Thursday, December 30, 2010

Blue Valentine

This film has gotten a lot of attention since its Sundance debut nearly a year ago. Unfortunately, perhaps the thing it's best known for is receiving an NC-17 rating from the MPAA ratings board that was appealed and changed to an R rating, thankfully without the need for cutting any content. I saw this in a sold out theater - one of only two in New York - and the director, Derek Cianfrance, introduced it at our screening, having led a Q&A after the previous show. He was so excited to see a room full of enthusiastic people wanting to see this movie he spent the last 12 years trying to make that he took a picture.

I love living here. :) ANYWAY, the film.

If you're looking for the bottom line, I'd call this more of an actor's setpiece (and it's a truly extraordinary one) than a total package kind of movie. That's not a slight on the film or the director at all, but this film (for me, at least) is all about raw emotional power rather than stunning camera work and storytelling. Ryan Gosling and Michelle Williams do some amazingly heartbreaking work here, and they deserve all the accolades they're currently enjoying in this year's nascent awards circuit.

The first thing we see is the start of an average day in the home of Dean and Cindy and their daughter Frankie (who is possibly the most adorable and guileless child I have seen in any film, ever). Already you can sense some tension in this little family. This becomes a rough morning fairly quickly, and you can tell this is nothing new for Dean and Cindy. Over the course of the film, we'll follow them through two hellish days of their marriage, wherein they will try - and utterly fail - to keep things together and rekindle the magic. And the worst part of it is that there's no telling how many times this has happened before.

But that's only half of the film. The other half is set six years earlier, when Dean and Cindy first meet and fall in love. This is the sweetness that tempers the bitter of the other section, but it's got its own kind of sadness. See, Dean and Cindy aren't soulmatey made-for-each-other lovebirds. They're into each other, but you can tell from the beginning that they don't feel the same way about one another. Dean says early on in the film that he thinks men are more romantic than women. That men marry because they fall in love and have to be with that person, while women marry more pragmatically and calculatedly, because it's the right time and this is the right guy with whom to start the kind of life they want. This strikes me as rather childish and simplistic, but I definitely think that Dean is more romantic than Cindy about their particular relationship. Dean falls head over heels for Cindy, who is coming to this relationship with all kinds of baggage, and Cindy marries him because he's the most appealing option at the time. And that, to me, is the most heartbreaking thing about the entire movie. Because I don't think there is anything more soul-destroying than being completely in love with someone who ... well, they like you a lot, but they just don't feel about you the way you feel about them.

Of course, six years later, they're both a mess, because they're completely wrong for each other, which is not a deal breaker for every couple, but if you're not both willing to work on it, there's no amount of romantic chemistry that can make up for that. Dean is not the ideal husband. He drinks, for one thing, and is more of a peer for his child than a parent. But when Cindy asks him what he wants to "do" with his life, you can't not love him for answering that all he wants to "do" is be a husband and a father, and that what she would call gainful employment is just a way to make money so he can come home and be with them and do his real job.

Now, about Cindy. I was frankly disturbed by the slut-shaming mutterings of the girls sitting next to me during this movie. No, I don't think 13 years old is the ideal time to lose one's virginity, and yes, I do think that 25 sexual partners (which is only Cindy's best guess) in the space of about ten years is ... rather a lot. But every time the girls next to me said "slut" about Cindy, I wanted to smack them. Because we've been through this, people - slut is just a name for someone who's having more sex than you're personally comfortable with, and using it says more about you than the so-called slut you're shaming. *ahem* Moving on.

Though blame can be laid at both Cindy's and Dean's feet, I can't help feeling that Cindy ... well, no, I can't do that. Dean is trying harder than she is to make the marriage work, but she's trying to make their life work, and that's a huge, thankless job. And on top of that, she's trying to achieve something for herself. She's exactly the kind of woman that Dean described before, though. She married him because she couldn't bear to have an abortion and he was there and was so in love with her that he wanted to make a family with her, even though the child she was carrying was most likely not even biologically his. Dean is trying to make things work between them, but he can only do so much. Cindy is a dutiful partner, but it is obvious that this is a toxic relationship for her. There are moments, and I'm sure she's not the first person to feel this way about her spouse, where she just has to walk away and just be like "get out of my face, I just want to not have to see you for two minutes together."

A lot has been said about the sexual content in this movie, but I don't think it's gratuitous or excessive. It's realistic, rather than softly lit and romanticized, and it does what all sex scenes *should* do, which is inform the characters. It really underscores what it means for each character in a way that dialogue just can't. This is a good example of the MPAA appeals board doing the right thing with a rating. Because context matters. And I think if there is anything in the film that someone is too young to understand, they're probably not going to notice it anyway, frankly. That's just the nature of this film, I think.

Anyway, good, good movie, but if you're a Plot Person you might not be satisfied with it, because it's more of an intense character/relationship study than a traditional narrative film.

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