"I can't figure out if you are a detective or a pervert." - Sandy Williams
Masterpiece, catastrophe, lurid, satirical, devastating, hilarious, Americana. I have seen so many terms thrown around concerning David Lynch's seminal Blue Velvet that I have lost count. I first experienced this film in a way many others have - in a college film seminar. I have loved it ever since, and now Blue Velvet receives its well-earned spot in the Criterion Collection. Dennis Hopper and Isabella Rossellini offer some of the most committed performances ever recorded on film, and Lynch's masterpiece plays more like an intoxicating dream than a nitrate-fueled thriller. This is both a film to study and one to enjoy; it is a master class in mood, performance, mise en scène and dialogue. Blue Velvet also excites, horrifies and immerses its audience in the mystery of a masochistic lounge singer, unhinged gangster and small-town college student brought together by a severed ear. When a film is all of those things, it is, truly, a masterpiece.
"I looked for you in my closet tonight." - Dorothy Vallens
Set in Lumberton, North Carolina, but shot in Wilmington, Blue Velvet opens with its much-heralded sequence of small-town bliss - white picket fences, fire trucks and flags shot in soft, dreamy focus - that is quickly revealed to sit atop a layer of writhing, primal insects representing the human underworld in Lumberton's own alleys and gin joints. Jeffrey Beaumont (Kyle MacLachlan) is home from college for the summer, and he discovers a severed ear while walking in a vacant lot. He takes the ear to Detective John Williams (George Dickerson), and is later met by the man's daughter, Sandy (Laura Dern), who tells Jeffrey the ear has something to do with a lounge singer, Dorothy Vallens (Rossellini). Jeffrey yields to unexpected curiosity and visits Dorothy's apartment, posing as an exterminator, and sees the woman with a man in a yellow sport coat before stealing her spare key and leaving. Sandy and Jeffrey later watch Dorothy's act, highlighted by a sultry rendition of "Blue Velvet," before Jeffrey sneaks back into her apartment. The woman arrives home unexpectedly, sending Jeffrey diving into the closet for cover. He learns from a frantic phone conversation that Dorothy's husband and son have been kidnapped by a man named Frank Booth (Hopper), who soon arrives at Dorothy's apartment and forces her into a violent sexual encounter. With his cover blown right before Frank's arrival, Jeffrey attempts to comfort Dorothy after her violation, and realizes she is both frightened and excited by this violence.
"Heineken? Fuck that shit. PABST BLUE RIBBON!" - Frank Booth
I can only imagine the reaction audiences had to this film, particularly to Hopper's character and performance, in theaters back in the fall of 1986, several months before I was born. This is one of the most memorable, insane performances I have ever witnessed. Much discussion has been had about the gas Frank inhales throughout the film. Lynch clarified that it is amyl nitrate, aka poppers, which causes Frank to hallucinate, grab at objects that are not there and exhibit roller coaster emotions. Jeffrey begins an uncomfortable, sexually violent affair with Dorothy, and seems unable to control his own actions despite them landing miles outside his comfort zone. Frank discovers Jeffrey at Dorothy's apartment one evening, and forces them on a hellish joy ride into the slums of Lumberton, where Dorothy is given a few minutes with her son and Frank warns Jeffrey not to be a hero. This entire sequence, complete with a performance of Roy Orbison's "In Dreams" by Frank's homosexual criminal associate, is a loopy, intoxicating nightmare. Jeffrey asks Sandy why people like Frank exist; why there is such trouble in the world. She cannot provide him an answer.
"It's a strange world." - Jeffrey Beaumont
Lynch apparently wanted the world to forget his costly 1985 calamity Dune and remember his challenging, memorable Eraserhead and The Elephant Man, and Blue Velvet is certainly a return to that form. It is such a mix of tones and ideas, some of which border on illogical, that perhaps it should not work as well as it does, but that is what a talented writer and director can accomplish. The film did not work for everyone. The late Roger Ebert was notably critical of Blue Velvet, calling Lynch sadistic for putting Rossellini through such degradation on screen. She continues an esteemed career, so I suspect she is just that good of an actress, though some of the sexual and sexually violent encounters are undoubtedly disturbing, particularly when Jeffrey comes into the fold. MacLachlan and Dern are very good here, too, but anyone would be overshadowed by the masterwork of Hopper and Rossellini.
"Don't be a good neighbor to her. I'll send you a love letter." - Frank Booth
Blue Velvet escapes feeling dated, despite the 1980s fashion, cassette decks and technology, but it certainly fed on the cultural tug-of-war that existed upon its release, when Ronald Reagan was in his second term and his conservative supporters yearned to return to the era of the traditional 1950s household, also represented by Lynch in Blue Velvet. But more important is the feeling Blue Velvet evokes; that a disturbing, confounding darkness lies within reach of us all, and it can be called upon without warning. The story of Frank's criminal enterprise is not in itself unique, nor is Jeffrey's awakening, but these figures, when operating together within this dreamscape, make Blue Velvet something special. If the film suggests that the idyllic scenes from its opening do not exist, it pulls this notion back somewhat when its darkness fades. In a parallel to a dream Sandy describes, Blue Velvet implies that love can right these callous wrongs.
"In dreams, I walk with you. In dreams, I talk to you. In dreams, you're mine, all the time. Forever. In dreams..." - Frank Booth
Although it received an impressive Blu-ray edition from MGM in 2011, Blue Velvet is a welcome addition to the Criterion Collection. According to liner notes, this 2.35:1/1080p/AVC-encoded image was created in 16-bit 4K resolution from a 35mm original camera negative in a process supervised by Lynch, making this a brand new 4K restoration. Owners of the previous Blu-ray will find this new presentation a subtle upgrade, and I noticed some subtle changes in color saturation and brightness. Interestingly, it does not appear there was any one color grade or pass done on the film, and instead the Criterion transfer offers minor, appreciated bumps in fine-object detail and texture amid the gorgeously saturated colors, natural skin tones and pleasing highlights. The red of Dorothy's lipstick, the Yellow Man's jacket, the blues of the nightclub and the green grass of Lumberton really pop from the screen; all without a hint of bleeding. Black levels are impressive, and shadow detail is abundant. The film's grain structure is natural throughout, and the image never becomes too noisy in nighttime scenes. There are a number of purposely softer, dream-like shots, but the image at times is a startlingly intimate, crystal clear glimpse into these lives, and the debris-free picture certainly does not appear to be 33 years old. This is another example of a near-perfect, restoration-caliber transfer from Criterion of a 35mm production that looks as I expect it did in theaters.
The soundtrack is offered in 5.1 DTS-HD Master Audio and 2.0 DTS-HD Master Audio variants, both of which were approved by Lynch. Dialogue is clear throughout, and I noticed no overcrowding, distortion or hiss. The surrounds are utilized for ambient effects and a couple of action moments, and the soundtrack is appropriately weighty. All elements are balanced harmoniously, and I caught no technical flaws in either mix. English SDH subtitles are available.
"Don't toast to my health. Toast to my fuck." - Frank Booth
PACKAGING AND EXTRAS:
This single-disc release arrives in a digipack with simple, striking artwork. A 30-page booklet is found inside that includes an essay, photos and technical information about the film and this presentation. Criterion has crafted new supplements and carried a number over from previous releases:
This seminal work by writer/director David Lynch finds a home at the Criterion Collection with this new Blu-ray release, which offers subtle technical upgrades and a nice roster of new and carryover supplements. A thrilling, horrifying and often funny dream, Blue Velvet is the rare film that is both worthy of study and wholly entertaining. Dennis Hopper and Isabella Rossellini are masterful here. This edition earns my highest recommendation: DVD Talk Collector Series.
"You stay alive, baby. Do it for Van Gogh." - Frank Booth