Monday, November 15, 2010

Thoughts From a Red Rug - Blue Valentine

Blue Valentine is the rare film that serves more as window than artifice, as it seems more like watching the lives of 2 people through a window than a mere movie. Apparently, the filmmakers were influenced certain recent European films, including 4 Months, 3 Weeks and 2 Days and the films of Jean-Pierre and Luc Dardenne, one of the finest writer/director teams at work today.

Ryan Gosling and Michelle Williams are Dean and Cynthia, an American middle-class married couple with one child, a daughter (played nicely by Faith Wladyka). Director/co-writer Derek Cianfrance uses a dual timeline to tell the story of the relationship between two people who would probably have never met had not circumstances aligned perfectly, much less gotten married. The film cuts back and forth between the “present” timeline, when their marriage is disintegrating, and the past, when their relationship is beginning and blossoming. Thus, at the end of the film, we’ve reached what might be considered both the conclusion and beginning of their love story.

Blue Valentine’s European sensibilities are readily apparent. Where American films tend to try and balance things/characters to a fault, this film feels like one that’s been lived in rather than created. The balancing act usually means one of two things.

  1. Characters are clearly good or clearly bad, and if this isn’t initially apparent, then it’ll be pretty clear how we’re supposed to feel about them by the end of the film.
  2. When things are a bit more ambiguous, then each character will have strengths and weaknesses that even out pretty well, a la “you are right from your side and I am right from mine.”

That’s one thing that makes Blue Valentine effective. The 2 main characters are messy, messy people with messy, messy lives. As their relationship breaks down, it’s almost impossible for them to have a rational conversation. When Dean wants to talk honestly, Cynthia thinks he’s being unreasonable, and when Cynthia wants to speak her mind, Dean thinks she’s attacking him. I’ve known people like that. No matter how much they may want to work things out, there’s such an incredible divide in their terminology and in the way that they approach certain things that they will probably never be able to really talk. I found myself feeling so sorry for Dean as the story progressed. Cynthia’s incredibly frustrated with him, but, really, he’s a giant puppy dog. All he wants is to be with his wife and daughter. They’re are all he has, and, what’s more, they’re all he wants.

The writing is fantastic. I know that it’s somewhat silly to gauge everything by the Academy Awards, given the somewhat dubious logic behind their selections, but I sincerely hope that this receives a nomination for Best Original Screenplay. The dialogue is wonderfully authentic, with Williams and Gosling bringing it to effortless life. I love the way that natural speech rhythms are present in their conversations. They’ve got all of the little stutter-stops and false starts that are present in the way that people talk. There’s a great scene where Dean finds a way to compliment and insult Cynthia at the same time by talking about her looks. Essentially, he’s telling her that pretty girls have it easy, because people pay closer attention to them than they might actually deserve by laughing at their jokes, which may or may not actually be funny. He then asks her to tell him a joke, and she tells an obscenely funny one about a pedophile. One of the highlights of the scene is the way that Cynthia starts telling the joke, messes up, and adjusts her delivery automatically to fix her mistake. When I (try to) tell jokes, that happens every time. Additionally, there’s a wonderfully naturalistic scene where Dean plays a little song for a dancing Cynthia out on one of their first dates. It’s just terrific. Also, don’t miss the end credit sequence. It’s is one of the loveliest I’ve ever seen. If you don’t stick around, you’re really missing out.

Chances are the only reason that you might have heard of Blue Valentine was because it received an NC-17 from the MPAA. That’s a sad thing. All too often in this country, so-called “obscure” films only get recognition due to controversy, be it related to the personal lives of the actors or the content of the film itself.

Personally, I’m slightly torn on the whole thing. I understand the MPAA’s place in society, but I question the amount of authority they’re given over a film’s exposure to an audience. If the NC-17 stands, a film that will have an already limited theatrical run shrinks even smaller, because many theaters refuse to play films rated higher than an R and funds for advertising dry up almost immediately.

Is there a significant amount of sexual content in the film? Yes, certainly. Is it pornographic? Not even close.

The emphasis remains squarely on the emotional lives of the characters and their responses to what’s happening. It’s about so much more than sex. Furthermore, it’s not as though sex is some kind of revolutionary subject (though you’d certainly think so, given this country’s public persona). Blue Valentine is documenting the way that a lot of people live and act, from the way that they speak, fight, relate, understand, misunderstand, and, yes, have sex. It’s unfair for the MPAA to suggest that the attempt to be honest about the way that people deal with relationships is a negative thing. It’s yet another example that the U.S. needs a workable adult rating. Personally, I’d go for breaking up the R rating into 2-3 subdivisions to denote the level of “objectionable” material a film contains. Under the current system, Lost In Translation and The Passion of the Christ have the exact same rating. Please.

I sincerely hope that Blue Valentine survives the MPAA appeal process unchanged and finds its way to the audience it deserves. It's one of the brightest lights in a year that's been largely unremarkable, and, even more than that, Blue Valentine is one of the better films to tackle human relationships in recent memory. One of 2010's best films.

4 1/2 stars (out of 5)


Cosmoetica said...


I clicked on the name link for your blog at Ebert’s thread on solitude . Almost a year ago he did a post on me and my website. Once or twice a week I check out his threads.

A depressing thread, but your blog made me think you might want to learn more of art and interact with intelligent folk more. If interested, contact me and I can introduce you to some people with intelligence and drive in the arts. I have readers all over the world- from the UK to Canada to Japan to Tibet.
If interested, contact me.

Adam said...

Hi Dan,

I'm interested in your proposal. What do you have in mind?