Jammed packed with sex, violence and the filmmaker’s unique brand of surrealism, David Lynch’s Blue Velvet (1986) continues to shock audiences nearly thirty years after its initial release. Derived from Bobby Vinton’s 1963 song of the same name, this neo-noir classic contains numerous motifs and symbols that communicate the film's message via its own cinematic language, all the while signaling to the audience what a strange world they've entered.
Insects are among the film's most striking recurring symbols. During the film’s opening scene, Jeffrey's (Kyle MacLachan) father suffers a stroke while watering his lawn. As he lies there, paralyzed, the camera reveals a swarm of insects underneath the well-kept yard. The discovery implies that, beneath this Reaganesque paradise, dangers like the villainous Frank (Dennis Hopper) lurk just beneath the surface. References to insects continue to appear throughout Blue Velvet. An emblem of one appears on Frank’s gas mask, and Jeffrey poses as an exterminator to gain access to Dorothy’s (Isabella Rossellini) apartment. It is also ironic that the femme fatale’s apartment is infested with the same bugs that are associated with her family’s captor.
On the way home from visiting his father in the hospital, Jeffrey discovers an ant-infested severed ear, which we later learn belongs to Dorothy’s husband. As the camera zooms into the ear, this serves as an introduction to Jeffrey’s dark journey. The bugs warn us of what we may encounter, while the ear -- which evokes an association with storytelling or listening but is here unnaturally detached from the body -- confirms the feeling that something is amiss. As we enter the darkness within the ear, we grasp that we are not in safe territory.
From this point, the use of light and darkness is also highly symbolic. After Jeffrey learns of the shady underworld beneath his seemingly wholesome hometown, Sandy (Laura Dern) tells him of a dream she had where our world was once consumed by only darkness -- but then a bright light and thousands of robins emerging from the black void altered this hopeless phase. At this point in his young life, Jeffrey knows very little about the outside world. However, he is a voyeur who is ultimately drawn to the darker parts of life that up until now have remained obscured from his sight. As Jeffrey descends further and further into the dark underbelly, he retreats away from the light, literally and figuratively, and gradually becomes covered in shadow.
With the exception of one scene, wherein Jeffrey stakes out one of the villain's places of business, Frank is never exposed to sunlight. He is always seen in darkness. Notably, when Jeffrey submits to Dorothy’s desire that he hit her during a night of passion, the mysterious candle that has been burning throughout the film goes out. Although he doesn’t share the same level of depravity as Frank, who beats and rapes Dorothy, the snuffing out of the candle’s flame symbolically marks a moral low-point for Jeffrey.
At the end of the film, the audience appears to emerge from Jeffrey’s ear. This mirrors the decent the audience made into the severed ear towards the beginning of the film, implying that Jeffrey’s troubles have come to an end. At this point, Jeffrey and Sandy also spot a robin, like the ones in Sandy’s dream, eating a bug, like the ones that represent Frank. Thus, the film's resolution indicates that light has conquered the darkness, and good has won out over evil.
Along the way, Blue Velvet also makes references to The Wizard of Oz (1939). In addition to bearing the same name as the Kansas ingenue, Lynch's damsel in distress wears a pair of red shoes similar to the ruby slippers that The Wizard of Oz’s Dorothy (Judy Garland) wore on the yellow brick road. Most importantly, this Dorothy is also is stuck in a dream (in this case, a nightmare) that she desperately wishes to escape. With the exit from the darkness in the end, Blue Velvet suggests that the innocent can wake up from even this darkest of dreams.
Light and dark, robins and insects, red shoes, and the severed ear are certainly memorable hallmarks of this 1980’s cult classic. The neo-noir Lynchian masterpiece employs these motifs to symbolize the never-ending battle between good and evil -- not just between the people like Jeffrey and Frank but also between the internal forces struggling within the curious voyeur and, ultimately, in all of us.