The City of Absurdity Blue Velvet


Richard Corliss, Time, September 22, 1986

''Things got a little out of hand,'' nice young Jeffrey (KyleMacLachlan) tells his nice young friend Sandy (Laura Dern). Well, yes. Walking through the woods of peaceful Lumberton, Jeffrey found a severed human ear crawling with ants. The ear belonged to a man who, with his son, had been kidnaped by Frank (Dennis Hopper), a sicko on a helium high. Frank was blackmailing the man's wife Dorothy (Isabella Rossellini), and hiding in Dorothy's closet, Jeffrey watched Frank work his awful sexual will on her. When Dorothy discovered Jeffrey, she took him to bed. ''Hurt me,'' she said. ''No, I want to help you'' -- but he soon enough acceded to her masochistic desires. Then Frank taught Jeffrey a lesson. He smeared lipstick on his own face, kissed Jeffrey hard on the mouth and beat him senseless. Sandy responds to such revelations like a child at the end of a nightmare fairy tale: ''It's a strange world, isn't it.''

Strange and repellent and seductive -- a world of power plays in which everybody's somebody's victim. Sandy is attracted to Jeffrey's quiet intensity. Jeffrey is beguiled by Dorothy's mystery, her dangerous demands. To keep her family alive, Dorothy must surrender to Frank's depraved games. But even Frank is in the thrall of Ben (Dean Stockwell), an epicene drug dealer, who in turn is subject to the political power of a heavyset enigma in a yellow jacket. On that stroll in the woods, Jeffrey fell down the rabbit hole and found an inverted pyramid of moral monstrosity. ''I am seeing something that was always hidden,'' he says. Now he can't take his eyes off it.

The plot alone would be enough to earn Blue Velvet this year's Authentic Weirdie prize. But wait, there's more. Writer-Director Lynch (Eraserhead, The Elephant Man, Dune) has stocked his movie with artifacts from every decade of postwar America; it could be taking place now, then or never. Emotionally, the picture comes from outer space. Instead of seducing the audience, the characters are picture-book flat. Only the images are deep and dense. The friendly loggers of Lumberton wave at the camera; Frank screams an obscenity and poof! disappears; a corpse is bound and bowed like a Kienholz sculpture; the climactic gun battle takes just a few shorthand strokes. The acting styles collide fiercely too. MacLachlan and Dern have an innocents-in-hell sweetness; Stockwell does a preening Percy Dovetonsils number; Rossellini is a madwoman with all stops out; Hopper tops her, with maybe the vilest sadistic creep in movie history.

All of which is to say that Blue Velvet is in no sense a realistic film. It is not modernist camp either. Lynch believes every bit as much in the redemptive power of teen love -- with families miraculously restored and two kids kissing to the crooning of a wedding-chapel organ -- as he does in the force of evil. He and his film will surely be reviled, but as an experiment in expanding cinema's dramatic and technical vocabulary, Blue Velvet demands respect.

back to BlueVelvet Reviews page
back to BlueVelvet page
© Mike Hartmann