Blue Valentine is a difficult film to watch. Not because it uses a non-linear storytelling device, jumping between the present day struggles of a married couple and the early days of their relationship, but because of the content. Shy of losing a parent, child, or partner, the film seems to hit on every realistic obstacle a person could face in life--fallen dreams, missing dog, missing parents, sick parents, jealousy, anger, and depression, to name but a few of these issues. Dean (Ryan Gosling) and Cindy (Michelle Williams) are shown either doing everything they can to keep their marriage--their family--afloat or coyly falling in love. The jumps in time and memory are linked by parallel events. For example, after Dean slow-dances with Cindy in a cheap sex motel, the story jumps back to their first real date where Dean convinces Cindy to do a little tap dance to his song on the ukulele. The plot points always feature near-identical occurrences in their lives that play out in vastly different ways. It is safe to say that the past is a happier time than the present for the young married couple.
Director Dean Cianfrance makes excellent use of Super16 film stock (originally designed as a consumer-format) to imbue the film with an intimate appearance. It looks like a series of home movies. The footage is grainy and uneven, dialing up the bright hues of the past and dampening the duller colors of the present in equal measure. Super16 requires a great deal of light to accurately capture color and the film either shoots with too much light or not quite enough to clearly delineate the time periods. The film format itself is slowly being phased out by the main manufacturers for this very reason. The film standard--35mm--is much more forgiving in color. Blue Valentine is a film that needed the lower-budget look of Super16 to sell the audience on a very intimate relationship.
The film is perhaps best known at this point for the MPAA controversy. It was originally rated NC-17 because of one particularly graphic sex scene. The distributors petitioned the rating and got it bumped down to R without any edits. I will say this: the sex scenes are graphic. They are raw and emotional and filmed in a way that suggests voyeurism. The scene that was singled out (with oral sex) has unfairly been compared to Black Swan, in that you see everything in Blue Valentine--body movement, moaning faces, shaking bed frame--except for the actual action of Dean's mouth but only see the suggestion of the act in Black Swan.
There are, however, other sex scenes in Blue Valentine that are much more upsetting than they are graphic, including a particularly violent encounter in the present and a disastrous encounter in the past. The scenes are uncomfortable to watch, but they are meant to be. As awkward as I felt watching the film, I never once thought the sex was gratuitous or inessential to the story being told.
More than anything else, the film is a showcase for strong acting. Ryan Gosling plays Dean, a perpetual slacker willing to do anything to support his wife. In the past, he is a professional mover; in the present, he is a professional painter. He gets drunk, goes to work, and simultaneously acts immature and fatherly in every interaction with his wife and daughter.
Michelle Williams plays Cindy, a nurse far too concerned with helping everyone else at the expense of her own well-being. She faces the most adversity in the film because she already has all the advantages she needs in the past to be successful in the present. Gosling and Williams play off each other perfectly. I never once doubted the sincerity of their actions or emotions. Together, they are the main reason to see the film.
Blue Valentine is a very well-made drama about a rocky relationship. It is not an innovative film and it doesn't have to be. Even though I doubt I will revisit the film anytime soon, I'm glad I saw it. It's good to be challenged once in a while by a hyper-realistic film. It may not be the most pleasant experience, but it is powerful and memorable in ways most releases are afraid to strive for.
Thoughts? Love to hear them.