The introduction of Dennis Hopper's Frank Booth sets the tone for David Lynch's darkly surreal masterpiece.
When Blue Velvet was released in 1986, controversy followed. This dark American story was both lauded and reviled. Some appreciated David Lynch’s twisted perspective on what lay beneath the quintessential American town while others felt Lynch was glorifying misogyny and that the film’s most repulsive characters were merely extensions of Lynch himself.
Looking at the film today, sequences remain shocking but, more than anything, it is both disturbing and brilliant. Blue Velvet’s fusion of mystery, film noir, surrealism, horror, erotica and romance, mean that scenes of terror and violence are merely part of its great tapestry. The film's ability to get under the audience's skin is testament to Lynch's compositional mastery. It has aged very well.
Blue Velvet is set in the fictional, Lumberton, a sunny place of white picket fences, waving firemen and sprinklers watering pristine lawns. Approaching Dorothy Vallen’s (Isabella Rosselini) apartment building, dark and foreboding cinematography contrasts with the idyllic Americana we have seen thus far. From across the street the building is cloaked in shadows like the archetypal haunted house.
After stealing a key, Jeffrey enters Dorothy’s apartment, a place resembling something from a dream but more like a nightmare. The layout is strange and unsettling. There seems to be no natural light or windows. The apartment is a palette of purples, greys and blacks – almost, as one critic would later comment with regards to Lynch’s Mulholland Drive, resembling 'the colour of a bruise'. There appear to be at least three grey/purple leather sofas in a long line, suggesting some kind of hellish private member's club or purgatorial jazz bar.
After being alarmed by her return, Jeffery spies on the terrified Dorothy from her closet. He overhears her distressing phone call with Frank, whom we have yet to meet and whom she calls 'Sir'. After discovering Jeffrey in her closet, Dorothy confronts him and makes him strip, her initial anger being replaced by sexual desire. A loud knock at the door interrupts this. Jeffrey flees to his hiding place and Frank Booth (Dennis Hopper) enters.
Most of the scene is shot from Jeffrey’s perspective through the closet’s wooden slats, a kind of widescreen movie within a movie where Frank and Dorothy’s twisted dance can play out like a forbidden peep show.
"Hello Frank" says Dorothy. "Shut up shit-head, it’s daddy! Where’s my bourbon?!" This opening exchange sets the scene for what follows – twisted, abusive and painful. Viewed in isolation, the scene is not necessarily the most shocking or disturbing committed to film but Lynch’s skill at building towards it gives it tremendous power. Up to this point we have lived in the mischievous but ultimately innocent teenage world of Jeffrey and Sandy (Laura Dern).
Both characters are fascinated by the mysterious Dorothy Vallens but neither aware of Lumberton’s underbelly. Lynch hints towards it early on using visual metaphors of bugs crawling beneath the ground and black ants swarming the human ear Jeffrey finds and which leads him to this point. However, metaphors are now replaced by explicit reality.
The film and this scene in particular, radiate a twisted and disturbing sexuality. Frank performs masochistic violent acts on Dorothy, punching her, making her stuff a piece of blue velvet in his mouth, dry-humping her and alternating role play characters from the sexually submissive 'baby' to the sexually violent 'daddy'.
Jeffrey is both attracted to and frightened of Dorothy. He watches through her closet wanting to see her but not wanting to be seen. Frank’s actions see sexuality contorted to fit the desires of someone Jeffrey calls "a very sick and dangerous man". Like Jeffrey, Frank is receiving the strip club/peep show experience but unlike Jeffrey he not only wants to be seen but also wants to call the shots. He is given his bourbon and Dorothy switches off another light. "Now it’s dark" says Frank, a man who represents the darkness of Lumberton and is now, metaphorically and literally, in the environment he craves.
When we first meet Dorothy emerging from the gloom of her apartment her skin is startlingly white. At first she looks almost demonic but when Jeffrey is in her apartment his skin matches hers. This stark whiteness represents the goodness and innocence of Lumberton and what Sandy calls the "blinding light of love".
Frank’s relatively normal looking skin tone and those of his gang represents the darkness and evil. It is a twisting of norms. What would typically be viewed as normal represents fear and what is viewed as freakish represents innocence. This twisting fits in with Lynch’s idea that the supposed normality of small town America can often be where its darkest secrets lie.