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Holding Fantasy and Desire Apart
on 19 March 2011
David Lynch's Blue Velvet is a fantastic film and I recommend it highly. Thematically, the film concerns itself with desire, fantasy and violence. It is directed with thought and skill. The plot concerns a young man, Jeffrey Beaumont, who discovers a severed ear. This leads him, partly through his own unstoppable curiosity, to discover a dark underworld that coexists with his innocent and friendly town. Along the way he is assisted by the local detective's daughter Sandy, he discovers a strange young woman named Dorothy, and encounters a sinister and perverted individual named Frank Booth. Throughout the film, Jeffrey attempts to understand the meaning of the detached ear, and its connection to both Dorothy and Frank. But by pursuing this mystery, Jeffrey discovers a number of terrible truths and is himself caught up in this dark underworld.
Lynch's film depicts two worlds: on the one hand, there is the all-too-perfect world of Lumberton, with its white picket-fences and smiling firemen; on the other hand, there is the dark underworld of Frank Booth and his associates. Lynch stylistically separates these worlds through several contrasts: Lumberton is mostly presented in daylight and in reassuring places such as the family home or the school; whereas the underworld is presented at night and in places such as a nightclub and a seedy home belonging to one of Frank's associates. Each world, though, is structured according to fantasy: Lumberton's fantasies revolve around family life, education and dating, whilst Frank's world centres on intoxication, adrenaline, and sex.
Whilst it is tempting to see Lynch's world in terms of a good place and a corrupt underworld, this would leave out Dorothy and the mini-world of her apartment. It would also be hard to maintain such an interpretation in light of the fairly obvious satirical elements. Lumberton is depicted with heavy doses of irony: the smiling, waving fireman and his dog aboard the fire engine; the too-perfect red roses; and the billboard depicting the friendly town of Lumberton. But Dorothy and her apartment represent the biggest problem of interpretation here. Her space is dark, disturbing and the scene of two very different sexual encounters: Frank's and Jeffrey's. This world sits uneasily between Lumberton and Frank's underworld. It is neither too-perfect nor typically (and thus reassuringly) dark. It is a mini-world, a liminial space, a void. It is the place not of fantasy, but of pure desire. It is for this reason that it haunts Jeffrey and Frank, and by extension us.
Although both Frank and Jeffrey are made anxious by Dorothy and her apartment, each responds in a different way. Frank's fantasised sexual encounters with her are a means of violently repressing her sexual otherness (embodied in his repression of her gazing at him), whilst Jeffrey tries to place himself in the role of saviour, rescuing her from Frank and returning her son to her. However, despite both attempts, Dorothy still troubles both Frank and Jeffrey. There is a particularly poignent moment in the film when Dorothy breaks from her liminal space of pure desire and invades Sandy's innocent home. At this moment, desire invades Sandy's fantasy space and she cannot control herself, breaking into tears.
This is one of Lynch's great gifts to cinema (which he has repeated a number of times, albeit with differences): his stylistic and thematic choice of presenting the worlds of desire and fantasy separately. Unlike other films by Lynch, such as Lost Highway or Mulholland Drive, Blue Velvet ends on a quasi-happy note (though with plenty of irony still). Jeffrey vanquishes his enemy Frank, Dorothy's son is returned to her, and Jeffrey and Sandy live happily ever after. However, those ironic elements have the last say in the film: the fireman, the roses and that ludicrous robin almost smiling at Jeffrey and Sandy, and by extension us. The film is thus disturbingly hilarious and I found myself laughing at the end on some occassions, though with a sinister feeling too.
A note on the DVD: I strongly warn people not to buy the version published by Prism Leisure. This version is by far the worst available. It is watchable, but if possible I recommend getting a different copy. The version released by Sanctuary Visual Entertainment, which is a 2-disc edition and region free, is an excellent version of the film. It has both stereo and 5.1 surround sound options, two documentaries and a nice 16 page booklet.