Saturday, February 19, 2011

Blue Valentine

Blue Valentine is an interesting case of a movie that I appreciate or admire many individual elements of without really liking as a whole. It depicts the final days in the marriage of two people who were never really right for each other, intercut with scenes of their initial courtship several years earlier (although reviews saying the chronology is all over the place are exaggerating; it's just two timelines that keep moving forward, something no one who's ever seen Lost will struggle with). It's raw and uncomfortably intimate and excels at making marriage look about as appealing as having the flesh shaved off your genitals with a cheese grater, although it embraces the naked cliché more than some seem ready or willing to admit.

But first off, let me say upfront that Michelle Williams and Ryan Gosling's performances are entirely beyond reproach. Perfect casting, naturalism beyond naturalism, making whatever dialogue they're assigned feel achingly authentic and the emotions leap off the screen. They're two of the best actors of their generation and the Academy was totally on point giving Williams a Best Actress nomination (though Portman still deserves to win). Gosling could have easily replaced Bridges or Bardem in one of the Best Actor slots too and I wouldn't utter a word of complaint. They're really damn good.

Blue Valentine aims to be an unguarded and supremely well-acted portrait of a marriage in decay, and it achieves that completely. If you're down for following the film as a pure emotional journey then you can probably stop reading here, as it may be right up your alley. But in big picture plot developments I found a lot of it tough to buy. (SOME SPOILERS INCOMING FOR THE NEXT TWO PARAGRAPHS) Take the scene where Michelle Williams' ex-boyfriend and his goons hunt Gosling down and beat him up, or worse, the scene where Gosling storms into Williams' office, starts screaming at people, accuses her boss of wanting to sleep with her, then punches him out. I may live a dull life, but that's not an event I have borne witness to and it kind of broke the movie's vérité vibe into pieces.

The film also runs screaming into the arms of cliché in its "abortion" subplot, where the past version of Williams goes to the clinic after getting unexpectedly knocked up then, of course, as movies and television have taught us all women who consider getting abortions do, decides she can't go through with it. I mean, sure, the scene's "gritty" in that there's no music and she goes into the OR and puts her feet up in stirrups before bolting, but otherwise there's nothing separating it from Juno. There's only one TV show I know of in the last five years that's been gutsy enough to subvert the generic "I can't!" abortion clinic scene cliché (I won't name the show because it would be a big spoiler), but Blue Valentine sure doesn't. I'm not saying they should have ditched the daughter from the movie, because she's important, but they could have found a better way to go about it. (END SPOILERS)

Director Derek Cianfrance shoots a good three-quarters of the movie in extreme close-up (especially scenes set in the present), which I suppose has the intended claustrophobic effect but also becomes extremely monotonous and makes certain scenes border on visually incoherent. At times it effectively yanks us into the moment with Williams and / or Gosling, but at other points I was way too aware of the camera and too aware of the directing and wished Cianfrance would just get out of the way and let his actors work. When I'm squinting and trying to figure out what the fuck the camera is swinging around at, I'm forcibly reminded that I'm watching a movie. For some movies being reminded you're watching a movie is alright. In a supposedly realistic character piece like this it breaks the illusion and is a huge problem.

I feel like I should also briefly mention the film's initial NC-17 rating until it was reduced to an R after months of appeal. Actually watching the film, it's rather comical and absurd that it was ever slapped with such a branding — there's a tiny bit of nudity, I guess, not an amount that stands out or is unusual in any way, and one scene of implied cunnilingus that barely shows anything, and that's it. It just goes to show how much more censored film actually is than television these days.

2 Stars out of 5

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