The Jewish holiday Yom Kippur is no picnic. Hey, it’s not supposed to be—arriving 10 days after the celebration of the new year (Rosh Hashanah, for any gentiles who haven’t been keeping track), Yom Kippur is a day of repentance, a time to reflect on the ways we can do better in the coming year. It’s not a painless process, both figuratively and literally. For me, the 24-hour practice of fasting has always served as a representation of the hardships one has inflicted onto others.
But what does repentance actually mean? And when the sun sets, are we forgiving ourselves, or is this the work of some higher power? Answers vary. Regardless, I consider this holiday to be a time of reflection. And the way I see it, there’s no better facilitator of reflection than David Lynch’s “Blue Velvet.”
I should say that “Blue Velvet” is an extremely disturbing work; it’s certainly not for everyone, and features a truly brutal depiction of sexual assault. I also get why one would be skeptical of my claim of its connection with Yom Kippur. Lynch is a quintessential goy, and his work is an exploration of himself, a psycho-sexual nightmare aestheticized to perfection. Firmly a product of the Regan-era, “Blue Velvet” tracks Jeffery (Kyle Maclachlan, also definitely not Jewish) as he stumbles into the corrupt and horrible underbelly of his pristine suburban hometown. He falls in love with Sandy (Laura Dern, certainly not Jewish), or maybe he’s seduced by Dorothy Vallens (Isabella Rossellini), a nightclub singer in the clutches of Frank, a demented gangster (played to perfection by Dennis Hopper).
“You’re like me,” Frank sneers at Jeffery—he’s right. The film’s most startling and striking suggestion is that the darkness our protagonist uncovers lives inside him too. He sleeps with Dorothy, but when she’s in distress, all he’s willing to do is watch. When Vallens asks Jeffery to hit her during sex—a repetition of the trauma she’s currently experiencing—he eventually obeys. A part of him even seems to enjoy it.
True to surreal form, Jeffery floats through much of “Blue Velvet,” and the disturbing stuff he’s gliding through all seems to be a reflection of his own psyche. Lynch’s work always has this expressionist quality, and “Blue Velvet” is certainly one of the auteur’s peaks. But expressionism alone isn’t enough—there’s a moment three-quarters of the way through when Jeffery stumbles home from one of his nightmares. He sits on his bed; it’s a rare moment when Lynch shows us what’s going on in his protagonist’s head instead of what’s in his protagonist’s head being shown in the world. The scene cross-cuts between Maclachlan trembling and just some of the horrors his characters has seen—horrors he’s part of. Jeffery cries.
Yom Kippur encourages us to take a hard look at ourselves. To sit on that bed and examine our actions. Jeffery’s “sins” (Judaism lacks an afterlife component, meaning that the stakes are both much higher and much lower) boil down a combination of voyeuristic curiosity and a complicity in cycles of abuse he did not create. Nonetheless, he recognizes a need to reckon with himself.
No Rabbi or movie can single-handedly generate a desire for self-awareness. But make no mistake: this is Lynch pulling at himself. Jeffery is a cypher for the filmmaker, and the process of making “Blue Velvet” is Lynch’s way of sitting on the bed, thinking through his issues. I would simply say that watching someone else’s in-depth introspection is a remarkable way to trigger your own, and you won’t find many works of introspection as uncompromising as “Blue Velvet.”
And you won’t find any answers at “Blue Velvet’s” conclusion, a phony imitation of a happy ending. Even at the most extravagant break-the-fast, there’s a lingering sense that we’re going to do this all again next year. No one expects the repentant to never screw-up again. But with that in mind, something like “Blue Velvet” becomes even more valuable: it’s a text that endures as a template for self-examination, daring the viewer to look inside themselves, even if they don’t like what they find. After all, Yom Kippur isn’t supposed to be easy.