If you’ve heard about indie hit Blue Valentine, then you have more than likely heard about the storm of controversy to have come with it. It received the infamous NC-17 certificate, for strong sexual scenes, by the American censors which led to mega producer Harvey Weinstein leading a huge campaign to get it an R. Which he won. And good for him. In the past I have been very critical of Weinstein, who was a man who was only in the job to line his back pocket and no way interested in artistic integrity. What’s great about him now is he has been fighting the corner for smaller movies like this to get as big an audience as possible.
Blue Valentine has also brought back the issues with the American rating system and the incredible double standards with the issues surrounding sexuality on screen. A point conceded by one of the film’s actors Ryan Gosling. Although it is a debate worth having, it has detracted away from the merits of the film of which there are many.
So the story covers the relationship between Dean and Cindy, played by Ryan Gosling and Michelle Williams, which is seen from two time periods: the point of them getting involved in a relationship and the messy break up which happens between them. The time structures are then woven together, which makes the atmosphere very bitter and difficult along with a slight hint of dramatic irony for the audience as we know that for them this is never going to work out.
The set up of this we have seen done to death a million times in drama since it first began. The tortured couple who are made for each other but in the end are essentially doomed, most recently we saw it in Revolutionary Road, where the break up of a marriage is documented with a fearsome melodramatic and staged touch. It was a theatrical film.
The tone of this is very different and the style is more atoned to a more realistic edge. The film balances itself very well between the scenes of first love which has some innocent charm and the scenes of break down which are incredibly raw. So for example, early in the movie we watch Dean serenading Cindy in a street with a ukulele, which could for some people be toe curling but the innocence of the scene and the dexterity of the performances make it work. And later in the movie we get a very long and protracted scene where the couple go to a seedy motel and its deeply unsettling and it is here where we suspect the marriage is no longer going to work.
The method of finding these moments and striking a chord between the two where they work well together have been very well documented. Writer/director Derek Cianfrance filmed the blossoming of the relationship with Gosling and Williams meeting each other and then broke the filming. He then sent Gosling and Williams to live together for two weeks and lead an ordinary life and then the filming of the scenes of break up began.
The reasons however why the film works is not behind the method but behind an extraordinary pair of dedicated performers at the film’s centre. Ryan Gosling and Michelle Williams are absolutely extraordinary and elevate the film unequivocally. They are very good at doing an awful lot of emoting and playing it very convincingly, a lot of emotion can be very hard to stomach but they find an equilibrium between keeping it natural and retaining a sense of melodrama. It is an actors film because it relies so much on their relationship and their on screen chemistry, it is built up on their talent as actors.
The storytelling is what also sets it apart from films we’ve seen like it before. The structure is incredibly interesting but doesn’t stop you from getting emotionally involved. Cianfrance also shoots the film beautifully, the scenes which happen earliest in the story’s history are shot on grainy, handheld 16 mm. It gives the film a retrospective, nostalgic feeling to it as well as suggesting the gritty seriousness of what’s yet to come. The rest of the film is shot on the RED camera which gives the film an urgency and immediacy in those scenes of break up.
What will stop it from being a hit is that it is uber depressing. There aren’t very many laughs between the start or the finish and the tone is oppressively uncomfortable. I have to say I admired it more than I liked it and after stumbling out the theatre I felt the need for a few strong drinks but I don’t necessarily mean that as a criticism. After all that is the film’s intention and that’s kind of what I wanted. I wanted it to be raw and unsentimental. But whether that is what an audience wants is another matter.