Blue Velvet (1986)


"Love it or hate it, see it you must. Nothing remotely as unhealthy has come out of Hollywood for years but also nothing that so upends our usual expectations of the commercial cinema. And its more than a little acrid fumes, blow away the memory of much fake perfume. Calculated it is, and ultimately perhaps just a little bit hollow. But it’s a major effort to convince us that a popular film need not always indulge us when it indulges itself. It can draw a bit of real blood, too."


Now and again Hollywood breaks a barrier or two, generally by mistake. But I’ve no idea what persuaded a major company to finance David Lynch’s Blue Velvet (Lumiere, Chelsea, Screen on the Hill, Gate, 18). It is as resolutely radical in both style and content as Eraserhead and light years ahead of the stodgy botch-up of Dune.

We’re in Lumberton, USA, where an old man collapses watering his garden. The flowers are artificially pretty along the fence but the hose-pipe seems to have a murderous mind of its own, practically strangling him to death. Returning from the hospital, his son discovers a severed ear along the way. Something’s funny somewhere, and we’re not quite certain yet whether it’s funny peculiar or funny ha-ha.

The young man, enamoured of the local detective’s partly pretty daughter, also becomes enamoured of the mystery, tricking his way into the apartment of a night-club singer who is connected with the police investigation. He hides in the closet and watches her undress. When she discovers him, he’s forced to make love to her. Then her real lover arrives, so he hops back into the closet and squints at a sado-masochistic battle royal developing in front of his startled but fascinated eyes. Before long, he’s embroiled up to the hilt in a murderous psychodrama.

The film is smart-looking, incredibly knowing and exists both on a level of absolute reality and out-and-out nightmare. If it is a commentary on the worm-in-the-bud of “ordinary” American society, it has an astonishing capacity to hit below the belt and enjoy it. But I think its real significance lies not in any general comment but in a series of particular observations, concerning our fears about what we might become if our familiar constraints were blown away.

Just as in Lynch’s Eraserhead, where the beastie quite literally gets out of control, so in Blue Velvet curiosity almost kills the cat, showing our hero what he really is. The happy ending to the present tale looks thoroughly unconvincing, and I think it is meant to. The flowers in the garden where the young man wakes are just too pretty to be true. And the final image of an artificial robin with a live bug in its beak confirms our unease.

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