Do You Want to Do Bad Things?: BLUE VELVET and the Necessary Terrors of Self-Discovery
by Drew Dietsch
When did you first realize you had a sexual kink? It could be as innocent as finding a particular fabric intoxicating, or it can be as intense as the most severe forms of BDSM. Whatever your fetish may be, there was something that led you to it. That path of discovery is a deeply personal one, and you can end up becoming obsessed and lost inside it. It can even be a journey that leads you down darker corridors that you had never thought possible. In the worst cases, you end up finding things out about humanity that can be downright terrifying.
No other film has better explored this quest down the sexual rabbit hole than David Lynch’s 1986 nightmare mystery, Blue Velvet. The story focuses on Jeffrey Beaumont (Kyle MacLachlan), a clean-cut young man who stumbles upon a rotting ear in a field. This ghoulishly random occurrence compels Jeffrey to seek out who the ear belonged to. His curiosity leads him to nightclub singer Dorothy Vallens (Isabella Rossellini) and a seedier realm that entices him further and further. But, his growing intrigue eventually has him crossing paths with psychotic gangster Frank Booth (Dennis Hopper), and Jeffrey is thrown into a frightening world that threatens both his life and his innocence.
It’s important to note that Blue Velvet is not playing coy with its interests. Though the thrust of the story is this tangled mystery involving unhinged criminals and a kidnapping, Blue Velvet drives its point home from the very first images we see on screen. Lynch presents us with a picturesque American neighborhood with patented white picketed fences, only to show an old man having a stroke while watering his lawn. The camera zooms down into the perfectly cut grass to reveal a swarm of bugs writhing all over each other. It might not be the subtlest expression of an artist’s desire to showcase his themes, but it thoroughly sets the stage for the events to come.
And it would be easy to read Blue Velvet as that simple of a statement: dig under the surface and you will find something rotten. However, that baseline kind of read would rob the viewer of the far more complex and difficult ideas at play in Blue Velvet. Specifically, this is a movie that is using the mystery structure to delve into the idea that everyone experiences some seemingly unplanned moment that causes them to dive deeper into their own fascinations with the darker side of themselves. Even more pointedly, what happens when we begin to come into our own sexually and how far are we willing to go to examine those feelings? And can we become so dominated by this exploration that we risk being swallowed up by something too terrible to imagine?
Jeffrey is the character that embodies this sordid odyssey as he finds himself becoming involved with Sandy (Laura Dern), the daughter of the detective that is investigating the severed ear. Sandy represents the kind of “girl next door” ideal that a boy like Jeffrey should gravitate towards. And while Jeffrey does find himself developing romantic feelings for Sandy, he also ends up using her in order to conduct his own investigation. When he comes into contact with Dorothy Vallens, Jeffrey begins to experience a sexual awakening that goes beyond his preconceived notions of schoolboy affection.
The setup to this discovery involves Jeffrey hiding in Dorothy’s closet when he’s almost caught snooping around her home for some clues. This is where Blue Velvet lays itself bare; the shots of Jeffrey watching Dorothy through the slits in her closet door make it clear that Blue Velvet is delving into voyeurism. Frankly, the art form of cinema is itself a type of voyeurism. We as audience members are drawn into the lives of characters and situations, and we become participants in their narratives. Other thrillers like Rear Window and Peeping Tom have been more direct with these ideas, but Blue Velvet takes this to a level we hadn’t really experienced in popular cinema at that point. It’s not enough for Jeffrey to let this mystery play out on his own. He needs to be a part of it. More importantly, he needs to see it.
Voyeurism is often a way for individuals to experience the pleasure of an act without feeling directly responsible for what is being committed. In an age where user-submitted videos of daily life are a ubiquitous part of our lives, it is worth considering that our culture has become numb to a lot of different types of voyeurism. We have a reality television show where people can watch inhabitants of an isolated house go about their lives as they strategize against one another. Live streaming has become a regular facet for entertainment. And the entirety of camgirl culture is a subject well worth diving into.
But, there is an additional element to Jeffrey’s voyeuristic becoming: a mystery. It’s not simply the act of watching Dorothy that arouses Jeffrey. It’s also the fact that this woman is embroiled in an ongoing scenario of danger. In that regard, it isn’t difficult to apply that kind of thinking towards our pop culture obsession with true crime documentaries. The rise of contemporary true crime series that focus on open-ended cases has turned a huge swath of viewers into Jeffries. It would not take long for you to find active online communities that fashion themselves as collective detectives. Though Lynch couldn’t predict these specific cultural evolutions in 1986, his understanding of humanity’s attraction to watch and inquire about their darkest possibilities is a universal and constant urge.
This fixation eventually crosses over into an outright sexual dynamic between Jeffrey and Dorothy, and it is where Jeffrey realizes that his compulsion to watch has led him to a point where he is made to act. During their first encounter when Dorothy discovers Jeffrey in her closet, she performs oral sex on him while threatening with a knife. This power play continues the danger that Jeffrey associated with his voyeurism, but he is now rewarded with sexual gratification. When they meet again, Dorothy reveals her masochistic side and demands that Jeffrey hit her. When he finally concedes, he has crossed over into the darkness that he only watched from a safe enough distance.
And then, he meets Frank.
Frank Booth is the id unleashed. There is no taboo that Frank won’t indulge. He is like the Joker if the Clown Prince of Crime wasn’t interested in the dark humor of his antics. This is a true man-child -- this is eerily punctuated when he refers to Dorothy as “Mommy” during their violent sexual encounters -- who doesn’t care about anyone or anything except satiating his vicious appetites. Frank is the extreme result of the abyss that Jeffrey has decided to stare into.
It would be easy to read Blue Velvet as a damning screed against any sexuality that strays from conventional ideas. And it’s worth debating whether or not Lynch’s ultimate thesis about good and evil takes this into account. But, the real pontification seems to be more about plunging into a potentially treacherous sexual domain and learning about how dark and deep you are willing to go. Blue Velvet is confronting that moment when you not only realize what turns you on, but you become so deeply entangled in it that you push it to a point where it scares you. That’s admittedly difficult and discomfiting material, but no one ever said that David Lynch didn’t want to make you squirm and even recoil at times.
While Jeffrey does end up with the angelic Sandy, his relationship and obsession with Dorothy is an integral and formative part of his maturation. Because this is fiction, we are able to explore the idea of sexual discovery and growth through a heightened premise and tone. Blue Velvet takes the classic trope of a younger man being seduced by an older woman and gives it a shadowy makeover. Does this make it uncomfortable? Yes, but it’s just as uncomfortable as your youthful reactions to your own sexual proclivities. You need to have those occasions where you push your own limits in order to figure out what those limits are. For Jeffrey, the darkness that Dorothy’s descent represents is his breaking point.
And yet, we haven’t even begun to really factor in Dorothy’s motivations in this whole scenario. Though it’s made fairly clear that she does get arousal from acts of masochism, we learn that she allows Frank to have his way with her because Frank has kidnapped Dorothy’s husband and son. The tangled web of Dorothy’s feelings are horrific and all too understandable. In a way, Dorothy’s enslavement to Frank is representative of her giving in to her deepest and most depraved sexual inclinations. Again, this shouldn’t be read as an endorsement of whatever Blue Velvet is possibly saying about kink and non-traditional sexual interests. Instead, it is worth looking at this from a broader perspective about the cost of indulgence and obsession. It’s difficult not to see Dorothy become aroused at times during her assaults from Frank. And this has obviously warped her views concerning sex and love. It’s telling that Dorothy’s arc seems to conclude with her abandoning the salacious parts of her lifestyle and conforming to something that looks more like the idyllic world where Jeffrey and Sandy reside. She has to relinquish her twisted obsession with the sinister side of sex in order to obtain what she really wants.
The only other character we haven’t really talked about is David Lynch. Blue Velvet is an undeniable triumph in Lynch’s filmography, and part of that has to do with how it manages to take his own unique fascinations and present them in a way that feels accessible. A lot of Lynch’s textural interests would make their way from Blue Velvet into his landmark television series Twin Peaks -- a mythic love of lounge singers, good-natured heroines that get consumed by their darker nature, abusive men as unequivocal monsters, Kyle MacLachlan -- but that show leaned into Lynch’s penchant for surreal expressionism. Blue Velvet is less obtuse and that makes its thematics and narrative far easier to parse. The subject matter is still difficult but Lynch is a master at crafting horror that we can’t look away from. Just like Jeffrey, we need to see it.
That’s the real brilliance of Blue Velvet: it turns us into its voyeur. We are discovering just how far we can push ourselves into this hell. And Lynch rewards our curiosity and resolve with a calming message at the end: it’s going to be okay. The victory at the end feels both genuine and satirical as we return to those snapshots of a postcard-perfect world. The movie seems to say that you can have that sort of life if that’s what you want, and it’s not judging its characters’ yearning for something so crystalline. Their descent was harrowing but they made it out with a better understanding of who they are and what they truly want out of life. You don’t get more storybook than that.
Though it’s easy to write Blue Velvet off as something that is reveling in the despair of humanity (which is exactly what Roger Ebert did with his infamous one-star review of the film), that viewpoint does a disservice to the evident inspection that David Lynch is doing in regards to our human desires to go looking for the things that frighten and excite us. That is always going to be a confusing line when you first cross it. But, crossing it is an essential step towards better understanding who you are. And though it can sometimes tip over into obsessions that drive you to the point of insanity, it can also make you a stronger and more self-actualized individual. The only way you’re ever going to find that out is if you decide to peek through the closet and see what lies in wait on the other side. What’s great about art is that it allows us that opportunity in a safe environment. Blue Velvet gives you a taste of darkness without ever getting your hands dirty. Where you go from there is entirely up to you.
Drew Dietsch has been professionally writing about film for over a decade. His bylines include Bloody Disgusting, SYFY WIRE, CHUD, Crooked Marquee, and FANDOM (where he was a founding contributor and Entertainment Editor). He created and hosts GenreVision (@genrevisionpod), a weekly film discussion show at genrevision.com.