We Went Down To The Courthouse And The Judge Put It All To Rest
Blue Valentine was my favorite film of the year for the week that I saw it and I will never watch it again. It was like having someone sandpaper my soul. It's a hauntingly effective work, one that defies encapsulation. Because at times it's a relationship drama, at times it's comedic, at times it's typical indie romance, at times it's straight up rom-com, and at times, it's a tragedy. It's so real, it's such an honest portrayal of two people who come together and tear apart. It's not like two pieces of driftwood in a riverbed -- there's no drifting. This is like a Band-aid being attached with superglue being torn off and reattached. There will be many folks who just hate the ever-loving shit out of this film, and that's absolutely understandable, because when they say blue, they don't mean Blue Christmas blue but the blue-violet bruise of a fresh attack. It's agonizing and gorgeous, with two outstanding heartbreaking performances from Ryan Gosling and Michelle Williams. Writer-director Derek Cianfrance doesn't just toe the line of cliche, he embraces it passionately, squeezing it somehow into something completely fresh and yet familiar.
Abortion, separation, infidelity, singing to your sweetheart, having your own special song -- it's all there, but in this really astonishingly well assembled form. Had the film been one long dreary sustained tone of melancholy, it would have been boring, but because Cianfrance infuses the story with moments of levity and sweetness, it's all the more crushing. It's everything I normally hate in films, and in particularly romantic films, but Cianfrance is able to shape it into something ugly beautiful.
Time isn't linear in Blue Valentine. We follow two separate time lines: the disintegration of a marriage and the blossoming of a relationship. Normally, this kind of plotting sets my teeth on edge, and feels like a cheap screenwriting trick to fake subtext by offering up mirrored simplified comparison -- now we happy, but now we sad. This is exactly what Cianfrance and co-scribes Joey Curtis and Cami Delavigne are doing, but it's not so simple. Both timelines have their ups and downs, and that's what makes the film so disarmingly effective. You're never really sure when you're watching the good times, and even when you think things are going to be happy, they always have the living potential to burn up and die. It's the epitome of bittersweet.
Dean (Ryan Gosling) is a painter living with his nurse wife Cindy (Michelle Williams) and their daughter Frankie (Faith Wladyka) in their rural Pennsylvania home. Dean's a big kid, a goofball, and Cindy is miserably struggling to succeed. The opening scenes feel like watching the aftermath of a human sacrifice to the Gods of Lower Middle Class of your hopes and dreams. And from there the film just gets more painful. Each aspect revealed -- from what brought them together to what's bringing them apart -- elicits fresh levels of pain that Jigsaw could only fathom in his wettest OK GO videodreams. To reveal some of the details is to cheat you of the experience of living them with the couple.
Now that it's been revoked, it's a little like throwing rocks at a torn down building, but that still won't stop me from raging at the MPAA. In the wake of Black Swan and it's R rating, it's a little bit ridiculous to have capped Blue Valentine with its NC-17 rating. The sex scenes aren't graphic, and the explicit nature comes from the exquisite pain of the subtext. It's not the typical indie reading Proust to blur the line of porn -- it's just sex with all the sexy siphoned out of it. I personally suspect The Weinstein Company of trumping up the charges to build up press for their fledgling little film, which is particularly disgusting considering all the battles being fought against the industry's self-appointing policing arm. But since I can't prove a goddamn thing other than speculation, I will support any motion that can get people to watch this outstanding flick.
Gosling and Williams are phenomenal. It's not a simple chemistry to make a film like this, and you buy every moment. You believe their puppy love, you believe their fiery rage, you believe their loathing smoldering over years together. True love can breed equal amounts of hate, and that's here. This isn't just a simple chemical equation either -- it's incredibly complex. Every scene bubbles with so many infused layers of emotion, it's a little daunting. And that's entirely because of Gosling and Williams. Gosling takes his usual "hey girl" lovable slacker and blends him with a hateful dose of blue-collar disappointment and prideful rage. Williams has such a difficult job, because her character has to play world weary. She basically has to do almost nothing and do it well. It's like watching a sad stick of dynamite, one that you know will have to explode, but you don't know when. And when she does burst, it's not a fireworks display, it's a fucking housing development implosion. And although she's only in the flick briefly, Faith Wladyka is possibly the most adorable child I've ever seen on screen. And for this story, she fucking needs to be.
Blue Valentine is a painful love story about a tense relationship tearing slowly and agonizingly apart. It's not the feel good film of the year, and it's damn good. It's sour and sweet, and that's what helps it go down. I couldn't endure another viewing and it has nothing to do with the quality of the picture. Derek Cianfrance has simply created a haunting valentine to the pain couples endure when they're lives don't turn out like they hoped. And there are plenty of folks who won't want to sit through that. But if you do take the effort, you will be painfully rewarded.