Che Vuoi? in Blue Velvet

One of the most interesting characters in Lynch’s Blue Velvet must certainly be Dorothy Valens, the mother/wife of Donnie/Donald, the sexual slave of Frank Booth, the lover of Jeffrey Beaumont, and the resident of room 710.

We initially learn about her as the “strange” neighbor subject often discussed in Sandy’s father’s friends’ cases: she comes to us as evidence that the most seemingly innocent small-town has its perversions. But we are quickly stupefied by her conduct when she holds Jeffrey at knifepoint: does she mean to castrate our hero or to give him fellatio?

To my eye, Jeffrey asks the essential question of the film while in bed with her: What do you want?

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Of course, narratively, and as a mother, Dorothy wants her son back. We see this in two particular places in the film, once at “(THIS IS) IT”, or Ben’s apartment, where she is allowed to visit Donnie, and then again at the end of the film, where she is reunited with Donnie, who wears his propeller hat and mimics a flying plane.

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While this might seem to be an innocent, even unspeakably pitiable (and essentially humane) desire, the film tells us otherwise. Firstly, we are barred from entering the room with her when she visits Donnie, who proceeds to upset his mother quite audibly. We don’t hear him speak; we’re not given any indication of his existence other than the overt agreement between her and Frank, which functions as the evident excuse for her perverse sexuality. Secondly, we’re denied the privilege of seeing his face at the end of the film. If the film were looking to generate pity on our behalf, we might be shown his mistreatment in captivity, or scenes of his visible discomfort, and therefore his unsettled state as a result of his forced separation from his mother. But such is never the case. Readers of this strangely hidden relationship must ask why?

On the other hand, we are shown those perverse desires which might normally remain behind closed doors, and we’re asked to always be asking “what is left to hide behind closed doors?” In this sense, the film operates on an inversion of the familial structure, strongly paralleling Donnie & Jeffrey’s respective Oedipal usurpations of their fathers. We are asked to read her relationship to her family, in fact, through her sexual maladies, namely, her longing for sexual masochism.

This is particularly difficult for most observers. While on the one hand we see her brutally raped by Frank, we also see her demanding to be sexually punished by Jeffrey in that scene’s immediate aftermath. And part of the danger in addressing this side of her desire is that as we take notice of her enjoyment of (and indeed demand for) sexual violence, we can’t help but feel its repercussions bleed into her sexual victimhood at Frank’s hands: we feel guilty for even beginning to suggest that she desires her rape and we feel simultaneously irremediably stained for our misunderstanding. Hence, the question of what Dorothy wants in the film is a delicate one. As we approach it, we are repulsed by ourselves.

I think that Slavoj Zizek can help us in understanding the dilemma of Dorothy’s desire, through his writing on rape in “From Che Vuoi? To Fantasy: Lacan With Eyes Wide Shut”. The essential point is this one:

the problem with rape, in Freud’s view, is that it has such a traumatic impact not simply because it is a case of brutal external violence, but because it also touches on something disavowed in the victim herself. So, when Freud writes, ‘If what /subjects/ long for most intensely in their phantasies is presented to them in reality, they none the less flee from it,’[7] his point is not merely that this occurs because of censorship, but, rather, because the core of our fantasy is unbearable to us.

If we understand Dorothy to long for both a reunion with her trapped son, Donnie, and for punishment at the hands of sexual partners who take on childish sexual personas (“Baby” for Frank and the childlike innocence of Jeffrey), then we can say with confidence that Dorothy’s essential fantasy is one of incest. This is fairly evident from their names: Donnie overtly mirrors Donald, his father.

We might think, then, that the closer she could be to realizing this fantasy the more sexually appealing it would be. After all, if she is interested in removing barriers, this would be the logical extension of this fact.

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But such is not the case, as we see when Jeffrey plays with Donnie’s propeller hat after their primal union. Dorothy, instead of being pleased or even sexually stimulated, is shocked and unsettled. Although she longs for reunion with her son, there is a violation of a sacred contract here for Dorothy. The hat—which we see featured in one of Jeffrey’s dreams and is indeed, one of the last shots in isolation before he witnesses the trauma of the primal scene between Frank and Dorothy, thus perhaps constructing a fetish for Jeffrey—is that unbearable, inviolable core of Dorothy’s fantasy.

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