I wasn’t all that impressed with Blue Valentine at first. Through the film’s opening, I sat there watching Dean and Cindy (Ryan Gosling and Michelle Williams, respectively) playing with their daughter, clearly living out a perfectly ordinary day in their lives. Sure, she’s a workaholic and he goes to drinking and cussing when his daughter isn’t around, but the whole thing was rather boring to watch. “Where’s the conflict?” I wondered. “Why should I care?”
But then the fifteen-minute mark came and I was introduced to a much younger Dean. I saw him back before he met Cindy, when he was young and energetic with all sorts of musings about what love and romance must be like. “Ah,” I thought. “Now we’re getting somewhere.” From that point on, the narrative alternates between two different time frames. We see the Dean and Cindy of the present — in a marriage troubled by their mounting personal problems — and the Dean and Cindy of the past, as they fall in love and gradually come to their present conditions.
As soon as the fifteen-minute mark hits, the movie’s intention becomes obvious: This film is a meditation on love. We follow our two romantic leads as they fall in love, fall out of love and wonder if they can ever recapture that spark they first had. If so, how? If not, how do they know when to give up? The film shows us everything about love and romance, both good and bad. We see the mutual attraction, the trusting sympathetic support, the indescribable bliss just by being with each other and of course, the sex. However, we also see the jealousy, ennui and that point where patience just runs out.
This film very famously got an NC-17 rating before producers, news sites and filmgoers nationwide successfully petitioned for an R rating. Though I disagree with the MPAA’s initial rating, I can see their reasons for it. This film deals graphically with such taboo subjects as unwanted pregnancy, abortion and spousal abuse. Of course, the movie also features a lot of steamy sex scenes, many of which are used to illustrate the dynamics and relationships between the participants.
Also, I’ll give a fair warning that this film leaves its ending wide open. We have no idea if Dean and Cindy will ever reconcile, though I think that’s as it should be. The whole film is about the uncertain fate of their relationship and the movie constantly strives to avoid sugar-coating anything. To that end, giving a definitive answer or — God forbid — a happy ending would go entirely contrary to the film’s tone and intentions.
Now, I know what you’re thinking. You’re probably asking why anyone would bother watching a couple get together, only to inevitably and tragically break up. You may be asking why anyone would watch this perfectly mundane scenario of two people going through everything that any married couple would pray will never happen to them. I won’t deny that the film is rather dreary and there were a few points when I thought I was falling asleep. Still, there are several reasons why this film is worth watching, and perhaps the two most vital of them are Gosling and Williams.
It’s important to note that our two leads are very flawed characters from the start. Dean is a blue-collar house painter who gradually gets worse in his drinking and chain-smoking. Cindy, meanwhile, is an educated workaholic who doesn’t really seem to know what she wants out of life or in a lover. They’re both charming and they have great chemistry together, but it’s obvious that they both want different things out of life and their emotional baggage is totally incompatible. What’s more, Dean frequently appears jealous and insecure in his masculinity, so he tries to overcompensate and takes it way too far.
This is a perfectly understandable scenario, made sympathetic with the knowledge that deep down, these aren’t bad people. They’re trying desperately to make their relationship work — both for their sake and for their daughter — but they’ve lost something that they just can’t seem to get back. There are a lot of emotions at play here, every one of which is superbly conveyed by Gosling and Williams. In fact, it’s like they’re depicting two sets of characters — the young set and the old set. They’re playing with two completely different sets of attitudes, outlooks and dilemmas, yet the essence of one is still clearly visible in the other.
Another key strength of the film is in its cinematography. Most of the film is shot on hand-held camera, which lends the film a very “cinema verite” feel, though the shaky-cam does get confusing at times. Still, the lighting in this film is such that the colors could tell the story all on their own. Perhaps most impressive is how there are quite a few shots that go for long stretches of time without cutting. These are the segments when the chemistry of our leads is most apparent, as they act off each other and seem to improvise their lines in such a way that it makes their romance feel much more “real.”
In fact, I’d say that’s the primary strength of the film: It feels “real.” Everything the film shows and does — both the good and the bad — it does with honesty and heart. The film is refreshingly candid about matters of passion, making no effort to sugar-coat anything. This is what makes the film worth watching and also what can make it so difficult to watch.
Blue Valentine is not for everyone. It can be uncomfortable to sit through and there are quite a few snore-inducing scenes, yet the film deals with issues of romance and sex in a mature and candid way that I personally found refreshing. What’s more, Williams earns her Oscar nomination here and I personally find it a pity that there wasn’t room to give Gosling a nomination as well (not that I complain about the Best Actor roster this year, mind you). They carry the film together and praise of one must include praise of the other.
Bottom line: If you’ve got the stomach to check this out, I recommend doing so.