Blue Velvet (1986): Lynch’s Tale of Sex, Eroticism, and Voyeurism

David Lynch’s 1986 masterpiece, Blue Velvet, begins with its youth protagonist, Jeffrey Beaumont (Kyle MacLachlan), being called back home from college, when his father is hospitalized after a seizure. He has to work at his father’s business, the Beaumont’s hardware store.

At the hospital, the father is concerned because Jeffrey has never been seen him with his teeth out; once again, the theme of appearances versus reality.

Walking down the dirt road in a vacant field, Jeffrey finds a human ear, covered with ants racing frantically around it. A good boy, he reports the incident to detective J.D. Williams (George Dickerson) who asks Jeffrey not to discuss the incident with anyone. But understanding that Jeffrey is “real curious,” the detective says, “I was the same when I was your age, that’s what got me into this business.” The coroner says he doesn’t “recall anything coming in minus an ear,” suspecting the person might still be alive. A close-up of the ear, in a mortician’s dish, reveals a rare view of the crevices around the dark hole.

Jeffrey excites Sandy (Laura Dern), the policeman’s daughter, and she cancels a date with Mike. Says Sandy: “There’s a game tonight and he’ll never miss me.” Jeffrey is contrasted with Sandy’s beau, a big football player. Mike is straight and rational, with no spontaneity in his life. Taking vitamins, he says: “The body is like a machine. Everything has got to stay in perfect tune for perfect health.” Mike drinks water, but no beer. He takes no coffee, and refuses blueberry pie and ice cream because they contain too many calories. He is a young man, unwilling to take any risks.

Dorothy Vallens (Isabella Rossellini) is a beautiful woman with round figure and full red lips. She sings at the “Slow Club,” a sleazy nightclub on the outskirts of town, surrounded by a trash-strewn parking lot. Dorothy sings a slow version of “Blue Moon” and Bobby Vinton’s “Blue Velvet.” There is also the “Barbary Coast,” a corner bar with a back room with naked girls. Both clubs are set apart from Main Street.

Sneaking into her apartment, Jeffrey finds an empty child’s room; a small, pointed hat with a propeller on top is on the bedpost. He observes Dorothy put on a record, “For Your Precious Love,” which makes her cry. She then undresses and showers, wearing blue velvet robe. Caught by Dorothy, she demands to know, “How many times have you sneaked into girls’ apartments and watch them undress” There is an expression of disbelief when he says, “never before.” “Get undressed,” she commands, “I want to see you.” She pulls his underpants down to his knees, holding a knife to his genitals. It’s a rare occurrence in American films for a woman to command (or even wish) a man to undress. This scene is powerful because it conveys a sense of what women may have experienced when told by men to undress. Now, it’s a role reversal: an intense female gaze at Jeffrey’s genitals.

Jeffrey’s sexual naivet is juxtaposed with the villain’s, Frank Booth (Dennis Hopper), a brute endowed with raw sexuality (“I’ll fuck anything that moves”). Frank has kidnapped Dorothy’s husband and son and now abuses her sexually. Stocky with a burr hair cut, Frank wears an old black jacket, blue jeans and boots. “Mommy, Baby wants to fuck,” he says while looking at Dorothy’s crotch and wearing a mask for the canister filled with helium. He sucks and bites the velvet coming out of her mouth, while pinching her breasts. Slugging her in the face, he reaches a climax in his pants. Later, Jeffrey suffers the ultimate degradation when Frank smears lipstick on his face and kisses him on the lips.

“You can hit me too, if you want to,” Dorothy tells Jeffrey. They start making love, then carried away, he throws her head back hard against the wall, and slaps her in the face. Dorothy is not crazy (“I know the difference between right and wrong”), just a masochistic victim; she smiles through the pain. In most small-town (and other American) films, the attitude toward sex is hygienic, often childish. In this film, however, sex is not only erotic, but also shown to be an act of risk and adventurism. When they make love, there are images of flames and sounds of roaring beats in the jungle (the association of sexual desire with fire is a recurrent motif).

As many small-town films, Blue Velvet is about coming of age, the transition from adolescence to adulthood, though the rites of passage are not ordinary (Norman and Allison’s innocent kiss on a hill or Rodney and Betty’s swim in the nude in Peyton Place). Here, the daring sexual initiation is carried out by a mature woman, and there are no inhibitions. The film offers the shock of recognition and catharsis, too; it contains some of the most eroticized energy to be displayed on the American screen.

Similarly to Jonathan Demme’s Something Wild, the narrative uses the motif of the double: Jeffrey has a clean-neat, wholesome, look but also curiosity and an urge for risk and adventurism. Earlier, at the college dance, hiding behind a furnace, Jeffrey is intrigued by the sight of a student trying to rape his girlfriend. It is some time until he takes action and interferes–the allure of voyeurism is one of the film’s important issues. The film’s worldview is childish, perhaps intentionally so, seen from an adolescent’s point of view. Jeffrey explores the dark side of his own personality. “I’m seeing something that was always hidden,” says Jeffrey, “I’m involved in a mystery, I’m learning.” The film shows both the allure of the unknown and the horror of it once encountered.

Sandy’s adolescent status is clearer: Younger than Jeffrey, she still sees the world in black and white. “I don’t know if you’re detective or a pervert,” she tells Jeffrey; he is actually both. Note than when a robin arrives on the kitchen window, it has an insect in its beak. Sandy represents the naive belief in a good world and decent life. The ideological distinction between Sandy and Dorothy is also visual: the blond versus the dark-haired look.

Like most small-town films of the 1980s, there is no moral center in the tale–or town, for that matter.  Drug dealers run the town, and the police are also implicated. Detective Gordon is involved in crime, and it’s not clear how much Sandy’s father knows or is involved in the case.

“It’s over now,” detective Williams tells Jeffrey at the end, but unlike films of previous decades, the viewers are not certain that the town’s crime and corruption are resolved, or that justice and order will prevail.

Frederick Elmes’ imagery is distinguished, contrasting the drab interiors of worn apartment buildings in mid-American towns with splashes of sunlight and primary colors in the exteriors.

His cinematography serves as metaphor for a story about duality, decadence and corruption vs. innocence and goodness.  The first time we see Sandy, she literally emerges out of the darkness.