When David Lynch was just a boy, he and his family lived in Boise, Idaho. And one day, sometime in the 1950s, he and his little brother watched on in horror as a naked and bloodied woman emerged from the forest near their childhood home.
“It was so incredible,” Lynch recalls in his book (co-written with Kristine Mckenna) Room To Dream. “Out of the darkness came this nude woman with white skin. Maybe it was something about the light and the way she came out of the darkness, but it seemed to me that her skin was the color of milk, and she had a bloodied mouth […] My brother started to cry and she sat down on the curb.”
If this memory of Lynch’s sounds oddly familiar to you, it’s probably because you’re picturing a certain scene from his 1986 film Blue Velvet.
Kyle MacLachlan, (whom Rolling Stone once described as “a boy next door, if that boy spent lots of time alone in the basement”) stars in the film as Jeffrey Beaumont, a young man who returns to his home town from college after his father has a heart attack. One day, while walking home from the hospital, Jeffrey happens upon a severed human ear in a field and all of a sudden finds himself sucked into the dark and nightmarish crime world that lies just beneath the surface of Lumberton’s white picket fences.
Isabella Rossellini plays lounge singer Dorothy Vallens, who, in a pivotal scene, suddenly appears out of the darkness onto the Beaumont’s front lawn, just as the anonymous women from Lynch’s childhood did. Dorothy is naked, bruised, and battered, with her arms outstretched wide as if delicate strings are suspending her wrists in the air, and she collapses in Jeffrey’s arms.
“I wanted to help her, but I was young and didn’t know what to do,” Lynch wrote of the real incident. “I might’ve asked, ‘Are you okay? What’s wrong?’ But she didn’t say anything. She was scared and beat up, but even though she was traumatized, she was beautiful.”
While Lynch doesn’t present this anecdote in his book as an inspiration for Blue Velvet (rather, as one of the moments that stood out to him in his otherwise picture-perfect, all-American upbringing), he could not have done a better job describing the film than with that sentence. Blue Velvet is disturbing, it’s dark, it’s horrific. But it’s beautiful.
When it hit theaters in the fall of 1986, the response, both from fans and detractors, was passionate. Those who disliked the film didn’t simply dislike it, they took it as an affront. According to Lynch, when financier Dino De Laurentiis organized the first test screening of the film, one of the many negative audience test cards read: “David Lynch should be shot.”
Upon seeing the finished film, Rossellini’s agency immediately dropped her as a client. She has also said that after the release, nuns from the high school she’d attended in Rome would call her to tell her they were praying for her. Critic Roger Ebert famously hated the film, expressing disdain for the way Rossellini was “degraded, slapped around, humiliated and undressed in front of the camera,” only for Lynch to turn around and “pull back to his jokey, small-town satire.”
While Blue Velvet certainly is incredibly dark and disturbing, this critical and social response still seems like it needs contextualization, since, by the time the film was released, it was far from being the darkest or most disturbing film ever made. A Clockwork Orange, a film with an equally sadistic rape scene that deals with just as unconventional an assailant, had come out over a decade earlier, in 1971 (and was also met with a great deal of controversy and censorship). And riskier films, like Andrzej Żuławski’s Possession, which I invite anyone who thinks Blue Velvet is a bit much to check out in order to get some perspective, preceded Lynch’s film by 5 years.
Yet, “there weren’t just walk-outs, there were run-outs! In my memory, people were running up the aisles,” recalled Rick Nicita, film producer and friend of Di Laurentiis, who’d caught an early preview. But amidst the reports of walk-outs (and even fainting at a theater in Chicago!), Blue Velvet still managed to become something of a critical darling, ending up on many reviewers’ year-end lists.
In The New Yorker, Pauline Kael raved about the film, and seemed to pinpoint what it was that so shocked viewers (who, it must be noted, had yet to truly become acquainted with Lynch’s psyche): “This is American darkness — darkness in color, darkness with a happy ending.” This is what struck a chord with people: Lynch’s unique ability to reconcile profound trauma with extreme sincerity. His ability to paint a world where the brightest light and blackest darkness can coexist.
In other words, it wasn’t simply the sexual violence or depraved villain that got to viewers, but rather, with what Lynch had decided to combine these elements: both the dark humor that fans loved (but was the crux of Ebert’s hatred) and, more importantly, what Kael describes as a “darkness in color.” Like Lynch said of the woman from his childhood memory: it’s traumatizing, but it’s beautiful. It’s about finding the beauty and light that both exists within the deepest, darkest wells of trauma and coexists beside it.
“Audiences now are quick to find unusual things hilarious or delicious,” Laura Dern, who plays Sandy in the film, recounted to Kristine Mckenna of Blue Velvet’s 1986 Telluride Film Festival screening, “but David’s bravery when it comes to tone is like nothing we’d seen before that. Before David, nobody made it sad and funny at the same time, or terrifying yet hilarious, or sexual but odd, and Blue Velvet is all of those things.”
Take Blue Velvet’s rape scene as a jumping off point. There is something skin-crawling about witnessing these events from Jeffrey’s point of view as he hides in Dorothy’s closet and watches, frozen with terror, what unfolds after Frank Booth (Dennis Hopper) arrives at her door. Frank berates her, taunts her with scissors and violently rapes her, all while yelling perversions at her, insisting Dorothy call him “Daddy” and assume the title of “Mommy,” and stuffing parts of her blue velvet bathrobe into her mouth and then his own.
Everything in the world of Blue Velvet feels slightly off, but especially so does Rossellini’s casting. She is, of course, the daughter of Ingrid Bergman, and bears a significant resemblance to her mother’s classic Hollywood beauty. She seems so out of place in this modern nightmare world that seeing her treated this way in the film makes you desperately wonder why Lynch’s camera doesn’t cut away from the violence. The shock of this attack reverberates through the film. Jeffrey is utterly traumatized by what he watched play out behind the closet door, and we too feel changed for having witnessed it all.
This leads into the film’s next key scene, which could not be in starker contrast. When Jeffrey and Sandy meet to discuss how Jeffrey breaking into Dorothy’s apartment went, he breaks down. “Why are there people like Frank?” he begs Sandy, “Why is there so much trouble in this world?” This exchange brings to mind the image of a child learning about the world and imploring their parents for answers. To see Jeffrey posing these fundamental queries about human nature to Sandy, who is younger than him, still in high school, and generally presented as having much less life experience, makes for such a naked display of vulnerability.
It almost seems like it should be a joke, and our impulse is to expect Lynch to retreat to irony, but he doesn’t take that route. Sandy takes Jeffrey’s question in earnest and answers by choosing to reveal more of herself to him: she doesn’t know why there are people like Frank, but she once had a dream about a world completely devoid of any love or light because there were no robins in it, but then one day, they all returned and it was magical.
“It seemed like that love would be the only thing that would make any difference,” she tells Jeffrey, “and it did.” They just have to wait for the robins to return, she assures him. At so many points in their conversation, it seems like Sandy or Jeffrey might break, that they might giggle and ask the other character, “Did that sound stupid? I can’t believe I just said that.” But neither of them does, and instead, they confide these questions and answers, which are mature in their content but provoke a sincere innocence in the fact that they are being discussed, in each other.
Lynch’s decision not to resort to irony in these moments, and to instead deliver something incredibly genuine, works wonders. The fact that he is able to seamlessly combine these two scenes, that they can even exist in the same film and illicit the opposing emotional reactions they each do, is what gives Blue Velvet its power. That’s why it shocked us on release, and that’s why it’s become a classic.
“Talking about [Blue Velvet] was so important to that film,” Lynch said shortly after the release. “It’s not a movie for everybody. Some people really dug it. Others thought it was disgusting and sick. And, of course, it is, but it has two sides. You have to have contrasts. Films should have power. The power of good and the power of darkness.”
By the end of the film, all the plot lines have already been neatly wrapped up: Jeffrey killed Frank, Dorothy is free and reunited with her son, and Jeffrey and Sandy have fallen in love. In Blue Velvet‘s final scene, the young couple observes a robin perched on a window sill in the kitchen of the Beaumont house. Sandy’s dream promised the robins would return and bring with them a “blinding light of love,” and one has finally arrived… but not without an insect in its beak. It’s a strange world, isn’t it?