As something of a Twin Peaks aficionado, I’ve found it consistently surprising and disappointing that David Lynch’s theatrical releases have failed to instil the same sense of wonder in me that the misadventures of Agent Dale Cooper so effectively did. Part of me blames a mandatory screening during my time studying film — 2001’s Mulholland Drive — which I found so obtuse and indigestible that the notion of revisiting his work any time soon after became off-putting. Some time has passed since then, however, and I had heard enough to know that if anything was going to win me over it would be Blue Velvet; often considered a Lynchian gateway drug. Plus, with Kyle MacLachlan in the leading role, I knew that if it was mince I could simply zone out a little and pretend I was watching Twin Peaks: The Early Years.
At its most fundamental, Blue Velvet is a neo-noir detective story. In the small town of Lumberton NC, college student Jeffrey Beaumont (Kyle MacLachlan) stumbles across a severed ear in the middle of a lot after visiting his father in hospital. Upon delivering the appendage to local detective John Williams, he is introduced to Williams’ daughter, Sandy (Laura Dern). The two strike up a romance and embroil themselves in the mystery surrounding the gruesome discovery, leading Jeffrey straight into the arms of Dorothy Vallens (Isabella Rossellini), a sultry lounge singer femme fatale with a close affiliation to the town’s seedy underbelly.
This bare-bones interpretation of the on-screen events serves merely as an illustration, however, as Lynch’s work is characterised by his formulation of a very particular, absurdist aesthetic. Recurring iconography and symbolism are punctuated by an obfuscating jazz soundtrack as the quaint town is slowly transformed into a haven for transgression. By day, the town feels almost insipid: the picket fences, pastel diners and high school drama seem superficial, particularly when placed in stark contrast to Dorothy’s world: a hyper-sexual, abusive, violent realm where a profanity-spewing Frank Booth (Dennis Hopper) resides. Booth is as perverse as he is terrifyingly volatile, dropping about five ‘fucks’ a second as he rapes and beats Dorothy, sporadically gasping at gas through a medical mask to refill on his crazy juices. At times, the performance is hilarious. Hopper almost parodies the classic potty-mouthed mafioso; a big fish in a small pond who everyone seemingly knows to be a complete twat, but his schizophrenic tendencies freak out those around him just enough a to keep them in check.
The day/night shifting cycle of tone that Lynch adopts is mesmerising. Initially terrifying, the notion that society’s underbelly is left to run rampant in the twilight plays on an instinctual fear of the dark that the horror genre so lovingly exploits. Nothing could possibly go wrong in the daylight, right? What took me by surprise however, is that as the narrative unfolded I found the daylight sequences so increasingly vapid that I — much like Jeffrey — yearned for the return to darkness (although, for the record, I could probably watch Kyle MacLachlan do the chicken walk all freaking day). As Jeffrey spends further time in the underworld, little tidbits of passive-aggressive dialogue creep into pleasant conversation which subtly highlight his transformation from innocent curiosity, to an awareness and acceptance of his own animalistic desires or darker inhibitions. It’s unnerving: Kyle MacLachlan delivers revealing lines — such as (when addressing his grandmother) “I love you, but you’re gonna get it,” — with such a low-key, deadpan cadence that I found myself double-taking and rewinding to make sure I heard correctly.
There is rich, textual audiovisual style presented that demands a level of analysis and deconstruction I would struggle to provide after one viewing, but it is worth exploring some of the more obvious and significant motifs at work. Recurring imagery such as lingering shots on a tall red curtain played on my memories of Twin Peaks’ Red Room (cheers for more creepy dreams, David). Much like in Peaks, the use of this curtain seems to veil or mask the two worlds, concealing Jeffrey and Dorothy’s forbidden fling from outsiders. It allows Lynch room to be playfully deviant; the film’s most terrifying moment ends up being a simple shot of the once-static curtain now flowing, foreshadowing that this hidden barrier between both worlds is collapsing. Also recurring throughout is a voyeuristic use of slowdown which articulates character revelations, aesthetic details and memorable, absurd imagery: the closing moments feature a firefighter waving directly at the camera in slow motion (he had previously appeared in the film’s opening sequence, at normal speed), and I’m still trying to work out exactly why I found it as hilariously funny as I did. Perhaps I’ll never know. Perhaps that’s the point.
It’s easy to see why Blue Velvet appeals. There’s a fun fusion of the neo-noir detective story, bizarre comedy and visually dense construction, most of which can be seen as harbingers of the tropes Lynch explores deeper 4 years later with Twin Peaks and throughout his career. By comparison to my memory of Mulholland Drive (which I will inevitably revisit in the near future), the narrative is accessible enough that those wanting to dip their toes into Lynch should definitely give it a go. It did wrap up a little too neatly for my tastes, though, and ultimately I found myself wanting more from the intriguing town of Lumberton. Maybe it was just my brain associating a mystery-solving Kyle MacLachlan with Dale Cooper a little too easily, but I was left yearning for another Lynchian television series. The uninhibited, episodic unfolding narrative would allow time to wallow in what I have appreciated most about his work thus far: a twisted humour, complex dream-like imagery and playful subversiveness of the mundane.