Darkness As a Revealing Force in David Lynch’s Blue Velvet
Illustrated by Marie Joëlle Fournier
Blue Velvet is the story of Jeffrey Beaumont, a young student who visits his hometown of Lumberton USA when his father has a stroke. When he finds a severed ear in a field and learns through a detective's daughter, Sandy Williams, that Dorothy Vallens, a nightclub singer, is somehow involved, Jeffrey breaks into her apartment and hides in her closet when she arrives home unexpectedly. There, he sees a man named Frank abuse Dorothy and force her to indulge his twisted desires. From this encounter, Jeffrey is pulled into a sinister mystery that exposes the dark underbelly he never knew existed within his idyllic suburban town.
Perhaps more than any other of David Lynch´s works, Blue Velvet (1986) is a great film to examine in the context of the VISION(S) theme. The film deals explicitly with motifs of vision, voyeurism and representation. It's also, in many ways, a meditation of the essence of the film medium itself.
By its very nature, cinema is a medium that engages explicitly with the concept of vision, of sight, of gaze. By selecting the images we see and how they are presented, directors curate our visual experience to construct narratives in our minds. Lynch particularly has a unique and powerful storytelling 'voice'. A film like Blue Velvet is such an oddity that I sometimes find it hard to put into context.
I like to think of Blue Velvet as a piece of cinematic fetish, the ultimate talismanic experience for cinephiles. A meditation on what it is to see, to gaze, to show, to watch. A meditation on cinema, on making films, on consuming films. A reflection on a familiar set of visual cues, of genre conventions, and a reminder that someone is leading you by the hand. Lynch plays with traditional narrative archetypes and uses traditional film language, but he subverts everything. Nothing is what it seems, nothing is what you expect. And maybe that is what is so appealing about the film.
The film is a neo-noir of sorts, but what is the darkness in this film really about? In my mind the darkness in Blue Velvet does not aim to conceal or hide anything, but rather to reveal. We can understand this conceptualization of darkness as a revealing force, a type of anti-light almost, that guides our gaze to things that should be hidden: hidden lives, supressed desires, taboo behaviours, the inner working of the film medium, the 'behind the curtains,' etc.
The darkness in the film is definitely a revealing presence: it opens doors that would normally be closed to the characters by allowing characters, for example Frank, to express their passions and emotions without worry of being judged or without restraint.
An important scene in the film, between Jeffrey Beaumont and Sandy Williams (the daughter of the detective investigating Vallens), occurs at nighttime in front of what looks like a church. Sandy tells Jeffrey of a dream she had where the town was thrown into darkness because there were no robins anymore, which she says represents love in her dream. The nighttime allows characters to pierce through their world's illusory surface appearance and reveal the hidden nature that surrounds them just below. The scene also suggests that Sandy has received some kind of divine vision.
What you pointed out about Sandy's vision is very interesting. She relates her robin dream and in a way she appears as an oracle. And again this feels like another layer built on the same theme, of what we see, how we gaze.
I think in fact that many of the characters in the film possess a special kind of vision. Jeffrey Beaumont is also a voyeur of course, mediating our own gaze in the film, but he is at the same time a detective, staking out the other characters, watching them, photographing them.
As spectators, we also see things with a 'special kind of vision', according to different perspectives. As the film starts, shots of beautiful sunny suburban life flash by, which shows the surface level appearance of the town of Lumberton and its residents: happy, and 'normal'. But then the camera goes underneath a lawn and shows swarms of cockroaches and disgusting insects crawling around in the darkness, which symbolizes the hidden nature of the town. Evil and vile people who act in the shadows.
This also reflects the nature of the film itself. During daytime, shots show the characters going about their regular lives; Jeffrey Beaumont acts like a regular teenager/etc. Then at night, Jeffrey's true nature reveals itself as he sneaks into Dorothy Vallens' apartment to find information and ends up witnessing a man beat her and engage in sexual activities with her.
I definitely also pick up on the duality you pointed out--that the film is separated aesthetically into day and night, that multiple personalities inhabit each character. Consider how he represents the two female characters, Isabella Rossellini's very convincing femme fatale and Laura Dern's American innocent girl next door. These two women are opposites, and they function almost as sirens, becoming Kyle MacLachlan with two very different type of songs. Are these two sides of the same coin? What do you make of this duality?
I find your idea of Sandy and Dorothy being mirrors of each other incredibly interesting. Both call to Jeffrey and attract him in different ways. Sandy, the innocent girl next door, is still not perfect, as she cheats on her boyfriend, but her innocent qualities attract Jeffrey's own innocence throughout the film.
Dorothy Vallens seems to appeal to the unfiltered desires of Jeffrey (and Frank equally). She is disturbed and depraved, she sees Jeffrey as her absent husband Don (who has been kidnapped) to fill that void in her life, which is, interestingly enough, similar to Jeffrey's own situation in the film; Jeffrey's father being hospitalized after a particularly forceful stroke consequently leaving Jeffrey without a strong male presence in his life.
So in a way, they both seem to be opposites that fill similar wants and/or needs for Jeffrey, his desires, both innocent and more unfiltered and "adult".
Everyone is performing for everyone else, constantly. Dorothy (Rossellini ) is quite literally on a stage, Sandy (Dern) and Jeffrey play act a fake relationship for her father's benefit, and of course Frank (Dennis Hopper), who is absolutely obsessed with performance, and seems to require and demand that everyone around him be performing, constantly. And he is the ultimate fetishist, making a fetish out of songs, textiles, words, behaviours.
Frank is by far one of my all-time favourite characters from the Lynch universe; he is so bizarre, so alien, but so engaging. So many of his characters are bizarre, grotesque, gothic almost. What do you make of characters like Frank; what do you see as their function? Do you think Frank is a window into a new type of vision for the audience maybe? What do you think his darkness brings to the film, if anything at all?
I wonder sometimes if Lynch is putting a mirror up to the audience with the Frank character, or putting it up to himself, or most probably both. We're such visual creatures, and we attribute so much meaning to images, and some images we become very attached to. Frank’s obsession with specific imagery might be just an exaggeration of an instinct that we all possess.
As you've mentioned, Blue Velvet is a film that plays around with the concept of perspective and the very nature of films as a medium. What can we see about a certain person or event if we see it from different angles or lights/etc.?
Characters are constantly peering at something that was hidden to them—someone else's private life or the disturbed activities of a criminal sadist. But they also begin to see other people in different lights. The audience is linked to this whole process, which I feel is such an amazing aspect of the film's themes, of peering into the private nature of a whole town and its' residents. We, like Jeffrey, see what he is seeing and draw our own interpretations on the events and characters. But the audience, not Jeffrey, are the true "Voyeurs" in Blue Velvet, as we see everyone and everything, without being watched ourselves. (Am I onto something with this point or picking at straws?)
Finally, Frank Booth is definitely a representation of our desire for anything sensory, i.e our visual fetishes, as you've stated. He delights in holding power over individuals and using these relationships to partake in his ritualistic consumption of 1950's music, (In Dreams by Roy Orbison being a favorite song of Frank) textiles like the titular blue velvet of Dorothy's dress, and the acts he forces others around him to play out, like Ben (Stockwell) lip-syncing "In Dreams".
I feel that Frank's darkness brings to light a slight exaggeration of our inner desires to the film as a whole, which is what Lynch's film strives to accomplish, to present an audience with itself in a way. We all crave some form of visual stimuli or sensory pleasure at some point in our life. How we go about experiencing these wants and satisfying these needs are, at the end of the day, different to every individual.
With Blue Velvet, Lynch constantly makes viewers see people, activities, music, and environments in a different light throughout the journey. It never ceases to amaze me how captivating and absolutely enthralling this film and David Lynch's work is as a whole. He transports viewers into another world, bringing them to glimpse surreal reflections of our own human experience.