A Walk Through Blue Velvet in 2019

By Kristiana Gambuti

Lumberton, North Carolina. White picket fences, red roses, smiling neighbors, everything washed over in a nauseating too-bright white light. It is the playing ground for the sentimental, for good boys and nice girls to eat at diners, sneak kisses at prom and maybe, get a little lucky. It is also the backdrop for David Lynch’s Blue Velvet, the battle ground for the traditional and the strange to come face-to-face, to fight to the death or worse, —to the happily ever after.

As a 2019 viewer, coming more than thirty years after the film’s release, Blue Velvet feels like Fifty Shades of Gray turned inside out, and peeled back a layer or two. There’s a shocking honesty to Lynch’s cinematic frame that cuts through the veiled innocence of sexuality with bruising force. It’s psychological. It’s embodied. It’s an invitation into something that feels wildly out of control yet deliberate. Unhinged yet calculated. Each time I watch it, I’m left with a sinking sick feeling in my stomach that is somewhere between repulsion and frenzy. 

Further out and deeper in we go. Into and through a severed ear. Darker and darker, still.

                                                                                                            Now it’s dark

        Our boy Jeffrey—coming of age, taking care of his ailing father and putting on his manly pants to solve a crime—finds himself closeted. Though there are certainly hintings at homosexual leanings (despite his left-ear earring attempt to assure both us and himself otherwise), Jeffrey is still stuck in a state of innocence. He, along with the audience, is only just awakening his arousal for the strange, for the naughty, for the hidden. “There are opportunities in life for gaining knowledge and experience. Sometimes it’s necessary to take a risk” he eagerly explains to the virginal, all-American Sandy, revealing to her his plan to spy on Dorothy Vallens. And risk he does, mounting the darkened stairwell to apartment 710, [1] his garb matching the shadow of the scene. Perhaps to his surprise, perhaps to his elation, Jeffrey’s intro into the dark underbelly of his seemingly picture-perfect town comes through not one but two motherfuckers.

 Dorothy, the first motherfucker.[2] The mother of a taken little boy who stays alive to appease and pleasure the crazed kidnapper. Dorothy exposes Jeffrey’s lurking.  And thinking he desires to get off by watching girl’s undress, she stimulates him. Fear and excitement—a knife pointing his way, him pointing her way—overtakes him. Touched by a mother figure, teetering on the edge of youth and manhood, a mixture of pleasure and pain. Touched by the velvety caress of a woman with far more experience, on all fronts. Dorothy dominates Jeffrey, leaving him terrified and haunted yet wanting more.

        Frank—daddy, baby, the second motherfucker.[3] With both a Freudian Oedipal complex and domestic violence at play, Frank’s sadomasochism is watched by Jeffrey through the slits in the closet door much like a child watching a scary moving through the gaps in his fingers. He is stuck in the closet and forced to watch. Yet he also has agency in his choice to not look away. The viewer, joining in his voyeuristic expeditions, sees only what he sees, the camera framing Dorothy’s blue velvet and Frank’s dark leathery mass against the shaded pink of the walls and carpet. Undeniably disturbing, you want to both see and not see, to both get closer and keep at a distance.

                                                                                                            Now it’s dark

        And for Jeffrey, it cannot be unseen. He emerges from the darkness back into the light, but things are not the same. He is in, a soon-to-be motherfucker himself. Following his first night at Dorothy’s, a stretched-out version of his own father’s face, with labial [4] qualities, alongside Frank’s scowl dances through his nightmare. Both father figures are sick—Jeffrey’s dad in the physical sense and Frank in the grotesquely psychological. Yet in the coddling safety of his childhood bedroom, Jeffrey’s spooky vision maps the duality of his worlds, one with dutiful allegiance and the other with sexual talons, the two occupying competing spaces. Detective or pervert—we wonder what will become of our goodest boy.

        One thing for certain is Jeffrey’s romanticization of both Sandy and Dorothy, the homecoming queen and the dark temptress. Lynch couldn’t have done better with the choices of Laura Dern and Isabella Rossellini. Yet he is fucking (literally) with the storied Western binary. In Sandy, we have the promise of robins, the cotton-candy-sweet, blond blue-eyed daydream. A future with Sandy includes some combination of blissful marriage, comfortable suburbia, dinner at 6 and wine nights with the girls. Yet even she is a motherfucker, [5] of sorts. Though having all the right good girl qualities on paper, she flirts with the edges of mystery, encouraging Jeffrey’s curiosities. She cannot herself move beyond the confines of her 50s-esque, innocent-small-town-girl archetype, but she can bend it a little, making her just a degree or two off-center and no doubt damaging to her daytime-television mother’s veneer. On the other hand, Dorothy, the dark-haired creature of the night, holds the key to sexual freedom and experimentation for Jeffrey. She pushes and pulls, demanding he leave while begging him to stay. She offers Jeffrey the opportunity to toy with domination and submission, opening his little boy mind to the endless possibilities. But, with the both/and nature of Lynch, Dorothy is not simply a perverter. Her role as tortured mother and wife softens her darkened exterior, shedding light on her twisted need for affection and affirmation. Jeffrey momentarily enjoys the company of both women.

                                                                                                            Now it’s dark

 The macabre quickens and hastily unfolds from Frank’s joyride onward. Frank and Jeffrey, both proudly donning the status of motherfucker, are shrunken back by their emasculation—Frank’s by Ben, Jeffrey’s by Frank. Smeared lipstick on their faces, pseudo-cuckolds, they struggle to maintain their dominance and control, both wanting something they cannot fully have. They separate, only to meet again in the film’s final hours.

        After Jeffrey and Sandy attend a school dance together, a climactic meeting occurs. A cringeworthy encounter between the twisted and the pure, between dream world and real—only it is becoming increasingly difficult to tell which is which. And, of course, motherfuckers are back. First, Mike. Captain of the football team, high school jockey, a boring and insignificant inclusion to the story if not for his taunting asking if the naked, front-lawn Dorothy is Jeffrey’s mother. Mike, feeling sheepish from his toe-deep mix-up with the dark side of Lumberton, immediately apologizes. But his beefy, douchebaggery earns him title of motherfucker [6] and adds yet another layer of dramatic irony. The literal answer to his question, as we all know, is no. But the actual experience is not so straight. 

        Dorothy again. Bare, open, exposed. “He put his disease in me” she repeats, much to the disgust of Sandy and the utter shock of her mother. She reminds us all of her motherfucking, of her seduction power over Jeffrey, over Frank. Like petty, teenager, girl-on-girl drama, Dorothy wants ownership of Jeffrey that does not belong to Sandy. And Lynch makes us give her at least part of it—after all, we just came from the typical boy-takes-girl-to-dance scene, the normal climax in the cheesy, romantic movie. Yet Lynch flips it to be one of most non-exciting events. We startle ourselves of how unamused we are by the goo-goo gah-gah make out of Jeffrey and Sandy. Sweet flirty girl gets with somewhat mysterious but in the end heroic boy. Overdone, overplayed. Instead, though unearthly, brutal and often times repulsive, the dark taint and violence of Dorothy is what draws us uncomfortably closer.

 In and out, in and out, oscillating between light and dark, the plot barrels forward, both coming together and disintegrating. The bad guys are good guys are bad guys, two dead men are set up in a room like fine art, and a murderer gets murdered.

It’s a strange world, indeed.

        But “it’s all over” Detective Williams tells Jeffrey, beckoning him out of the closet for the last time. Innocence stripped long before, Jeffrey’s leaving the closet this time is not his entering into the hidden underbelly but his exit from it. Ethereal, choir-esque music pervades the last five minutes of the film and it really does feel all over.  The bad man is dead, the mother is reunited with her son, the good guy gets the good girl. The happy music plays, the robins come. What more could we want? Yet we are disturbed—not because it was far too dark but because it is far too bright.

. . .

And we are through to the other side, backing out of Jeffrey’s ear and back into the façade of white picket fences, red roses and smiling neighbors. A sigh of relief? Blue Velvet takes place between two ears. All inside our heads, perhaps, after all. Or maybe, simply in one ear and out the other, the illusion of sanity maintained.

But we cannot ignore the exhilaration of the film. I close my eyes to the screen and feel blue velvet under my skin—she put her disease in me. And like Jeffrey, we are left with the small seed of nagging thought:


It’s too bad that all these things
Can only happen in my dreams
Only in dreams, in beautiful dreams


[1] Certainly non-coincidental that Dorothy’s apartment number, 710, is the stoner term for marijuana concentrates. Upside down and backwards, it spells OIL—smooth, silky, in the same family as velvet. And upside down and backwards is exactly where we are, after all

[2] A mother who fucks

[3] One who fucks a mother

[4] Referring to both types of female lips

[5] One who fucks a mother, not in the sexual sense, but in a ruin or damaging sense. Ruining the mother’s image, damaging the suburban persona

[6] The kind that is the expletive, the vulgar North American slang for that guy, like Mike, who really just pisses you off


Kristi Gambuti is an undergraduate student at Duke University studying Psychology and English.