Thursday, June 10, 2010

Classic Film Review: Blue Velvet (1986)

DIRECTED BY: David Lynch
STARRING: Kyle MacLachlan, Isabella Rossellini, Laura Dern and Dennis Hopper

"I'm seeing something that was always hidden. 
I'm in the middle of a mystery and it's all secret."
~Jeffrey Beaumont~

Weird has taken on small town America. College student Jeffrey Beaumont (Kyle MacLachlan) returns to his quiet little hometown of Lumberton to visit his family when his father falls ill. On his way home from a hospital visit, Jeffrey finds a severed human ear in an open field. When the police seem incapable of figuring out the mystery, Jeffrey takes matters into his own hands with the help of the lead detective's daughter, Sandy Williams (Laura Dern). What Jeffrey and Sandy uncover involves beautiful nightclub singer, Dorothy Vallens (Isabella Rossellini), and sadistic psychopath, Frank Booth (Dennis Hopper).

Like controversial art films A Clockwork Orange and Straw Dogs, to name a couple, Blue Velvet is something that has to be treated as an experience. It's one of those strange classics that will always be picked apart in university film classes, which can arguably ruin its absurdity and ominous undertones. It's a bizarrely beautiful American avant-garde classic that deserves its status as David Lynch's masterpiece. 

Lynch is a master of suspense and the surreal. He creates sinister plots, odd characters and an atmosphere that can only be described as uniquely Lynchian. The film opens to the strains of Bobby Vinton's "Blue Velvet" and the images of the idealized little town of Lumberton, full of blooming flowers, immaculate houses and friendly neighbours. Despite its outward appearance, the viewer immediately senses a dark undertone of lurking danger and death. Murder, rape, kidnapping, voyeurism, sexual awakening and one very sadistic man run rampant in the underworld of Lumberton and feature prominently in the film. That unsettling discomfort grips the viewer from start to finish. This dark mystery as the ability to intrigue as much as it can repulse.

The film is full of unforgettable, vibrantly coloured imagery, from the dark blue velvet curtain that flutters slowly during the opening credits to the limited view of Dorothy's apartment as a hidden Jeffrey watches her through the slats of her closet to the smoky atmosphere of the nightclub where Dorothy performs.

The sight of seeing a vulnerable Dorothy reaching beneath her couch for a photo of her son or Dean Stockwell's show-stopping scene where he lip-synchs to Roy Orbison's "In Dreams" (image above) are all oddly beautiful and something out of a nightmare, at the same time. Like Stanley Kubrick before him, Lynch has the gift of providing an audience with emotional atmosphere, simply through the use of objects. shadows or songs.

The casting is first-rate, specifically the four main leads. As Jeffrey, Kyle MacLachlan is all charming, college-boy cool. He portrays Jeffrey as a naive young man who is lured in by the dark nature of the mystery that surrounds him; someone who wants to break away from the manicured lawns and preppy classmates that he's grown accustomed to. Laura Dern's Sandy Williams is a soft-spoken, albeit strong-willed, young women who is less inclined to fall into the dark allure of the mystery. Her strength of character is what pulls Jeffrey back from completely losing himself to the mystery. Isabella Rossellini is not as strong an actress as her late mother, Ingrid Bergman, however, she is just as beautiful and captivating. As nightclub singer, femme fatale Dorothy Vallens, Rossellini plays her character with an open, honest vulnerability. Her deterioration is sad to witness and, more than any other character in the film,  you want to see her have a positive outcome. Finally, the late Dennis Hopper, in his second-most iconic role after Easy Rider, is outrageously over-the-top. His Frank Booth is a sadistic, cackling, profanity-laced villain who instills discomfort and fear in every frame he shares with other characters. This sadistic monster is one of American cinema's most famous villains and, in the hands of anyone other than Hopper, would likely have not been so horrifyingly memorable and perverse.

Lynch's films tend to be walking contradictions, with a dark and nasty attitude combined with moments of humour and genuine tenderness. Never is that ability to contradict more on display than it is in Blue Velvet. Lynch and his films transcend genre; they cannot be classified and very rarely can they be properly explained. His films are a genre all their own. You can debate the film with friends until you are blue in the face, however, everyone will walk away with a different interpretation of it. What is Blue Velvet about? A twisted throwback to old-school detective films? A tale of sexual awakening? The age-old story of good vs. evil?  

Lynch's ability to constantly push the boundaries of the status quo is nothing short of admirable and is exactly what that art of filmmaking should be at all times.