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Movie Review : Dark Sexuality Illuminated In 'Velvet'

October 03, 1986|SHEILA BENSON | Times Film Critic

Secrets are at the heart of David Lynch's "Blue Velvet" (San Diego area theaters), the most brilliantly disturbing film ever to have its roots in small-town American life. Shocking, visionary, rapturously controlled, its images of innocence and a dark, bruising sexuality drop straight into our unconscious where they rest like depth charges.

Lynch has become a master at giving form to what is not permitted--rage, revulsion, our darkest imaginings--and by making them tangible, lets us acknowledge them. "Eraserhead's" gelatinous embryo-baby was at once pitiful and strident, an emotional metaphor for that mixture of love, rage and exhaustion that is new parenthood. "Elephant Man" forced us to look at (and beyond) grotesque deformity; "Dune," at pustulating evil. "Blue Velvet" takes us behind the working-class American facade, beneath the Technicolor grass, literally underground to the churning turmoil of black, shiny beetles below. It's there. It's always there, Lynch says, if you only look and listen.

The movie's first images are as wholesome as a '50s milk-company calendar: the friendly town of Lumberton--red roses, white picket fences and blue sky, with Bobby Vinton crooning "Blue Velvet" in our ears under the credits. It's the same comforting small-town homeyness that Hitchcock sketched in "Shadow of a Doubt."

Then, with a mixture of the surreal and the banal, Lynch begins to build the pressure. A man placidly watering his lawn is felled by a stroke so sudden it looks like the work of a blow-gun. Indoors, his wife never takes her eyes from murder and menace on her television screen. And when their son, Jeffrey (Kyle MacLachlan), comes back from college to see his father, he makes a macabre find in a vacant lot: a severed, molding human ear.

(It's almost a private joke on a Lynch trademark. Working with the great sound designer Alan Splet, Lynch has constantly entered our minds through our ears; his sound tracks are ominous and mysterious, full of rushing wind and the roars of animals.)

This ear will be Jeffrey's conduit from all-American naivete to stunned experience; what he will find is understanding of our darkest natures, and his own.

After taking his grisly find to a police detective who swears him to silence, Jeffrey meets the detective's daughter Sandy (Laura Dern), younger than he, with a high schooler's romanticism hiding a good practical core. She hints that from overhearing snatches of her father's conversations, she knows more. Something about a singer named Dorothy Vallens who is "under surveillance."

Jeffrey is pulled toward this intrigue, and he pulls a not-unwilling Sandy with him. Puppy-like, they're attracted to each other. But from the first moment he sees Dorothy Vallens (Isabella Rossellini), with her red, red enameled lips, her deeply shadowed eyes, her white skin and the neuroses she exudes like a spoor, he is pulled equally in another direction.

Dorothy and Sandy. Sandy and Dorothy. And between Dorothy and the outside world is Frank Booth (Dennis Hopper). Obscene, sadistic, kinky, the most terrifyingly evil ordinary man that even David Lynch could create, his world is an overflowing sewer. It's to this vortex of masochism and bizarre sexual rituals that Jeffrey is pulled, horrified and tempted by turns.

The film seems to be loaded so that Rossellini and its collection of grotesques have all the heat: mad-dog Hopper, drug-dealer Dean Stockwell (in a cameo that could only be called lip-smackingly fine), Brad Dourif, Jack Nance and a collection of beehived, stocky filles de joie who seem to have wandered in from a John Waters movie. Actually, it's the voltage and absolute belief of Dern and MacLachlan that keep the film on its rock-steady even keel.

The acting is superlative, to the smallest role and tiniest detail. This part may be the ultimate Hopper; he certainly can't top it, and it is his fierce, febrile energy which keeps this constellation of actors in place. Rossellini, who has the film's greatest physical demands, is tormented and deeply touching. Dern, the story's anchor woman, balances the romantic melodramatics of a high schooler with a nice, dry level-headedness. But the film lives or dies with Jeffrey, who must hold our sympathy at every step, and MacLachlan is perfect at doing just that.

They have the advantage of Patricia Norris' brilliantly conceived production design, Frederick Elmes' photography, which does for rich, vibrant color what his mysterious black-and-white images did for "Eraserhead," and a musical score by Angelo Badalamenti that seems as fine and evocative as Bernard Herrmann's best.

Yet finally what keeps any of this good and evil, light and dark from becoming ludicrous or simple-minded is the power and the purity, if you will, of Lynch's conviction. It's hard to speak of a film so clotted with dark images of sex and sexual violence as pure, but it's just that. Lynch may be the Jimmy Stewart of the hallucinatory vision; as foursquare and endearingly corny as Jeffrey's dumb shiny black shoes.

Lynch believes in good as ardently as he taps into decadence. (You couldn't write a speech like Dern's about love and robins without truly believing it.) But keep a careful eye on his chirrupy; in a Lynch movie, the robins of happiness have a little something stomach-turning to offer too.

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