Directed by: Derek Cianfrance
Starring: Ryan Gosling, Michelle Williams, Faith Wladyka, John Doman, Mike Vogel
This is a very guarded and qualified four-star rating. Derek Cianfrance’s Blue Valentine comes within inches of being the most incomprehensibly highly rated film of the year that leaves me reading all the glowing reviews and wondering, “What movie did these people see?” (That list includes In the Bedroom in 2002, Lost in Translation in 2003, and Sideways in 2005.) Usually, I can at least grasp why people are enthusing—without being in the least capable of sharing that feeling. That’s very nearly the case here. In some respects, that is the case here, but some scenes and the film’s intriguing use of a fragmented structure keep it from quite going there.
Do I like the film? No, I can’t say do, but I admire it and am intrigued by it. For me, it’s mostly 111 minutes spent watching the dissolution of the marriage of two characters I don’t like very much. On the surface, that seems like a recipe for disaster—and 20 minutes into it, I thought it was. In fact, I found myself wishing I could just walk away from it. But I stuck it out because, well, I didn’t have much choice. I’m glad of that, because the film—or the cumulative impact of its structure—grew on me.
Ryan Gosling and Michelle Williams star as Dean and Cindy, a working-class Pennsylvania couple with a young daughter, Frankie (Faith Wladyka). Dean paints houses for a living. Cindy is a nurse. When the film opens Frankie is looking for her lost dog. Given the tone and the demeanor of the film, it’s not hard to realize this won’t turn out well. But then—and it’s just as well to know this upfront—nothing in this movie is going to work out well. It is, after all, a study of a marriage as it comes apart. To tell the tale, the film cuts back and forth between the marriage in its present state to six years earlier and the beginnings of the romance.
Very shrewdly, the two eras dovetail into their respective climaxes, and this is the major thing that makes the film rise above its dramatic limitations. And it’s hard to deny that the film has some serious limitations in that regard. Cianfrance is too taken with the shaky cam and with what I can only assume is improvised dialogue (it is difficult to imagine that anyone would actually write dialogue as banal as some of this). There’s an air of ersatz-Cassavetes about much of the film. That will be a plus for some. It is not with me.
There are, however, moments of charm—notably the ukulele scene where Dean sings “You Always Hurt the One You Love”—and there’s a strange cumulative punch. I said I didn’t like or care about the characters, and that’s basically true. Yet I cannot deny that by the time the film ended—especially during the closing credits—I realized a feeling of some kind, a sense that I had known these people, and the feeling that I understood what had happened to them, even without knowing why it happened. That is certainly an accomplishment worth noting. Does this mean I’ll ever have the desire to see Blue Valentine again? Let’s say I find the prospect extremely remote.
It’s necessary, I suppose, to mention the film’s sex scene, since it nearly earned the film an NC-17 rating. Having seen the footage that so shocked the MPAA, I can only conclude that the folks doing the ratings these days are a lot more reactionary that they were 30 to 40 years ago. Had these people been doling out the ratings back then, there would be a lot more X-rated movies than there are. The sex here is blatant enough, but it’s a far cry from anything that could rightly be called graphic. It is, in any case, not enough to warrant seeing the film if curiosity on this point is a motivating factor. Otherwise, yes, it’s a movie worth seeing. You may have fewer problems with it than I did, but bear in mind this is a bit of a downer. Rated R on appeal for strong graphic sexual content, language and a beating.