One of the most buzzed about films at both the Sundance and Cannes film festivals this year, and stirring up an equal storm due to the MPAA’s controversial decision last week to slap the film with an NC-17 rating, Derek Cianfrance’s ‘Blue Valentine‘ is a film that demands your attention, but it should be for its former praise rather than the outrageous latter decision levelled against it.
‘Blue Valentine’ begins with Dean (Ryan Gosling) and Cindy’s (Michelle Williams) marriage already in flux; their antagonism towards each other manifests in passive-aggressive acts rather than snide words, and their only common ground seems to be the intense love they share for their daughter, Frankie (Faith Wladyka). In juxtaposing this, the apparent end of their relationship, with flashbacks to the intense, bright-burning love that defined the beginning of it, we observe in devastating terms how even the most hopeful couple can fall prey to the various hurdles – aspirational and existential – that life has to offer.
Though there is clearly angst permeating through their relationship from the first frame, Cianfrance patiently allows tension to slowly build through several scenes of pure passive aggression, as Dean and Cindy are snappy and short with each other, while using their kid as a buffer. In frequent, discriminately-spliced flashbacks, the present is given greater emotional context, eventually building to the film’s devastating juxtapository climax.
Though the two leads are firmly pitted against one another, Cianfrance makes it a fair fight and seems keen not to take sides. In an early flashback, Gosling’s character waxes philosophical on the nature of love, claiming that men are the true romantics, as they have to be strong-armed into assuredly marrying “the one”, whereas women have a greater proclivity to settle for security, yet a crisp cut back to the present brings us back to Earth, where Dean is a scruffy, myopic alcoholic. Cindy, meanwhile, is no picnic either; she is difficult, fussy and a poor communicator, which only exacerbates Dean’s jealous streak and his penchant for drink. Managing that rare feat of being even-handed without seeming self-consciously so, the film ticks a lot of dramatic boxes in set-up alone.
Bear in mind that this is no date film, nor is it a flamboyant reworking of the rom-com style such as the excellent ‘(500) Days of Summer’; it is achingly raw, essentially to a fault. Though we see flashes of happiness in the wonderful “Honeymoon stage”, these scenes are presented only in the context that they ultimately decay into the present situation, effectively tainting our enjoyment of them, as Cianfrance cruelly, brilliantly intended. Indeed, the view here of love is a mostly depressing one, that it is vaporous and not nearly as assured as self-effacing chick flicks will tell you; this is for my measure the feel bad film of the year, but what a film it is.
Painstakingly and heartbreakingly, the formula of the romantic drama has its neck wrung here; the story of boy-meets-girl exists only with our prior knowledge that it is doomed; a flashback to their joyous first formal meeting on a bus is the film’s best scene, full of optimistic hope and promise, which is dashed catastrophically as we are expertly sutured straight back into the present hopelessness and reminded of what lies ahead for them. Jim Helton and Ron Patane’s rivetting editing job should unquestionably earn them an Oscar nod next year; the confident juxtaposition of images generates its own meaning that sticks in the mind long after the lights come up.
Though at present the details of the MPAA’s overreaction to an “emotionally intense” sex scene are mere vagaries, there is nothing in ‘Blue Valentine’ that would ever justify a reasonable NC-17 rating. If upheld, the rating will limit the film’s U.S. theatrical run catastrophically and unjustifiably, and given the far more shocking and raw sex (not to mention rampant, bloody violence) depicted in David Cronenberg’s R-rated ‘A History of Violence’, there is no good reason for it. If their rating is for the film’s much-discussed oral sex scene (in which Michelle Williams, fully clothed and wearing a skirt, lies on a bed while Ryan Gosling buries his head between her legs), then it feels more like an act of embarassment to something very natural, loving and contextually justified by its place in the narrative. Is seeing a passionate act of the flesh so repugnant to these ratings people? It is more likely, and certainly more hopeful, that the MPAA are in fact referring to an awkward scene of scarcely consensual missionary sex earlier in the film. Considerably more unsettling, yet again, justified by its context, it still beggars belief.
The film’s third act is crucial in forming a summation of its various stylistic and thematic motifs; small revelations reveal surprising amounts about Dean and Cindy, and the lack of communication between them is aptly exemplified, leaving the viewer with plenty to ponder for themselves, as is perhaps true of relationships themselves in the midst of crisis. Not to be mistaken for sloppy writing, Cianfrance reflects the communication breakdown between the couple in a peculiar, enticing way by passing the sense of bemusement onto the audience.
Having performed superbly in their respective indie endeavours (Gosling recieved an Oscar nomination for ‘Half Nelson’, while Williams earned her own Oscar nod for ‘Brokeback Mountain’), it is little surprise that their frisson on-screen together is spectacular. Beginning with an air of subtly and building to a stupendously well-acted final confrontation at a doctor’s office (rivalling the Saverin/Zuckerberg/Parker stand-off in ‘The Social Network’ for the year’s most intense scene), Gosling and Williams make for one of the most compelling, well-matched romantic pairings in years.
The devastating final scenes cleverly, beautifully sew together the duality of good and bad shown to us throughout (in a stroke of expressive editing that is downright upsetting), and it positively must be watched carefully to soak in the little details. There is one thing made startlingly clear to those with a keen eye, providing several earlier scenes with a clearer, more potent meaning.
Had the bolts been tightened a bit in those slow passages at the start, there would be a legitimate Best Picture campaign going on somewhere right now for Blue Valentine. Still, Williams and Gosling deserve to be recognised for their work – especially given the MPAA’s senseless quest to restrict their efforts – and there’s the hope that Williams especially will receive an Oscar nomination out of it.
This article was first posted on January 14, 2011