' ' Cinema Romantico: Blue Valentine

Thursday, January 27, 2011

Blue Valentine

A decidedly uncomplicated film about the vast complications of a marriage, "Blue Valentine" is like Springsteen's "Tunnel Of Love" - lovely and hopeful and then gloomy and foreboding - without the bolo tie. It is not merely Kitchen Sink Realism. This is Custodian Closet At O'Hare Sink Realism. It's a gritty indie, to be sure, but it's not grimy. The color is not consistently drained from every shot and shaky camera work is present for only about two scenes. The remainder of the time the camera is still, contemplating, and employs a visual scheme of extreme close-ups as if to confirm for the audience that we - like the characters - have nowhere to escape.

As you may have heard, the film was initially slapped with an NC-17 rating for a graphic sexual encounter between leads Ryan Gosling and Michelle Williams in a "cheesy sex motel" that is far less graphic than the sexual encounter between Natalie Portman and Mila Kunis in "Black Swan", though much more emotional which is to say it is entirely emotionless which makes it really bad on your cinematic digestive system. It's funny, isn't it, how movies where people are beheaded or gutted or shot to literal pieces can earn PG-13 ratings so long as there is no sex and just a few bad words but "Blue Valentine" - rated R - nearly got the NC-17. Having watched the film I don't think it had anything to do with that sex scene. I think it had everything to do with the first 10 or so minutes which are brilliantly descriptive in how they are so non-descript, in the way writer/director Derek Cianfrance and his two actors portray a marriage clinging, desperately, blindly, to that buoy of their little daughter (Faith Wladyka). I think the ratings board saw this beginning and every member thought, "My God, that looks and feels just like my marriage. Who's ever gonna want to get married after seeing this? NC-17! NC-17! Quickly!" This is to say, a good chunk of "Blue Valentine" is hard to watch.

That said, it's not impossible to watch, and this is partly due to its parallel storylines, flashing back and forth, without dumbed down title cards, to the beginning of the relationship between Dean (Gosling), under-educated, working for a moving company, but kind, romantic, full of heart, and Cindy (Williams) who wants to go to college to study medicine but is also saddled with a jackass boyfriend (Mike Vogel) and an oppressive home life, save for her handicapped grandmother whose presence allows for a rather organic, unadorned Meet Cute. These sequences allow the present day to work because - unlike Gosling's more recent film, "All The Good Things" - the audience is never in doubt as to why these two wound up together and why they would try to save their marriage in the face of looming disaster.

In the present Dean and Cindy have really only added six or seven years yet they both appear and feel as if they have aged a great deal more. Dean is now a housepainter who claims that having a job where he can start drinking beer at 8 in the morning is a reward (and takes his wife for their nighttime getaway while wearing a shirt bearing a bald eagle, the kind which you pick up at the rural truck stop along with your beef jerky, for which "Blue Valentine" should win the Oscar for Costume Design alone). Cindy works at a medical clinic as a nurse. They both love their daughter and treat her kindly. But the marriage is in free fall. The movie, in perhaps its most refreshing aspect, refuses for the most part to provide us standard emotional cues and clear cut plot points. The narrative is jagged, not smooth, and that's the point. No explicit references are made as to why this holy union has so quickly deteriorated. "There's a room of shadows that gets so dark brother/It's easy for two people to lose each other." So sang Springsteen and it becomes quite clear over the course of the film's two hours that Dean and Cindy have lost each other in that damned tunnel of love.

"Blue Valentine" is the sort of film that rests entirely within the hands of its actors because if they don't deliver then the writing and direction and all the rest really don't matter. Gosling has the more broad role of the two, brushing up close against 1.) indie cliche in the form of a trusty ukulele and 2.) mainstream cliche in the form of the husband-turned-movie-monster scene near the end at Cindy's place of work. Yet with his trademark Gosling-esque intensity he just sort of barrels right past both those potential pratfalls. Williams' responsbilities are even heftier since, clearly, this is a marriage where both parties are in denial and Cindy is the one who breaks free from that denial. But why oh why does she wait to break free until the husband-turns-movie-monster? The film doesn't pretend to know why because, really, no one can ever pretend to know why.


Castor said...

Just saw this on Tuesday and I was quite blown away. If I was to remake my top 10 of 2010, it would probably be in my top 2 or 3.

PS: Michelle Williams for Best Actress! 'nuff said...

Nick Prigge said...

She is pretty fantastic. If I'd made a Top 10 performance list instead of Top 5 she would have made it.

Derek Armstrong said...

Good review. I had a lot of respect for this film but I guess I didn't love it -- although maybe that's the point. There are no fuzzies in there for us. Then again, I like to think that I don't need fuzzies.

One thing that I kept on thinking throughout was that the older Gosling was kind of a white trash hipster cliche. The wife-beater, the mustache, the sunglasses, the unlit (or lit) cigarette ... I don't mean that to be a slight to the film, just that Gosling had the "ironic dirtbag" look down perfectly. I could have imagined the movie re-cast with Giovanni Ribisi and Carey Mulligan and turning out about the same.

That's two paragraphs with somewhat snide remarks about Blue Valentine, so let me finish by being less ambiguous and stating that it's a great film with great performances.

Nick Prigge said...

I think I kind of know what you're saying about Gosling. At least at this point in his career he seems like much more of a technical actor than someone like, say, Michelle Williams. He needs the clothes and the tics and all that sort of stuff and so sometimes you catch him, as they say, "acting." Which can be a good thing in certain movies but in something as real as "Blue Valentine" wants to be - and is - it can be detrimental.

I think that makes sense.

Derek Armstrong said...

Indeed it does. And you know what I always find funny about Michelle Williams? She had the most inauspicious beginning. I didn't watch Dawson's Creek, but I think the general opinion of her back then was that she sucked and that she would probably never amount to anything. Naturally, Katie Holmes was the one who was ticketed to stardom. My how the roles have reversed over time. The thing is, Williams is so good she doesn't even have to be a "star" -- she doesn't have to choose unchallenging romantic comedies, or be the girl hanging off the helicopter in a Michael Bay movie. She does perfectly fine just making smart choice that showcase her ability to do what she does best: act the hell out of a script, without, as you say, "acting."