Blue Valentine was notorious long before it actually opened, thanks to a ratings controversy: The film had been 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 dark film with two extraordinary, raw performances from the leads. It is a film about grown-ups, and a film for grown-ups.
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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 at that 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 bell jar of that particular relationship becomes so stifling that you yearn for release.
You don’t blame this couple for wanting to flee the scene of their marriage as though it is a fiery car wreck. You recognize that we aren’t experts in our own emotions, as evolved as we may think we are, and that we certainly aren’t experts in how to express our own darkness. People fight in a messy way. They are cruel without meaning to be. When things get ugly, often they just 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. This project was years in the making. The cinematographer for Blue Valentine 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 caught and stolen rather than planned. Often events move in such a jagged, non-linear way that 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 that a flashback is occurring, initially, is that the two characters look so different. These are subtle but shocking transformations, a tribute to the acting of Williams and Gosling. In the flashbacks, they both look fresher and more open. They are better looking. 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 living it.
Cindy and Dean’s romance begins unexpectedly. Cindy often 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 gentleman’s boxes for him, putting pictures up on the wall, and hanging up the man’s WWII uniform, a touching display of spontaneous kindness that also betrays an unspoken urgency. Dean is drawn to what he fears: aging, being alone, losing vitality. He sees Cindy at the nursing home, and then tries to find her again.
Cindy is seeing someone else at the time, a sexy bad-boy wrestler named Bobby Ontario (played by Mike Vogel in a pitch-perfect performance), 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, and he makes her laugh, he compliments her, and she makes him laugh, too. They have 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. 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 she is aware of the whirlpool of grief beneath her every gesture, taps into something very deep and very mysterious in her performance. Cindy is complex and difficult, but capable and loving as well. Her performance is fearless.
During one of the sex scenes that has caused so much controversy, she begs him, drunkenly, to hit her: clawing at him, punching at him, lying naked beneath him. Ryan 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 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 all alright. This touches something in his core, something wordless and terrible. He is a failure as a man. Watching these two actors go at it is a privilege. It’s a master class in moment-to-moment spontaneous acting.
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 their 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 have ease, 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 as actors is extraordinary.
Blue Valentine is so lacking in sentimentality that 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 made love." 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 is right: this is a “serious love story." It is one of the best of the year.
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'Blue Valentine': Stunning, and about as sexy as a dead romance
By SHEILA O'MALLEY
The Philosopher’s POV: Blue Valentine: An EnigmaJuly 2, 2011
As the title suggests, Blue Valentine is a sad love story. It’s love at first sight for Dean when he sees Cindy in her grandmother’s room at an assisted living facility. He gives her his number, but when she does not call, he returns and talks with the grandmother to find out who Cindy is. The grandmother tells him her name and promises to tell Cindy that he asked about her. Dean then meets Cindy on the bus and woos her with sincerity and song, not the least of which is the ominous, “You Always Hurt the Ones You Love.” Later, Cindy finds out that she is pregnant, but not with Dean’s child. She has been having sexual relations with Bobby Ontario (and more than twenty other men since she was thirteen), and the child is Bobby’s. Dean marries her anyway, and they have a girl named Frankie, whom Dean adores. Dean and Frankie build a doghouse together for Megan (their beloved dog), they eat raisins from Frankie’s cereal bowl off the kitchen table pretending to be leopards, he is prompt to her pre-school singing recital, and he tells Frankie that maybe Megan moved out to Hollywood to be “a movie dog,” thereby sparing her the hurt of learning that her dog had been hit and killed by a car.
Clearly, Dean also loves Cindy. He reminds her several times to fasten her seat belt as she gets ready to take Frankie to school, and in the final break-up scene says, “I love you so much.” He wants not just to have sex but loving sex with her. He plans a weekend with her at a motel that has rooms dedicated to different sexual fantasies. He has a choice between Cupid’s Cove and the Future Room, and chooses the latter when Cindy refuses to make a choice. She clearly does not want to go. She is a nurse and uses the excuse that she is on call the next day, but Dean ignores her protests.
A central scene in the film takes place at the motel and is shot in blue light. Cindy tells Dean that he is good at everything he does and asks him whether there isn’t anything else he’d rather do. He answers, “Than what? Than be your husband? To be Frankie’s dad?” When she asks him whether he wants to realize his potential, Dean rightly asks, “Potential for what?” He tells Cindy that he is living his dream in being her husband and Frankie’s dad and wonders why she wants him to use his potential to make money. She responds, “We rarely sit down and have an adult conversation because every time we do you take what I say and you turn it around into something I didn’t mean. You just…twist it. Start babbling: blah, blah, blah, blah, blah.” It’s true that Dean interpreted Cindy to mean that he should use his potential to make money instead of wasting it as a house painter, when she meant that it would be good in itself for him to develop his capacities. However, she also ignored Dean’s sound point that he was realizing his potential for what he found most important, namely, being a good father and husband. He could equally have accused her of turning the conversation “around into something else” and of “twisting it.”
When later Dean and Cindy have sex, we see her having it with clenched fist and scrunched face. Clearly, she is not enjoying it. When she gets a call to come to work at the medical center, she leaves without telling Dean, who is passed out drunk on the floor where they had sex. She simply tapes a note to the wall that Dean reads when he wakes up. He is angry, goes to the medical center where she works, gets in an argument with the doctor with whom Cindy works, and punches him in the face. Cindy slaps Dean, swears at him, tells him that she is “so out of love” with him, that she has “nothing left for him,” that she hates him, and says that she is more of a man than he is.
Cindy and Dean leave her work together and have an emotional conversation at the home of her father who has been taking care of Frankie. She tells Dean that she “can’t do this anymore.” He begs her not to leave him, apologizes, and says he will do anything she wants. At one point Dean tries to convince Cindy to stay together by appealing to what’s best for Frankie. Being from a home where his mother left his father when he was ten, Dean thinks it would be bad for Frankie to be “from a broken home.” Cindy grew up in a home where her father was a monster and her parents did not love each other. When Dean was courting Cindy, she told him that she liked her grandmother because, “She makes me laugh. Nobody else talks in my family. And when they talk, they just yell.” She thinks that the worst thing for Frankie would be for her to grow up in a home where the parents treat each other badly. Cindy says, “I don’t want her to grow up in a home where her parents treat each other like this? We’re not good together, we’re not good anymore. The way that we treat each other.” In the end, Dean walks away into the fireworks of the Fourth of July. Frankie tries to follow him, but he tricks her into racing back to her mother. Her mother picks her up to comfort her, and Frankie says that she loves her dad. It’s a sad love story.
It’s also an enigma. Why does Cindy fall out of love with Dean? Earlier in the film Dean said that most girls look for a Prince Charming but end up marrying “the guy that’s got a good job and who’s gonna stick around.” Maybe that’s what Cindy did when she found out that she was pregnant and that Bobby Ontario was not going to support her. But she also genuinely loved Dean in the beginning. So why did she fall out of love with him even if she married him because she knew he’d stick with her? Did she fall out of love with him because she did not enjoy sex with him, and did she not enjoy sex with anyone because someone raped her when she was thirteen? That would explain why she always said “ow” before, during, or after sex and sometimes said “no, no, no, no” during sex with Dean even when they were courting. But there is no evidence in the film that any rape occurred when she was young.
Cindy once had a conversation with her grandmother about whether she loved her grandfather, and at the same time Cindy reflected on how her parents did not love each other. Her grandmother told Cindy that she was in love with her husband for at most a brief period of time in the beginning. This led Cindy to ask her grandmother, “How can you trust your feelings when they can just disappear like that?” Her grandmother replied, “I think the only way to find out is to have the feeling.” Cindy’s feelings for Dean disappeared, if not “just like that” at least over the five years or so after Cindy gave birth to Frankie. Why? It’s true that Dean is childish in the way he plays with Frankie, for example, pretending to be a leopard as they eat raisins off the kitchen table while her mother tries to get her to use a spoon. And it’s true that Dean drinks too much, drinking before he goes to work as a house painter and getting drunk before having sex with Cindy at the motel. Still, Dean could be very adult in protecting Frankie from the hurt over losing her dog and in getting her to run back to her mom when he was leaving the family. While his drinking was not good for Dean, it does not seem to have caused him to treat Cindy badly. When he learns at Frankie’s recital that Megan is dead, he does not console her but instead rebukes her saying, “How many times did I tell you to lock the fucking gate? Huh?” But that remark is understandable given his hurt (he sobs uncontrollably after burying Megan), and surely not enough to cause Cindy to stop loving him.
We might speculate about what was going on behind the scenes, but nothing in the film explains why Cindy stopped loving Dean. The Carson River flows down the eastern slopes of the Sierras and used to flow into what is called the Carson Sink. Before a dam was built, the river would eventually just peter out as it flowed eastward across the parched sand. Settlers on their way to California would get their first fresh water from the river. Many times we can explain why people stop loving each other: perhaps one of them has been abusive or unsupportive, or has had an extra-marital affair. But many times we can’t; it just seems that the love peters out. As far as we can tell, that’s what happened to Cindy.
The song that begins playing when the credits roll is called Grizzly Bear: Alligator (choir version). Its lyrics are:
It’s a fear, it is near, the shape becomes ever clear.
It bares teeth, extra sharp, that’ll cut you in the heart.
It attacks really quick, try and fight it with a stick.
It’s no use, give it up, this is life and this is love.
Dr. Bruce Russell is a professor of philosophy at Wayne State University. His major areas of interest include ethics, epistemology and the philosophy of religion (the problem of evil). Dr. Russell has published extensively and most recently has found a way to combine his keen interest in these areas with his love of film.The Philosopher's POV