This review originally appeared on Capital New York.
Blue Valentine was notorious long before it actually opened, thanks to a ratings controversy: The film was threatened with an NC-17 rating due to a couple of frank sexual scenes. Harvey Weinstein, whose company, The Weinstein Co., is distributing Blue Valentine, registered an objection in his typically aggressive manner, railing against the ridiculous hypocrisies in the MPAA system as it stands. (He declared to Entertainment Weekly, “How did Piranha 3D get an R and Blue Valentine gets an NC-17? … It’s ridiculous — a penis got coughed up in the movie by a piranha! They show more in four scenes [in that movie] than we do in [all of Blue Valentine]! And ours is a serious love story.”)
Weinstein got his R-rating, which guarantees the film a wide release. It’s a good thing, too, because Blue Valentine, directed and written by Derek Cianfrance and starring Ryan Gosling and Michelle Williams, is a powerful and very dark romantic drama with two extraordinary, raw performances from the leads. It is a film about grown-ups, and a film for grown-ups.
Blue Valentine doesn’t wear its darkness like a badge of honor; it is dark because love often takes us to very dark places, and the film looks without flinching. What happens when the tide rolls back, and you are confronted with the wreckage of all you thought you had built? It is the most universal of experiences, and therefore the danger of creating a cliché-ridden story is high, but Cianfrance focuses relentlessly on the everyday details of love and intimacy, until the belljar of this particular relationship is so stifling you yearn for release.
You don’t blame this couple for wanting to flee the scene of their marriage as though they’ve committed a crime. We aren’t experts in our own emotions, as evolved as we may think we are, and we certainly aren’t experts in how to express our own darknesses. People fight in messy ways. They are cruel without meaning to be. When things get ugly, often they keep getting uglier, and uglier, until all you can do is walk away. As Cindy (Williams) says to her husband Dean (Gosling) during a fight, “I can’t stop this … I can’t stop what’s happening … can you?”
Derek Cianfrance has been around for a while, as a cinematographer and television director, and this is his feature debut. The project was years in the making. The cinematographer is Andrij Parekh, and the film unfolds in a haunting collage-effect of snatched images and deep saturated colors, the characters seen in moving fragments as they pass close to the screen. The footage feels stolen rather than planned. Often events move in such a jagged, non-linear way we have to hustle to catch up. There is no objectivity, and this is perfect for the material. We are in the thick of their relationship from the opening shot.
When we meet Dean and Cindy, it is the present day, and they are busy working parents (she a nurse, he a house-painter), juggling jobs and school concerts and looking for their missing dog. The film periodically loops back to the beginning of their relationship, but the only way we know a flashback is occurring, initially, is that the two characters look different. These are subtle but shocking transformations, a tribute to the acting of Williams and Gosling. In the flashbacks, they look fresh and open. It has only been three or four years since the two got married, but in the present-day sections they look closed-up, hardened, withstanding their marriage rather than inhabiting it.
Cindy and Dean’s romance begins unexpectedly. Cindy visits her grandmother in a nursing home and Dean, who works for a moving company, encounters her there one day while moving an ancient gentleman into a room across the hall. Dean has taken some time to unpack the man’s boxes for him, putting pictures up on the wall, and hanging up the man’s WWII uniform, a touching display of spontaneous kindness (which also betrays an unspoken urgency. Dean is drawn to what he fears: aging, being alone, losing vitality). Dean sees Cindy at the nursing home, is struck by her.
Cindy is seeing someone else, a sexy bad-boy wrestler named Bobby Ontario (Mike Vogel), and Dean is drifting from job to job. He doesn’t even have a phone number to give to her. But they meet on a bus, he makes her laugh, he compliments her, she makes him laugh, too. There is a beautiful scene in a shop doorway, on their first date, when he plays the guitar, singing “You Always Hurt the Ones You Love”, and she tap-dances for him, sometimes awkwardly pushing her hair behind her ears, in a vulnerable gesture of shyness that tore at my heart. He makes her want to show off. She feels safe, suddenly. He makes her want to step into the limelight. He wants her to be in the limelight, pushing her to perform: “You know any good jokes? Tell me a joke.” “Do you have any hidden talents?” Used to the casual cruelty of her boyfriend, this kind of attention disorients her.
Michelle Williams, face taut and frozen, as though aware of the whirlpool of grief beneath her every gesture, gives a very deep and very mysterious performance. Cindy is complex and difficult, but capable and loving as well. This is fearless work.
During one of the sex scenes – the one that has caused so much controversy – she begs him, drunkenly, to hit her: clawing at him, punching at him, lying naked beneath him. Gosling, whom I clocked as “one to watch” years ago with his riveting performance as a slick teenage sociopath in the semi-ridiculous but very entertaining Murder By Numbers, is heartbreaking in Blue Valentine, heartbreaking in his openness, his faith that he can make it work, his devastation that his best has not been enough to save them.
In the opening scene, he holds his daughter in his arms, cigarette dangling from his lips, arms covered in tats, and there is something touching about him, something solid and yet vulnerable. He says to his wife, in the middle of one of their fights, “You know, being a husband and a father was never one of my goals, like it is for some other guys. But now that it’s happened, I found out that that is what I wanted.”
He is good at many things, in a dabbling kind of way: he plays the guitar, he’s a playful and devoted father … but he has been unable to make his wife happy, to make it – and her – all alright. This touches something in his core, something wordless and terrible. He is a failure as a man.
The controversial sex scenes are no more graphic than the one recently seen in Black Swan, with Mila Kunis’ face between Natalie Portman’s legs as Portman writhes about in orgasm, but the emotions behind the scenes in Blue Valentine are so frayed, so honest, so tragic, that the scenes are the opposite of sexy. They are painful to watch. He tries to kiss her in the shower, and she keeps putting her hands over her face to brush the water off, instinctively resisting what he wants. Over one long drunken night in “The Future Room” in a cheesy motel (the “Future Room”, bathed in blue and mirrors, ironically has no windows), they talk, and eat, fight and fuck, and occasionally just sit across from one another, exhausted, staring into the yawning abyss before them.
In this sense, the sex scenes reminded me of the famous one in Nicholas Roeg’s harrowing Don’t Look Now (1973), when Donald Sutherland and Julie Christie, running from shared grief at the death of their young daughter, make love in a hotel room in Italy, in a mad passion to forget, to lose themselves, to try to remember what it was like to experience pleasure, comfort, peace. This is tough stuff to take, perhaps; it is confrontational, and emotionally draining to watch. Gosling and Williams hold nothing back. The trust they have in one another is extraordinary.
Blue Valentine is so lacking in sentimentality it actually gets away with showing a rainbow coming out in the sky over a bus where the two have their first conversation. Imagine how saccharine such a moment could have been, and then imagine the total opposite, where a rainbow appearing over a first meeting brings with it a keen of retrospective sadness over what has been lost. This is the fearless landscape that Blue Valentine occupies. Falling in love happens to most of us, if we are lucky; nobody re-invents the wheel. There is the “first time she made me laugh,” the “first time he told me I was pretty,” the “first time we slept together.” Couples tell each other those stories, over and over again, as a way to re-live their shared past, but also as a way to remind themselves that this, this is why I chose you.
Blue Valentine shows, in the flashbacks, and also in the brief moments of tenderness between Williams and Gosling in the present-time, that there was a reason they chose one another back there under the rainbow. It was a good reason. But that reason no longer exists.
Weinstein was right: this is a “serious love story.” It is one of the best of the year.