank’s gone, leaving Jeffrey—and the audience—stunned.

Jeffrey gingerly emerges from the wardrobe, forgotten during this long, visceral scene. Interestingly, Lynch doesn’t show a single shot of Jeffrey witnessing Frank’s sexual violence against Dorothy or her fulfilment by that violence. Jeffrey is certainly affected by it, as shall be seen. Did Lynch fear he was giving his audience too much to handle and might alienate them completely if he showed his supposedly sympathetic lead witnessing sexual abuse without responding in the manner expected of a Hollywood hero? Meanwhile, Jeffrey consoles Dorothy. “Do you like me?” Dorothy begs in the same infantile manner—and for the same reason—as Frank. “Yes,” Jeffrey replies, suspecting that any other answer is ill advised. She invites him to fondle her breasts. “Feel me,” she pleads, “hit me.” Dorothy craves sex but, like Caroline in The Comfort of Strangers, believes she must be punished for that craving. Jeffrey refuses. Dorothy hurries into the bathroom and stares at her own reflection. Frank and Dorothy spend their entire lives yearning for sex, having unfulfilling sex, or feeling disgusted by sex. It’s the same cyclical coping mechanism already modelled by Bob Crane in Auto Focus. Whatever they do feels transgressive, feeding their constant sense of shame which fosters the alienating perception that other people are normal while they are abnormal—hence the way Dorothy coerces sex from Jeffrey, and Frank in turn coerces it from Dorothy. “Help me,” she whimpers at Jeffrey. Utterly at sea, he recognises his cue to leave.

Jeffrey meets Sandy and recounts his adventure, though he’s somewhat economical with the truth—particularly about the sex. Openly talking about sex is another prohibition of our covenants; that’s why sex education remains a contentious issue. Jeffrey knows Dorothy is in danger but can’t go to Detective Williams because he entered her apartment illegally. Nor does he want Dorothy’s oral ministrations recorded in a police file. Jeffrey wails, “Why are there people like Frank?” “I don’t know,” Sandy replies, ignorant of the way that sexual covenants both create and then reject the Frank Booths of this world. It’s so much easier to focus on the sweet and the sugary, and at that moment Jeffrey and Sandy fall in love. Jeffrey gazes meaningfully at Sandy. “I’d better go,” she whimpers. One can almost feel the goose pimples of sexual fear prickling her skin. The shot is a close-up; what her nipples have to say remains a mystery. And here Blue Velvet could, once again, have a natural ending, with Jeffrey both chastened and rewarded by his experience with Dorothy, but without the status quo—Sandy’s relationship with her boyfriend, the all-American quarterback in the school football team—being disturbed by Jeffrey’s foray into Lumberton’s sexual underworld.

It is Sandy’s rejection of Jeffrey—specifically, the rejection of his sexual desire—that propels Blue Velvet forward. Jeffrey returns to Dorothy’s apartment, where his full initiation into manhood is completed off-screen. Afterwards he watches Dorothy sing at the Slow Club. As Jeffrey surveys his fellow patrons he stiffens in shock.

Blue Velvet

There’s Frank Booth, his violence utterly quelled. As Dorothy sings “I can still feel blue velvet through my tears,” Frank himself sheds a tear. It rolls down his cheek onto a scrap of her dress that he clings to like a life raft. It’s a brilliant moment: the most brilliant—and among the least remarked—in the film. Once again David Lynch refuses to abide by Hollywood’s hero/villain rulebook. Frank is a monster, yes, but he’s human too; and here his humanity rolls right down his cheek. Jeffrey—and society at large—has trouble assimilating the paradox.

Jeffrey tails Frank out of the Slow Club, impelled by his sexual interest in Dorothy, his desire to help her and his inability to label Frank simply as perverted. Frank leads Jeffrey into the true underworld of Lumberton, a wasteland of derelict factories and warehouses. Metal girders and gantries loom out of the darkness. Steam billows from unseen vents, the by-product of nameless industry; the outlines of giant levers rise and fall on brick walls, a shadow theatre of mechanical coitus. Jeffrey stakes out Frank’s apartment building and sees him with the yellow man. Later, relating this to Sandy, he voices his motives. “I’m seeing something that was always hidden… I’m in the middle of a mystery”: the mystery of how human sexuality gets distorted. Welcome to Sexcatraz. Jeffrey will soon do more than simply see this distortion. He tries to kiss Sandy but again she rejects him.

And again Jeffrey turns to Dorothy—only this time he hits her. Jeffrey is becoming Frank. Or, more accurately, Jeffrey mimics Frank’s unhealthy sexuality as a result of his inability to express it in a healthy manner with Sandy. With Jeffrey finally acceding to Dorothy’s craving for violent sex, Blue Velvet loses its last foothold on conventional characterisation. But, leaving Dorothy’s apartment, Jeffrey runs into Frank.

Frank forces Jeffrey and Dorothy into his car and takes them into a demimonde populated by drug dealers, heavies and prostitutes, each given their own bizarre twist in typical Lynchian fashion. Blue Velvet veers somewhat off-track but it is still riveting stuff. Frank finally parks in a disused quarry, snorts some oxygen and slaps Dorothy. Jeffrey intervenes, the Hollywood hero arisen at last. While a chubby prostitute sways on the roof of the car to a bittersweet Roy Orbison tune, Frank and his lackeys pummel Jeffrey then abandon him to an uncomfortable night in the quarry.

Jeffrey finally admits he’s out of his depth by going to the police station to tell Detective Williams everything he knows—only to decamp when he discovers that Williams shares an office with the nefarious yellow man. Failing to suspect that Sandy’s father might be in Frank’s gang, Jeffrey visits Detective Williams and unburdens himself. Jeffrey promises that he’s through with playing the private dick. But when he calls at the Williams home to pick up Sandy for a date, Jeffrey sees Detective Williams with the yellow man: the odds are worsening.

Sandy takes Jeffrey to a high school party where she finally kisses him. “I love you, Jeffrey,” she whispers. “I love you too.” It’s a long way from the childish “Do you like me?” of the emotionally immature Dorothy. Sandy is still some way off shedding her flower-print dress to reveal those inquisitive nipples but it’s clear that her boyfriend, football team notwithstanding, is on the way out… almost. Leaving the party, a sports car follows them back to the Beaumont house. Jeffrey suspects that it’s Frank, but out steps Sandy’s boyfriend.

Blue Velvet

Jeffrey is about to get a beating but Dorothy—naked, battered and in shock—stumbles out of the greenery into his arms. Sandy’s boyfriend realises that being a high school football star isn’t the education he thought it was and hastily retreats. But Sandy is in for a bigger shock. “He put it in me,” Dorothy blurts, shattering Sandy’s innocence. Dorothy’s infantile language hints at a sexual maturation process that stalled during adolescence as she became aware of society’s restrictive covenants. Dorothy pleads for Jeffrey to help her son before an ambulance carts her away. Sandy slaps Jeffrey—out of love, not hate—before he makes for the Deep River apartments to unravel the story.

The ending is a little disjointed and anti-climactic; Blue Velvet’s journey is more interesting than its destination and with Dorothy’s exit the tension dissipates. Lynch’s efforts to resolve the drug-dealing sub-plot feel lackadaisical; it is the foreground tale of sexual shame that gives Blue Velvet traction. Sandy calls her father while Frank enters Dorothy’s apartment. Jeffrey grabs a gun and hides in the slatted wardrobe. Frank pumps himself up on oxygen, opens the wardrobe and… Jeffrey shoots. Dorothy is reunited with her son and the veneer quickly closes over Frank’s sordid underworld, the picket fences glisten pristinely and the American idyll returns. This rapid glossing-over is perhaps the film’s most telling point. We don’t want to know about the Franks and Dorothys of this world, with their inability to express sex in socially accepted ways; we just want them to fade to black. Nonetheless, if we are to escape from Sexcatraz, we must be willing to examine their behaviour without judgment.

Frank Booth and Dorothy Vallens demonstrate a number of character traits that are particular to Sexcatraz, notably an immaturity around sex, the continuous push-pull of simultaneous sexual attraction and repulsion, and the rollercoaster of endless misery that ensues. For all the accuracy of the characterisation, they are clearly both products of the thriller genre; their character arcs are unlike anyone most of us might actually know in real life. The protagonists of the next two films, though still fictional, are significantly more realistic. The first of these is Vincent Gallo’s much-maligned The Brown Bunny.

Next: The Brown Bunny

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