Lost in the Movies: Blue Velvet & The Duchess of Langeais (Lynch/Rivette Retrospective #1)

Blue Velvet & The Duchess of Langeais (Lynch/Rivette Retrospective #1)

This is the first entry in a series covering the Lynch/Rivette retrospective at Lincoln Center, running from December 10 - 22. I attended a double feature of Blue Velvet (1986) and The Duchess of Langeais (2007) on the evening of Friday, December 11.

In spite of many memorable images, the work of David Lynch and Jacques Rivette is often defined by what we can't see: whispered conspiracies and chimerical secret societies, supernatural pathways that might exist only in the characters' heads, or buried links and splits establishing two characters as one or one character as two. Almost always, these hidden clues connect different worlds or people, speaking to these characters' hunger as they blindly grope their way toward deeper connection, spiritual or collective (a process envisioned literally in a rehearsal scene from Rivette's 1971 magnum opus Out 1). In Lynch's Blue Velvet and Rivette's The Duchess of Langeais (based on Honore de Balzac's History of the Thirteen) this impulse appears in its most basic form: the longing of one human being for another. Despite this simplicity, both films illustrate how ugly and cruel that longing can become, how easily a desire for the whole becomes enmeshed in abusive power plays. Few other double features will depict this desire as being so hopelessly futile, so destructive and dangerous.

The deep blue curtains that open Blue Velvet (and, for me at least, Lincoln Center's Lynch/Rivette retrospective) never rise or fall. They are simply there, shimmering and swaying with an almost three-dimensional texture on the big screen, establishing a constancy reflected explicitly in the final words of the film. Dorothy Vallens (Isabella Rosellini) croons, "And I still can see Blue Velvet through my tears," suggesting an eternal "world of blue" in which the characters must swim or suffocate. This is one of Lynch's most claustrophobic films, with Dorothy forced to endure ritualistic sex games inside her apartment (called, by an admiring Rivette, "the creepiest set in the history of cinema"), while Jeffrey Beaumont's (Kyle MacLachlan) far more pleasant small-town cage is unsettling in its cheerful superficiality, a surface he is desperate to move beyond. Other Lynch films, Eraserhead particularly, suggest equally enclosed worlds but they also promise miraculous escapes. Only Sandy Williams (Laura Dern) hints at transcendence when she recites her "robins dream," a monologue so distant from the film's dominant realities that many viewers respond with incredulous laughter.

The character who moves with the most freedom and holds the most power is in fact the one whose world is most enclosed. Frank Booth (Dennis Hopper), violent, profane, and domineering, is defined by his desperation. The wild emotions he inspires in others - Jeffrey's painful loss of innocence, Dorothy's confused mixture of agony and ecstasy - are probably not felt by him. Frank is not unchecked passion, he is raging impotence. When assaulting Dorothy he doesn't remove his clothes and appears to avoid actual intercourse (according to the script, he ejaculates in his pants). This is rape boiled down to its psychological essence: everything in this attack - the verbal abuse, the physical assault, the emotional manipulation - is real except for the sex. Frank is a walking, talking, shouting void - the emptiness at the center of the storm that wreaks havoc without directly experiencing the wreckage himself: a lack that only increases his fury. Only in his wake can Dorothy and Jeffrey transfigure his animal energies into something more intimate and erotic. Frank is an agent of narrative transformation who wishes he could be a protagonist.

The seduction and violation in The Duchess of Langeais are also defined by negativity and absence. Spotting the brooding Napoleonic War hero Gen. Armand de Montriveau (Guillame Depardieu) at a soiree, the Duchess Antoinette de Langeais (Jeanne Balibar) concocts a plan to toy with the powerful but unsophisticated officer. After their first flirtation he walks home assuring himself, "The Duchess de Langeais will be my mistress" but their dalliance does not take the form he expects. Instead, the Duchess refuses to sleep with or even kiss him. She listens to his stories, feigns illness, and professes religious hesitations all while continuing to indicate that perhaps next time it will be different. It never is, and finally de Montriveau changes the dynamic by kidnapping and threatening his would-be mistress, then refusing to see her despite numerous entreaties. As he tells her, relating an allegorical anecdote about the weapon that beheaded Charles I, "you have touched the axe." (The film's French title translates as "Don't touch the axe!")

When I discovered that Blue Velvet had been paired with The Duchess of Langeais I immediately sought parallels between Dorothy/Jeffrey and the Duchess/de Montriveau. In both cases we have a young man returning from afar (college in Jeffrey's case, Africa in de Montriveau's), captivated by a mysterious, sophisticated woman who alternates between beguiling mystery, harsh control, and submissive abasement ("Hit me," pleads Dorothy; "Put your brand right on my forehead," sighs the Duchess...and she isn't being metaphorical). Halfway through The Duchess I realized that de Montriveau might be much closer to Frank than Jeffrey. Like Frank, he is overwhelmed by a sensation of beauty and grace which he knows he does not possess, and also like Frank, he reacts with brute force and nasty accusations, well aware that he is hurting himself as well as her. It's not quite accurate to say there's no Jeffrey in the world of The Duchess of Langeais; better to observe that the film's Jeffrey turns into a Frank before our eyes. Blue Velvet hints at this same possibility but ultimately chooses to keep the good guy and bad guy separate, leaving later Lynch works to blur the dark and light.

In a teaser for the double feature, Lincoln Center paired two scenes via split-screen: Jeffrey watches Dorothy sing in the Slow Club while de Montriveau hears the Duchess play the organ in a Spanish convent. This is an astute match-up, but it would have been appropriate to go a bit further, choosing the clip of Frank crying as he listens to Dorothy's torch song. As in the convent scene, the savage soul is briefly tamed by music but we know, with building dread, that this poignant sensitivity will culminate in abuse rather than affection. There are even startling parallels in the turmoil of the two performers; as their directors were well-aware, both Dennis Hopper and Guillaume Depardieu lived lives haunted by drug addiction although Hopper recovered a year before Blue Velvet, while Depardieu died from viral pneumonia at 37 a year after The Duchess. Beset by a series of health crises (including the loss of a leg which lends the wounded de Montriveau his distinctive limp), Depardieu brings a pained vulnerability to the role. This further complicates his identification as hero or villain.

The Duchess reaches its climax when de Montriveau fails to save his object of affection, much as Blue Velvet was originally supposed to end with Dorothy's suicide. Then again, maybe the Duchess, dying a world-weary nun, has been saved...from de Montriveau. Both films conclude with the protagonist appearing to emerge from a dream: Jeffrey wakes up on his sunny lawn; de Montriveau stares at the sea as a friend tells him to think of his experience as a book which has now been closed. These endings cast doubt on the ability to survive dangerous desires and so the films withdraw, restoring a world of order while hinting that those dark threshold experiences were more real, however unsustainable. This air of restraint, a sensation that experimental impulses are being hemmed in, also characterizes the narrative structure and visual style of both films. These stories are far more straightforward than Lynch's later works or Rivette's earlier breakthroughs and the material is delivered with an unusual formal classicism, sustaining conventional narrative illusions that both directors would poke holes in elsewhere in their oeuvres. As such, the double bill makes a perfect entryway into the Lynch/Rivette series. We will quickly move beyond such hesitation - and arguably, beyond such pessimism.

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