1980s, Auteurs, Crime/Detective, Film Noir, Horror/Eerie, Mystery, Romance

Blue Velvet (1986)

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Director/Screenwriter: David Lynch

By Roderick Heath
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David Lynch’s name is synonymous with a creative style close to a genre in itself. His is an outlandish, numinous, discomforting aesthetic, purveyed across several art forms, where the texture of dreams, and nightmares, can suddenly colonise an apparently stable and homey world, where humans peel apart and become separate entities coexisting in different versions of reality. Lynch has purveyed that style since his early short experimental films, and the grotesque and startling debut feature Eraserhead (1976), a film that so impressed Mel Brooks he hired him to direct the Oscar-nominated hit The Elephant Man (1980), where Lynch successfully synthesised his unique imaginative reflexes with more familiar storytelling needs. Lynch has managed to sustain a truly unique status as America’s homespun surrealist, through works like his Palme d’Or-winning Wild at Heart (1990) and the acclaimed Hollywood fugue Mulholland Drive (2001), as well as the various iterations of the TV show Twin Peaks. That Lynch has managed to pull off such a career against seemingly every current of contemporary fiscal and cultural impulse is in itself an achievement, but it’s also one Lynch has managed with sly concessions to, and annexations of, conventional screen culture. Perhaps the only other voice in modern American film so resolutely self-directed is Terrence Malick, and the two stand in near-perfect polarity: Lynch is as dedicated to trying to charting his sense of the tension between conscious and unconscious as Malick has been in describing his vision of the transcendent.
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As specific and perpetual as a beloved figure of the wilful fringe as Lynch seems now, there was a time in his career when he was a hot property and seemed poised for a relatively ordinary film career. After The Elephant Man he passed on directing Star Wars – Episode VI: Return of the Jedi (1983) to tackle a colossal project, an adaptation of Frank Herbert’s epic sci-fi novel Dune. That project turned out to be dismaying experience for Lynch as it was severely recut and released to poor reviews and paltry box office. And yet the experience of it seemed to have an ultimately positive effect on Lynch, who reoriented himself with newly gained technical expertise, and looked for a new way to express himself on his own terms whilst refusing to retreat back into cinema marginalia. Where Eraserhead had taken place entirely in a dream-state filled with the furniture of Lynch’s deeply private anxieties and associative lodestones, with The Elephant Man and Dune he laboured to articulate his feel for the oneiric in coherent contexts, illustrating the awe of the Victorian bourgeoisie when faced with strangeness through a web of dreams that equated industrial grime with natural travesty in the former, and in the latter depicting the process of the human tuning into the music of the universe perfectly enough to orchestrate it.
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With his next film, Blue Velvet, Lynch began a push back in the other direction, slowly nibbling away at his own carefully falsified notion of normality and subjecting it to the perverting whim of the id, and he managed the mischievous project of remaking a subcontinent of pop culture in his own image. Lynch also pulled off a remarkable feat in relation to Horror cinema, as he found a way of making the form arty and respectable. After the days of high expressionist cinema, when it was the genre most fit for artistic experimentation thanks to the likes of The Cabinet of Dr Caligari (1919) and Nosferatu: A Symphony in Terror (1922), horror films to be accepted as “elevated” horror has to offer a certain level of deconstructed generic impetus and provide carefully parsed and obvious metaphors for various worldly concerns, or apply showy visual touches. Lynch has had a lot of influence on ambitious horror cinema in this mode of late, but in other ways he remains radically at odds with it. Lynch worked to create a charge of disquiet by boiling down a nightmarish lexicon of sights, sounds, and ideas, sometimes but not necessarily desiring to link them to any clear sociological or psychological idea, beyond his certainty that to be human is to be filled with some dank and distressing impulses as well as noble and upright ones. Blue Velvet is the film on which Lynch struggled to articulate the strangely alluring gravity of the dark side, and it remains probably his finest articulation of his obsessions as well as his most controlled.
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Blue Velvet sets images at war with each-other, less any concept of the real world than of inherited ways of seeing it. The film’s acerbically humorous starting point relies on recognition of the paraphernalia of Lynch’s childhood, an idealised sense of small-town Americana, the kind celebrated in ‘50s TV shows and gently tested in beloved texts like the Hardy Boys and Nancy Drew mystery books, places based around an assumption of a settled and harmonious social system and hierarchy. Lynch sets up his war in the opening scene as he offers languorous shots of well-scrubbed normality – children out of school crossing the street, waving firemen on the back of a fire truck – that aim for a hyperbolic sense of placid, wholesome Americana. A suburban father, idly watering his green lawn, suffers a stroke, collapses in agony on the grass, and lies in a writhing fit, his dog playfully snapping at the spurting hose in his agonised grip. Lynch’s camera descends amongst the grass fronds to study black beetles seething in monstrous reign over this level of existence, under the feet of the soft, pink titans of the higher. The felled patriarch is Tom Beaumont (Jack Harvey), and his son Jeffrey (Kyle MacLachlan) returns to his home burg of Lumberton on hearing the news.
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Jeffrey is confronted by the grotesque sight of his once-strong and commanding father stuck in a hospital bed with a stern array fixed about his head to keep it still and secure, and the two men weep at the inevitable spectacle of the younger seeing the elder in such a state. Walking back homewards across an empty lot, Jeffrey happens upon a disquieting find: a severed human ear, with ants crawling over it. Lynch’s camera delves into the decaying hunk of flesh, which becomes a world unto itself as the grass did, as if it’s not merely a receiver for sonic vibrations but a source of them, soundtrack filling with echoic reverberations and cavernous drones. Jeffrey coaxes the tattered organ into a paper bag and takes it to a policeman friend of his father’s, Detective Williams (George Dickerson). Jeffrey later goes to Williams’ house to ask him if the investigation is turning up anything up. The cop is politely obfuscating, but Jeffrey then encounters the detective’s beautiful high school senior daughter, Sandy, who reports to him some of the snatches of gossip she’s managed to overhear, talk that suggests a nightclub singer named Dorothy Vallens (Isabella Rossellini) is somehow mixed up with the sordid business. Jeffrey talks Sandy into helping him infiltrate Dorothy’s apartment, posing as a pest control worker, and he manages to purloin a set of keys and return in the night to feast upon scenes he quickly realises no-one should have to see.
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“I can’t tell if you’re a detective or a pervert,” Sandy tells Jeffrey as he readies for his adventure, to which he responds with a crooked grin: “That’s for me to know and you to find out.” The exchange is hilarious in its own, Mojave-dry fashion as it identifies the blend of bemusement and eccentricity underscoring the two young would-be heroes’ mission to do a good turn: the thrill of becoming has its own strange momentum, already dragging them both along. But the exchange also elucidates Lynch’s general proposition. Jeffrey’s desire to solve a mystery also opens up frontiers of tempting experience and the chance to escape mere voyeurism to become an actor, and quickly learning the cost of complicity such a step demands. Sandy is first a voice speaking from the dark – “Are you the one who found the ear?” she questions Jeffrey from the shadows before stepping into the light as the fresh-minted image of a certain ideal of American beauty, at once stolid and ethereal. Sandy has a football-playing boyfriend, Mike (Ken Stovitz), but she quickly falls under the sway of slightly older, slightly more worldly Jeffrey, who entices her with an adventure into illicit zones but remains plastic-wrapped as the perfect blonde suburban virgin. Dorothy is the eternal contrast, dark and mysterious, breathing out her husky strains in performing her version of Bobby Vinton’s song that give the film its title, beckoning to Jeffrey as the incarnation of mature sexuality and the allure of the forbidden.
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Dorothy hears Jeffrey in his hiding place and drags him out under duress with a kitchen knife in her hand. Dorothy is initially anxious and furious, but that quickly dissipates as she considers the handsome young man in her thrall, and in short order has him strip down, seemingly excited by having a pillar of tall and tender young male flesh at bay. Trouble is, Jeffrey isn’t the only one in thrall to her gravitas. As he hides again in her cupboard, he’s obliged to watch as into Dorothy’s apartment bursts Frank Booth (Dennis Hopper), walking incarnation of the id, a violent and thuggish gangster who’s taking over Lumberton’s drug trade but seems more concerned with keeping Dorothy on a short, tight leash. Jeffrey is treated to a brutal spectacle as Frank repeatedly punches Dorothy, stuffs scraps of actual blue velvet in both their mouths, and rapes her on the carpet. Tables are soon turned as Dorothy, left alone again as if the invasion never happened, drags Jeffrey to her bed to be initiated into the nocturnal universe. Soon Jeffrey is her regular lover whilst romancing Sandy in a more familiar daylight fashion. Jeffrey makes the leap from investigator-voyeur to self-cast hero in a dark moral drama, except the morality proves slippery and the drama frightening in ways Jeffrey can’t yet conceive. Dorothy soon demands he start hitting her in bed, out of some virulent strain of masochism infecting her, in a way that erases the first few layers of insulation between Jeffrey and “people like Frank” as he describes them. Jeffrey experiences dreams in which Frank is a roaring beast of the veldt, and the fires of transgressive passion are first a flickering candle and then a roaring curtain as he taps the same vein of visceral sexuality in himself.
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The epic scene of revelation and transgression in Dorothy’s apartment sees Jeffrey dragged through one of the film’s many invisible but palpable barriers of behaviour, seeing him pass from concerned young man to voyeur to active participant in the sick drama with startling speed, and indeed, with little real choice. Lynch conflates Hitchcockian tropes at high speed – the snooping neighbour of Rear Window (1954), the wicked knife of Psycho (1960) – and then moves right past them to actively portray the stew of desire and complicity Hitchcock was usually obliged by censorship and genre parameters to only suggest. The moment where Dorothy strips off her curly wig is both wryly amusing and disquieting, a subtler but in a way more intense illustration of Jeffrey’s violation of her privacy as well as signalling the way Dorothy is forced to live out a kind of drag act, remaking herself in the image of Frank’s (and Jeffrey’s) notion of the feminine mystique. Jeffrey finds himself obliged to dole out brutal force to Dorothy in a way that threatens to upend Jeffrey’s very identity, although it’s Dorothy who later cries out, in pain and ecstasy, that Jeffrey “put his disease inside me,” perhaps the disease of youth and hope, the cruellest infection. It’s cliché to say that heroes and villains are quite often two sides of the same coin; Lynch here studies the edge of the coin. More than that, he approaches drama in a fashion that, although its draws on a panorama of modernist concepts, ultimately reveals itself to work more like ancient myth, its characters talismans for the human condition rather than psychological units unto themselves in the modern manner. Much as Heracles could be cosmic hero and bestial murderer depending on the forces enacted upon him by the universe and fighting all the while to define his true self, Jeffrey contains the seeds of hero and villain within and feels both serpents stirring and uncoiling.
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The drama about him works similarly in a system of sign-play that counts upon the audience recognising Lynch’s codes, but Lynch’s cunning in this regard lies in his understanding how common what he’s conveying is: most everyone shares some version, either personally or inherited through media saturation, of the idyllic landscape of Lumberton. Blue Velvet came out in the waning years of the Reagan presidency, and many took it for a corrosive lampoon on the kind of back-to-the-‘50s false nostalgia Reagan and his ilk propagated and which still lingers in popular discourse. And it certainly is that, although it’s hardly only that. Lynch is genuinely, powerfully fond of that lost idyll even as he seeks to diagnose the forces that make childhood and adulthood such irreconcilable states. Jeffrey is both a player in a highly specific and rarefied story but he’s also any young man who’s been bewildered by the evil at large in the world and startled by the ferocity and kinkiness you can uncover in a lover. Sandy is quick to forgive Jeffrey his transgressions in the name of love, as he acts for her in a similar way that he acts for the audience, the one sent out to report back from the fringes and give loan of vicarious thrills. Meanwhile Lynch writes preparatory sketches for the more volatile dance of the homey and the infernal on Twin Peaks as he notes Jeffrey’s mother (Priscilla Pointer) and chirpy but timorous aunt (Frances Bay) as a perpetually comforting duo about the Beaumont house, and depicts Jeffrey and Sandy sealing their romantic pact in the most traditional manner possible, at a high school dance.
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Part of Lynch’s implication here is that every white picket fence and well-swept porch is a couple forged in a similar furnace of lust and perversity, only cocooned, contained, and finally, slowly dissipated through the carefully contrived paraphernalia of normality. Suburbia is a mechanism designed to drain off and reappropriate erotic energy, like some grand, inverted William Reich invention, keeping extreme passions and lunacies at bay but with the price of leaving its inhabitants crumpling husks like Jeffrey’s father or a tense, cautious sentinel like Williams. The frontier of illicit behaviour, as Jeffrey’s mother warns him, is Lincoln Street, where the tract housing gives way to the urban colonising influence of apartment blocks: when Jeffrey and Sandy do finally stray into that precinct, Angelo Badalamenti’s scoring surges with a melodramatic cue that somehow manages to seem both good-humoured and utterly earnest. Much later in the piece the traffic is reversed, as the petty and quotidian, if by no means unthreatening, encounter between Jeffrey and Mike is cut short by the sudden appearance of Dorothy, stripped naked and covered in bruises, reminiscent of Jean-Léon Gérôme’s painting of “Truth Coming Out Of Her Well” in her appearance as the image of a wraith at once eroticised and ghastly in reporting harsh facts, collapsing into Jeffrey’s arms and sending the Lumberton milksops scurrying for cover. Even an encounter with a guy walking his dog seems charged with strange implication through the way Lynch has the actor stand rigid as if posing for a photo as he looks back at Jeffrey: part of Lynch’s aesthetic lies in the way he seems to be trying to take a perpetual snapshot of the moment when two scarcely reconcilable realities collide.
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Blue Velvet maintains a relatively straightforward storyline and structure by comparison with Lynch’s more overtly dreamlike and associative works. But it also sets up the schismatic souls of his later works like Twin Peaks and Mulholland Drive, where the same person can enact a panoply of stories depending on a multiplicity of divergence points for narrative; only here and there does Lynch suddenly open up a perfectly bizarre vantage where the pull of the void seems to be invoked. Lynch’s surrealist allegiances are studiously cited, particularly Luis Buñuel, with all the infesting insect life and violated body parts, and Edward Hopper, in the careful depictions of apparently bland settings stirring with intimations of strange transformations and repressed forces: Dorothy’s apartment, with its mysteriously wafting curtains and uterine-coloured walls implies this influence in particular. Jeffrey’s brief guise as a bug sprayer calls to mind William Burroughs’ alter ego’s job as a pest controller in The Naked Lunch. Lynch betrays a powerful admiration for Hitchcock but also declares less famed allegiances. He makes nods to the likes of Grace Metalious’ Peyton Place – Hope Lange, who plays Sandy’s mother, had played one of the younger characters in Mark Robson’s 1956 film of that book – and Vincente Minnelli’s films of Some Came Running (1958) and Home From The Hill (1960).
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There’s also a strong dose of a certain school of drive-in heyday cinema: stuff like Jack Arnold’s sci-fi films where monstrosities roam in disguise in the streets of small towns and shrunken men battle monsters in the basement, and his High School Confidential (1958) and similar efforts by the likes of Roger Corman and Edward L. Cahn, cheapjack myths of high school heroes and debutantes discovering the seamy side of life. Badalamenti’s justly hailed score charts Lynch’s poles expertly, shifting from beatniky jazz to surging Technicolor melodrama cues to shimmering synth-pop tones, befitting the film’s carefully smudged sense of era – the setting is nominally contemporary and yet Lumberton is littered with the paraphernalia of past eras and barely seems to have left the ‘50s. Wes Craven’s A Nightmare on Elm Street (1984) had to a great extent beaten Lynch to the punch, conceptually if not in execution, in realising a surrealist aesthetic in a humdrum suburban setting and unleashing destabilising forces upon both that world and the horror-thriller genre as a form. Even the basic situation is the same, a young hero combating a monstrous, barbarically humorous figure come straight out of the collective id to torment and belittle. Meanwhile Lynch seems to be battling his own bruising experience on Dune, remixing images and plot elements from that project into a radical new setting, telling the same essential myth, of a young man who is left rudderless after losing his father and is forced to battle the world’s threat alone. Prophetic dreams play a part in both, as Sandy voices her own augury about the return of robins to Lumberton will spell the end of evil influence.
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Lynch installs some relatively straight-laced thriller twists in the course of the narrative. He introduces Frank’s circle of henchmen and collaborators in capturing Lumberton’s drug trade and singers – and by implication its nocturnal economy of sensual delights. Jeffrey learns that a dark-haired, heavy-set man in a yellow jacket he sees talking with Dorothy and working with Frank is actually one of Williams’ cop colleagues, Detective Gordon (Fred Pickler), who Jeffrey dubs The Yellow Man for his jacket’s colour, with overtones of reference to old weird fiction. Jeffrey’s overgrown Hardy Boy act reaches an apogee as he manages to capture photos of Frank, the Yellow Man, and the rest of the gang associating with a secreted camera. Jeffrey manages to communicate his discoveries to Williams, and after a period of uncertainty as to whether Williams will act upon them, he drops the boom and shoots it out with Frank’s gang in an old-fashioned come-and-get-me-copper shoot-out. Except that Lynch drapes the scene in the languorous romanticism of Ketty Lester’s version of “Love Letters” – love letters having already been described by the ranting Frank as a metaphor for “a bullet from a fuckin’ gun.” This scene manages to both offer a familiar movie convention, the climactic shoot-out, but as with so much of the film subjects it to a bewildering transformation, finding lyrical pathos in the righteous violence, whilst also clearing away all distraction of nominal plot to concentrate on the ultimate confrontation between Frank and Jeffrey.
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Before reaching such an end, Lynch contrives to thrust Jeffrey into Frank’s clutches, caught leaving Dorothy’s apartment just as the gangsters arrive: at once furious and fascinated, Frank steals away the duo for a wild ride in their nocturnal Oz with his goons Raymond (Brad Dourif), Paul (Jack Nance), and Hunter (J. Michael Hunter). They speed around Lumberton’s streets, discovering hidden abodes of bohemian weirdos amongst the hollowed-out shells of the downtown buildings. Frank visits his pal and apparent partner in criminal enterprise Ben (Dean Stockwell), a creature of surface affability and fey calm who nonetheless takes pleasure in casually punching Jeffrey in the gut, and overseeing a bizarre court of riffraff, like a less overtly camp Frank-N-Furter. Ben is a hipster priest stuck away in a corner of small town America, promising silken delights and sadisms, lip-synching to Roy Orbison’s “In Dreams” with a mechanics lamp shining on his face, in one of Lynch’s signature sequences of bizarre pantomime and performance. Orbison’s song seems to have a peculiar totemic value for Frank, particularly the image of the “candy-colored clown,” that both salves his fury and stokes it. It seems to wield a similar power for Lynch himself, a perfect iteration of a purely American, entirely commercial paean to surreal values, delivered by one of the most eerily emotive voices in the pop pantheon, transmuted here through the self-conscious artifice.
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Lynch surveys this scene mostly in master shots with his actors arranged in rows in a manner reminiscent of the forced, flat framings of early silent film, or like hauling his cast out for a curtain call before an invisible audience of mocking deities. Old women sit apparently oblivious to the weird in the background, whilst Dorothy’s son is hidden away in a side room, driving her frantic with apparent rejection. Back out into Frank’s car again, to the town’s fringes where machinery and the waste of industry loom, and Frank taunts Jeffrey as if still trying to work out what species he has at bay. Jeffrey obliges him by demanding he leave Dorothy alone and eventually punches him, an act that stokes Frank to a gleeful fury but also impresses him: “You’re like me,” Frank grants before having him pulled from the car by his goons and held at bay whilst Frank beats him senseless. The promised violence awaiting Jeffrey finally arrives, and yet there’s a suggestion his show of pith, as well as confirming the aspects of commonality between Frank and him, saves his life, as he gains an iota of respect. In the morning, Jeffrey awakens on the ground, bruised and batted, demeaned and disillusioned, but still and alive and in one piece, coughed out of hell’s gullet as something just a little too hard to swallow.
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Part of Lynch’s shrewd humour lies in his way of conceptualising evil, no matter how inflated and perverse, as something readily understandable to a young man like Jeffrey. Frank is a school bully inflated to the nth degree, with his coterie of giggling companions, existing purely to dominate and humiliate. At first Frank might seem too wilfully extreme, too bizarre a creation to offer social commentary. But Lynch makes clear when he glimpses Frank watching Dorothy perform and when he adopts his “well-dressed man” disguise he’s capable of acting sufficiently ordinary to move amongst daylight people. Normality is a guise he puts on but for him the pleasure of, and motive for, his criminal activities is the way they allow him to mostly dispense with his own, specific veil of behaviour, the one that stands between the inner, id-driven man-child that operates through whim and appetite and what it wants, alternating cruel tantrums and displays of jarring, fetishistic neediness that manifests in the need to control. His random habit of plucking out a facemask and huffing on some gaseous intoxicant makes him look like in turn vaguely insectoid and cyborg, a creation born in the primal age and just at home in a post-apocalyptic landscape. He casts Dorothy as lover, mother, slave, and psychic ashtray, needing to know only what it takes to make her conform to his will. It’s a siren song Jeffrey experiences too, the shocking mainlining thrill of walloping pretty white flesh and watching it turn purple. Lynch never tries to state whether Dorothy’s masochistic streak is a by-product of guilt and anxiety over her family or if it’s a more intricate aspect of her nature, and perhaps it doesn’t matter; everyone is the by-product of their grazings against other bodies and wills, forming and malformed. In the end Jeffrey seems to be just as compelled to place himself under Frank’s fist as her, as if he senses pain is a profound contract with reality that must be paid one way or another.
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Part of what makes Blue Velvet so potent is Lynch’s disinterest in acting superior to his dark fantasy, as ironic as his method often seems: he really is the still-naïve Jeffrey asking why there’s evil like Frank in the world. MacLachlan does well in purveying both Jeffrey’s boyishness and the fleeting glimpses of a kinky spirit behind his eyes, and Rossellini justly made a splash not simply by stepping into a part that demanded so much exposure of her flesh but also in making the emotional extremes displayed by Dorothy so vivid. Hopper’s performance gives the film much of its unique charge of lunatic comedy, as the actor took hold of his own wild man image and used it with cunning effect, presenting not the frazzled, fry-brained hippie he’d been taken as since the early ‘70s but a kind of reptilian overlord. It’s a performance in a similar key of outsized, purposefully cartoonish spectacle as Kenneth McMillan’s as Harkonen in Dune, but more skilfully modulated, as Hopper, with slicked-back hair and snapping teeth, paints his mouth with lipstick and glares at MacLachlan with hophead eyes semaphoring the raw fury and glee of untrammelled release of the inner predatory beast.
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The film reaches its apotheosis in grotesquery as Jeffrey enters Dorothy’s apartment in seeking sanctuary, only to find the Yellow Man and Dorothy’s husband both present. The husband is tied a chair, dead, a red patch where his severed ear used to be, a tell-tale scrap of blue velvet jammed in his mouth, his brains spread over the wall behind him. The Yellow Man stands upright, still clinging to life but with a chunk of his skull blown away, portion of brain winking out at the world, nervous system twitching in blank-minded confusion. A shattered TV screen emitting buzzing white noise illustrates the utter nullity of moment and the still-firing synapses of the Yellow Man even though the station signal’s gone entirely blank. Much of Lynch’s modus operandi recalls Freddie Jones’ decrepit ringmaster in The Elephant Man, half-momentously, half-shamefully promising to show you sights you’ve never dreamt of seeing, and might wish you hadn’t after getting an eyeful; this here is Lynch’s most gruesome and startling flourish of showmanship, one Jeffrey surveys in shock but also in speedy assimilation. His rapidly evolving survival instincts immediately give him a plan and the tools to accomplish it, in making use of the Yellow Man’s gun and walkie-talkie, although he only just manages to pull himself up in making use of the radio as Frank can surely hear what he’ll be saying on it, only to realise he can use that against his foe too.
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When Jeffrey returns to the closet he was hiding in earlier, it’s no longer to gain a vicarious glimpse but escape the deadly consequences of his foray. Lynch never bothers to explain just what went down with Frank, the Yellow Man, Dorothy, and the husband. Not that it matters, as Jeffrey, like Phil Marlowe, often stumbles upon the wreckage of human activities, beggared by the results of such competing passions. Jeffrey defeats the demon by summoning his own killer instinct, but Lynch grants him the peace and ease of a lawn chair. He’s surrounded by signs of restored stability: Dorothy playing with her son, his propeller hat back on his head, an ear again explored by the camera but this time still safely connected to Jeffrey’s head, and the robins of Sandy’s dream have come to peck away at the chaos-invoking ants. It’s very tempting, and easy, to describe the concluding scenes as Lynch lampooning the notion of a happy ending. But in calling back to the childlike fantasia of falsity found in pantomime theatre in The Elephant Man, Lynch seems to me to be chasing a shrewder point, about the longing for a restoration to innocence that can only be achieved through falsifying its appearance. This falseness, the fakery, is not indicted as bad for being such; in fact Lynch seems to believe that’s what civilisation is, a well-composed system of agreements not to look at certain things, out of wise fear of where they lead.

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2010s, Erotic

Fifty Shades of Grey (2015)

Director: Sam Taylor-Johnson

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By Roderick Heath

Fifty Shades of Grey, a novel by pseudonymous writer E .L. James, has become that rarest of contemporary phenomena—a novel not aimed at children or young adults that is a true pop-cultural totem. It’s also a very old-fashioned kind of hit, the scandalous bestseller everyone snapped up just to see if it was as deliciously filthy as they hoped. This was no anodyne, run-of-the-mill romance novel, journey-of-growth memoir, arty feminist artefact, or any other chick lit cliché, no, this was an outright erotic novel, harking back to the glory days of The Story of O. and Emmanuelle. And it was not just an erotic novel, but one in which sadomasochism is a crucial theme. The novel broke many rules about what should gain precedence in popular appreciation, not just in subject matter, but also in genesis. The work began life as fan fiction on an online site—the slime ponds on the edges of the great ocean of literary culture—built out of the archetypes presented in Stephanie Meyer’s equally popular, equally derided Twilight novels. Initially published as an ebook and then released in print when it became clear it was going to be something big, Fifty Shades shattered publishing records.

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Whatever magic spot Meyer’s creation had located with her essentially sexless tales of deathless romance, James found, too, and filled in what was missing, providing counterbalance and revelling in the filthy adult side of the fantasy. Nothing particularly original there: erotic spinoffs from popular artworks have long been covert currency, and have gained a powerful online presence since some dirty mind let go with the notion of Kirk and Spock gettin’ it on, giving birth to so-called “slashfic”: since then just about any fictional character you can think of has been in the sack with any other one you can think of in some fetid corner of the internet. James eventually rewrote and expanded her daydream smut to arrive at its current form, but as far as many are concerned, it never quite escaped the status of troubling, parasitic growth on the underbelly of an already embarrassing property.

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As with any cultural phenomenon, What It All Means had to be pinned down, and in the case of a work that disturbed a tenuous balance of acceptability, safely disposed of. Pundits opined, ideologues worried, experts pontificated. Sexy stuff being sexy doesn’t cut it. From my perhaps all-too-male perspective, the book’s success represents both a triumph and a failure of feminism in a dichotomous manner that, far from aberrant, is rather commonplace today. It plays with the old-school fantasy of meeting a rich, handsome guy with issues just dark enough to both alarm and appeal, but also offers a frank, fearless interest in erotic pleasure and questions of agency that are utterly current. The special contempt many saved up for the Twilight tales was merely a manifestation of a certain vestigial, preadolescent contempt by a boy’s club commentariat for things women like compared to the serious business of turning stories where men in spandex punch each other into grand movie epics. Some of that was certainly turned on Fifty Shades, too, combined with the fact that BDSM will inevitably still be a subject of confusion and hostility to many long after we’re all dead. Of course, the book was bad (full disclosure: I tried to read it, but lost interest, ironically, when James reached the stuff everyone else was reading it for). But that was perhaps part of the point. The banal, conversational, pseudo-interior monologue style of writers like Meyer and James has annexed fields of readership long detached from fancier fare, working like mental glycerine.

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Director Sam Taylor-Johnson’s debut film Nowhere Boy (2009) was an intelligent, but frustrating work, mostly because of a low budget that hampered its sense of period, one that suggested her intimate, ambivalent understanding of the stranger routes of desire. When it comes to Fifty Shades, Taylor-Johnson doesn’t quite seem to approve, which is both what makes her film intriguingly contradictory and frustratingly indecisive. It goes virtually without saying that Fifty Shades hardly represents a descent into the darkest, most decadent depths of Sadean frenzy. The way James exploited this turf lends itself immediately to filming because it identifies S&M as such a visual style of eroticism. All that shiny latex and metal looks so damn good, and it is about the perspective of watching things done to the body in a way that can be read by a cinema audience in a manner not so different to the animating spirit many have found lurking in slasher films, where the body is violated to release a certain frustration in the viewer. Just watching two people happily hump in the normal fashion is as dull as dishwater cinematically because the pleasure is exclusive, perhaps as big a reason for the decline in mainstream movie sex after the late ’80s as any of the other cited causes, like AIDS anxiety and resurgent moralism. But Fifty Shades goes all squishy when it contemplates BDSM as an art that involves inflicting and receiving pain, however interlaced with pleasure; the sensatory reality of it all is still a challenge. All of this, now that I think about it, might be largely irrelevant to Fifty Shades of Grey as a standalone work of cinema. For one thing, the film deemphasises the spectacle of transgressive kink almost to the point where it feels like the cherry on the top of the cake, as opposed to the book, where it was the cake.

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Fifty Shades establishes its erotica bona fides quickly, beginning with the arch character names Christian Grey (Jamie Dornan) and Anastasia Steele (Dakota Johnson). Ana is a lit major attending university in Vancouver, WA, and working part-time in a hardware store. When Ana’s roommate and pal Kate (Eloise Mumford), a journalism student working with the college newspaper, falls sick when she’s scheduled to interview Grey, Ana does her a favour and travels to Seattle to do the interview for her. Grey, a young but hugely successful tycoon in the field of something-or-other who’s going to be delivering a speech on their graduation day, stands ensconced in his soaring tower (don’t let us think he’s compensating for anything).

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The moment he and Ana lay eyes on each other, something kindles: Ana, with her doelike eyes and crudely cut bangs worn like a protective helmet against the world’s interest, couldn’t be more different to the Aryan ladies Grey has on staff, which is perhaps part of the appeal. Ana’s intelligent streak sits at odds with a deliberate lack of worldliness—she’s a virgin essentially by choice, having resisted all overtures thus far, including from her photographer pal José (Victor Rasuk). Christian begins to insinuate his way into Ana’s life, visiting her workplace to buy lots of items that don’t quite make sense for home improvement, including cable ties and duct tape, none of which makes the penny drop for the clueless Ana. A rendezvous later over coffee is ended prematurely and confusingly by Christian, who sends her a set of Thomas Hardy first editions as an apology. Ana gets drunk and bold when out partying with José and Kate. She calls up Christian and insults him, which only proves a magnet that draws him to the bar. He sets his adopted brother Elliot (Luke Grimes) on Kate to keep her occupied, and intervenes self-righteously to give José an aggressive shove when he clumsily puts the moves on Ana before whisking her back to his hotel for a chaste night’s sleep.

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After a few vulgar displays of wealthy generosity, Christian has soon swept Ana into his life, but then he introduces her to his dark secret: Christian is a BDSM dominant who wants a relationship with Ana, but only as his submissive who obeys a strict set of rules. The tension in the narrative comes in the uneasy suspension between Christian and Ana’s obvious and powerful everyday attraction and his resistance to the normal constitution of relationships. He tells her, with stern seriousness, “I don’t make love – I fuck – hard,” can’t stand being touched, and insists on sleeping apart from her. After making her sign a nondisclosure agreement, Christian gives her a legally binding contract—I’d like to know how he plans to enforce that over a woman whose total assets to risk amount to a Volkswagen Beetle and a set of used textbooks—that will define their relationship.

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Quickly, however, some of his hard limits start to dissolve as he wrestles with his genuine, calming affection for her, even as Ana is required to start erecting her barriers. He confesses that 16 women have come and gone from his life, perhaps because they couldn’t hack it or, more likely, because they were only too willing to please Christian, who seems torn between the desire to corrupt and a need to find his way back to normal pursuits. Ana, after reacting queasily to a bit of online research, calls for a business meeting with Christian to argue over the specifics (no fisting, vaginal or anal, etc.), and successfully resists his seductive attempts just to prove she can. But resistance has its limits. Christian “rectifies the situation” by taking Ana’s virginity in a sequence that suggests sexuality filtered through high-class perfume ads. Then he introduces her to his “playroom,” his exquisitely appointed torture chamber outfitted with all the accoutrements the up-to-date, upstanding sadist might need.

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In this scene, I felt the pull of something fascinating going on in Fifty Shades of Grey. Where the film plays as a jet-set fantasy with more wealth porn than anything other kind up to this point, the entry of Ana into the playroom had the potent whiff of entry into another, far more primal realm of experience that lies deep within and beyond the lifestyle fetishism. That feeling is exacerbated by Taylor-Johnson’s careful contrast between the visual scheme of the outside world, all steely hues and pastels, and the saturated reds and browns and blacks in the playroom, part Japonaise minimalism and part neo-Victorian nook, as well as the correlation and distinction between the hard-edged modernism of Christian’s favoured environs and the implements for inflicting pain on soft flesh in the playroom. It’s easy to dismiss the covert appeal of Fifty Shades because it is based in the simple, retrograde fantasy of women who want to be swept up by a paternalistic Prince Charming, but here I sensed that wasn’t quite the whole truth, that somewhere within all this fudge is an interest in the strange extremities of human desire.

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In any event, the figure of the rich, remote, intimidatingly formal master (or mistress) with a penchant for arcane speech patterns is one of the key clichés of erotica. The appeal of Fifty Shades, and Twilight, too, with its self-restraining demon lover, lies in the acknowledgement both make of the ways sex is still far more dangerous for women than men, not the least of which is man himself, with both works pleasing on the teasing proximity of anxiety to stimulation. Fifty Shades aims to present outright what most other takes only offer tangentially or through heavily veiled metaphors. This blatant and unashamed approach, and the fact that Taylor-Johnson has crafted a bondage erotica film that seems set to be an actual blockbuster, makes me want to cheer it simply for being.

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Moreover, Taylor-Johnson and screenwriter Kelly Marcel have tried to craft a real film out of James’ infamously ditzy prose and narrative absurdities, tracing the tale as one of Ana’s growth from repressed college girl to a woman strong enough to tell her billionaire boyfriend to fuck off. Part of this serious intent, ironically, expresses itself through a certain level of self-mocking humour used to disarm before getting down to business. At first, the film plays as a toey romantic comedy with a kinky MacGuffin, constantly dropping wry, audience-goading in-jokes (that might well only work if one already has some idea what to expect from this) about what’s in store, woven into Ana and Christian’s duels of words and temperaments. Later, as the dance of desire becomes outright orgy, the tone shifts to one of dark, boding intensity scored to slow, thudding music. Probably the best scene in the film is Christian and Ana’s “business” meeting where they negotiate the specifics of the contract in a boardroom with low mood lighting and burnt-orange décor that suggests a rejected set for an ’80s Ridley Scott thriller, perfect setting for a sequence where the characters square off in tense verbal by-play that deflects their erotic shenanigans. A lot of terrible dialogue from the book makes the transition, sadly, though not without a certain wryness: “I’m fifty shades of fucked up,” Christian murmurs at one stage. I heard a young woman laughingly chide her mother for chuckling at this behind at the screening: “This is serious stuff you know.” Some have said this sort of things points to the fact Fifty Shades’ strong female following is coloured with an ironic fascination, and I can believe that.

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And yet Taylor-Johnson’s Fifty Shades will never become a cult camp classic a la Showgirls (1994) or Mommie Dearest (1982) despite certain similarities because the film is handled with far too much straightforward finesse. Erotic filmmaking is a difficult proposition at the best of times, and with all the strictures of censorship and marketing upon her, Taylor-Johnson has been forced to be shy to a silly extent about some things. Somehow Fifty Shades manages to get to its end credits not only without a single glimpse of penis or even pubic hair (yes, that’s right, there’s more dick in Walk Hard: The Dewey Cox Story, 2007, than in Fifty Shades of Grey). The approach to the messiness of sexuality is absurdly naïve and prim by comparison with John Waters’ later works that sneakily managed to portray utter deviancy as commonplace whilst scarcely showing anything that a censor could get properly hot and bothered about. In fact, I wish Waters could have made this, but he would probably have had Ana and Christian finish up in bed with Kate, Elliott, Ana’s mother, and the Seattle Seahawks in the finale.

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Yet Taylor-Johnson does create some effectively sexy moments, mostly of a vanilla variety, and a montage of stuff the couple get up to once the playroom is put to use, gathers real, if not particularly sensual, power thanks to the strong, rhythmic, trancelike cutting by a team of editors including Anne V. Coates, the editor of Lawrence of Arabia (1962)! Elsewhere, risibility strikes, like during the first sex scene when Dornan is required to slowly unbutton his shirt and reveal his ripped torso with wait-for-it relish: the image of Homer Simpson doing the same thing flashed into my mind, not the sort of epiphany from which many movies can recover. One of the problems with transferring erotica from page to screen lies in the fact that erotic narrative is rarely realistic, but rather a construction of arousal detached from normal limitations and references. In S&M fiction this problem is especially marked because it facilitates the role-playing so often key to the experience, telling tales of unholy pacts, enslavement, abuse, transformation, in which one person becomes the property of another, often in tales that look like horror stories from a slightly different perspective. In short, it’s usually a deliberate rejection of the morally instructive quality expected from artworks (not for nothing was de Sade’s Justine subtitled “Good Conduct Well-Punished”), and inherently anti-PC. Fifty Shades of Grey represents, however, an uneasy compromise between bare-boned erotic fantasy and actual drama. The drama had possibilities as far as that went: the story has a strong similarity to Alfred Hitchcock’s Marnie (1964), as dark, marauding gentleman ensnares a lady he’s fascinated with and wants to dominate, albeit with Marnie’s own hang-ups and culpability removed— and, of course, Johnson is the granddaughter of Marnie herself, Tippi Hedren. The cliché must hold fast: female innocence versus masculine experience. Ana, for all the good work Johnson does in trying to portray her as an intellectual frustrated by the inability of her mind to conquer her body’s kindled needs, strains to be anything more than a one-dimensional Cinderella.

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Another common trope of this sort of thing, perhaps best exemplified on screen by Bernardo Bertolucci’s Last Tango in Paris (1972), Nagisa Oshima’s In the Realm of the Senses (1978), and Roman Polanski’s Bitter Moon (1992), is that of a folie à deux that forms, combusts, and pushes to ever more dangerous and uncontrolled behaviours, entering an Oedipal whirlpool that might only touch bottom with death. Polanski’s film took the same essential plot to a fascinating, but potently nasty place as the older roué introduces his young girlfriend to increasingly intense perversions, only to turn her into a monster who reduces him to an impotent cripple and then makes him watch as she takes his place as destructive seducer. Fifty Shades of Grey initially mimics this structure, but eventually rejects it: it has no intention of losing control, and after all is said and done, doesn’t have any particular sympathy for the lifestyle it exploits. Taylor-Johnson doesn’t seem so much disapproving of S&M so much as James’ indulgence of the fantasy of wilful disempowerment, but the two are far too entwined in the way the story plays out. James annexed the idea Meyer plied so shamelessly, the idea of a transcendental, magnetic love that works something like animal imprinting and must have its way in denial of the good sense of the people beset by it—which is adolescent schlock, of course, but it’s hardly shocking to see it still has a place in our collective daydreams along with fantasies about sailing the ocean blue or sword fighting with Vikings. Taylor-Johnson, for her part, has tried to inject a little adult level-headedness into things and emphasise the degree to which the tale is a dance of attraction and repulsion. The idea of playing schoolgirl fantasy against problematic reality could have yielded fascinating stuff, but James’ source material is too in love with the initial posture of its characters to analyse the divide.

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It could be said that what we do get is just a variation on that old schism—she wants love, he wants sex. Except that she really likes the sex she gets, and we’re told repeatedly that Christian feels unusually drawn to Ana in a manner that sounds like love and wants to be around her because he can feel her healing him. We watch a quiet wrestling match of wills with both Christian and Ana giving and taking. Eventually, however, Ana halts at the threshold of joining Christian in his kink. The degree to which Fifty Shades is actually a deeply square piece of rubber-necking becomes clear in time. Far from being a story of forbidden pleasures, it’s a shallow relationship drama, where the arguments over the demarcations of their union start to feel less and less like preludes to erotic deliria than a vision of the way modern relationships are negotiated enterprises. Although eventually we get some hot sex in the playroom, the bondage is pretty tame, enacted between characters who don’t seem to know they’re stick figures. Moreover, the shift from comedy of sexual manners to psychodrama that defines the second half is inherently weak, in part because the film has little psyche to dramatize, with no intention of spelling out the hints it’s given about Christian’s formative experiences. This might be for the best, because the hints we get point to the lamest kind of pop psychology: Christian was possibly mistreated as a child, ergo, he’s a control freak and S&M fan. There’s stuff about his uncomfortable relationship with his adoptive family, with Marcia Gay Harden earning an easy paycheque as his patrician mother, and a conversation about the mysterious older woman who initiated Christian into the BDSM lifestyle when he was a tender 15 years old, whom Ana dubs “Mrs Robinson.”

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In this aspect of James’ tale, Taylor-Johnson may well have found her special mojo, considering that Christian readily recalls her conceptualisation of young John Lennon in Nowhere Boy as a natural-born heartbreaker whose own damaged personality will be cosseted rather than liberated by great success at a cost to the women in his life. But one major problem with Fifty Shades of Grey is that, like everything else these days, it’s been franchised to the max: James penned two sequels where this stuff gets worked out. This leaves the movie with scarcely any plot and without the kind of spiralling psychosexual lunacy that might fire things up. After a while, the story completely jams up, marking time with a pointless digression to Georgia, as Ana visits her mother and Christian follows her, and a sequence where Christian takes Ana gliding, replete with tedious thematic underlining: oh look, Ana’s lost her fear of flying. I’d like to hear what Erica Jong’s got to say about all this. The film cannot countenance either the possibility of Ana finding fulfilment cocooned in leather and kept in a box in Christian’s playroom, which would be one extreme of the fantasy, or the idea that she might become a domme herself, and one day turn the whip on Christian’s pasty ass, another extreme.

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The film does reach a kind of conclusion, one that also suggests an inescapable recommencement, but also inevitably invites coitus interruptus quips, as Ana, frustrated with this eddying state they’ve found themselves in, gets Christian to try out his tastes at full force. Ana is shocked as she realises that Christian has a need that has nothing to do with sexuality and everything to do with transferring a deeply humiliated rage and sorrow onto someone else. This precipitates a break-up that forms the film’s surprisingly abrupt coda, which I found reasonably effective, as it suited Taylor-Johnson’s take on this fare; everyone else around me groaned in frustration, which is also understandable. It’s the old story. Boy meets girl, boy flogs girl on the rump with a belt a few times, boy loses girl. By movie’s end it’s impossible to escape the feeling that Fifty Shades of Grey has simply upped the ante on Cecil B. DeMille’s winning formula for servicing the audience’s id by letting it get a good gander at forbidden fruit, whilst also reassuring us that we remain superior and that our judgement and moral vantages are right and good.

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Dakota Johnson is the film’s focal point and its real buoy. Johnson portrays the slow bloom of Ana, which stems from both resisting and indulging her temptations, with great skill. The scene where she manages to draw Christian into dancing for a few moments, and then breaks away from him to twirl on her own in gauche, girlish happiness, is the sort of moment that crystallises star careers; it’s such a pity that this moment shows up how facile and lugubrious much of what’s surrounding her is. Likewise, her subtle register puts across the key moments where Ana is confronted by just how difficult her new love life is to explain to others. Dornan made an eye-catching debut as the thinking woman’s stud muffin in Sofia Coppola’s Marie Antoinette (2006) where he played the titular queen’s lover Axel von Fersen. He’s competent as Christian: his regulation hard body is matched by the seemingly permanent half-smile affixed to his lips, which suggests no matter how dank things might get, it’s not so serious. But he’s the one left holding the bag here, because the film has all but neutered Christian: the sense of imperious entitlement and emotional numbness the character requires has been toned down as far as possible. Whilst this undoubtedly took some of the edge off the character’s most arrogant, intrusive acts that might look awfully like stalking from a less buff, charming billionaire, it essentially leaves that character without any bite and thus no real reason for existing. It’s easy to imagine Robert Pattinson in his David Cronenberg-ised persona from Cosmopolis (2012) as a perfect Christian, but casting him would surely have been too meta. The ultimate frustration of Fifty Shades of Grey is that it’s neither gleeful camp festival nor genuinely interesting tale of sexual gamesmanship, but stuck between the two. Much like its heroes, its own scrupulousness has doomed it to eternal dissatisfaction—at least until the sequel.

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