Friday, 21 January 2011

Blue Velvet (1986)

Fig. 1
Written and directed by David Lynch, Blue Velvet is an exploration of the fear that no matter how perfect a community appears to be, just underneath the surface lurks a dark and disturbing world of violence and exploitation.  Set within the small town of Lumberton (location unspecified, but could almost be anywhere in the midwest), high school student Jeffery Beaumont (Kyle MacLachlan) finds a severed human ear and is drawn into a seedy world of corruption and vice.This is a film that doesn't sanitise the more distasteful themes it probes; its dispassionate portrayal of violence (both conventional and sexual) is extremely uncomfortable for the audience who find themselves almost unwilling participants.  In some ways, the film's most pointed line "I can't figure out if you're a detective or a pervert" could apply as much to the viewer watching the film as to the innocent Jeffery; indeed he has the excuse of actively investigating, while the audience are merely voyeurs.
Lumberton itself is not only ambiguous in location, but also time.  The buildings and cars all look like they belong in the 1950s, while the people themselves appear to belong in the 1980s.  This clean and wholesome backdrop forms a stark backdrop to the violence and depravity; as TimeOut notes "a visually stunning, convincingly coherent portrait of a nightmarish substratum to conventional, respectable society. The seamless blending of beauty and horror is remarkable...the terror very real" (Time Out, 1986)
The set design is very carefully considered, with the apartment where Jeffery first encounters the dark side of the town decorated in dark red, dimly lit to accentuate the shadows.  Several shots end with a focus on a blowing curtain, perhaps to help suggest the sense of someone else in the room, observing.
From the opening scene, the film makes great use of music as a counterpoint to the action; pleasant, family-friendly songs for the backdrop to scenes of violence in a way that seems to emphasise the horror.
Much of the success of the film is down to the acting of Dennis Hopper, who plays the violent and sadistic criminal Frank Booth in a highly convincing manner.  "In a film of extreme characters and daring performances, no-one is wilder than Frank, no characterisation more "out there" than that delivered by Dennis Hopper...He is a terrifying individual, perverse and brutal, with the attention span and tantrum capacity of a small child" (Fraser, 2006)
Fig. 2
It is not giving too much to away to say that after a brutal and bloody climax, the ending of the film feels rather artificial; however it seems to suggest that Jeffery has learnt not to look beneath the surface in case he finds something else unpleasant, and so is able to live "happily ever after" in the perfect suburbia as long as he doesn't do anything that might invite the darkness back.  In some ways, this moral is akin to the way the opening shot zooms in on the perfectly manicured lawn to reveal the insects and decay that forms its underpinnings; everything that seems pleasant and beautiful from a distance reveals the it's dark underpinnings when examined in detail.
Unlike some of Lynch's later works,  Blue Velvet is a film that "(marries)...his nightmarish concerns to a story that (very nearly) makes sense, and the result is a movie that brought the clammy terrors of this avant-garde film maker kicking and screaming into the mainstream" (Russel, 2001), and it is this combination of social commentary and engaging plot that help keep the audience riveted to the screen no matter how unpleasant the action becomes.

List of Illustrations

Figure 1.   De Laurentiis Entertainment Group (Org) (1986) Blue Velvet Theatrical Poster [Digital Image] At: (Accessed on 20/01/2011)

Figure 2.   De Laurentiis Entertainment Group (Org) (1986) Blue Velvet [Film Still] At: (Accessed on 20/01/2011)


Fraser, Rob (2006) Blue Velvet (18) In: Empire Magazine [Online] At: (Accessed on 20/01/2011)

Russel, Jamie (2001) Blue Velvet (1986) In: [Online] At: (Accessed on 20/01/2011)

TimeOut Staff (1986) Blue Velvet (1986) In: TimeOut London [Online] At: (Accessed on 20/01/2011)

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