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Review: Blue Valentine

By James Beale

March 18, 2011


"Blue Valentine" originally received the NC-17 mark of death before the rating was lowered to an R.

 

While the film deserves the latter, there are scenes of graphic sexuality that are deeply unsettling.


Yet these scenes aren't difficult to get through due to the two naked bodies on screen; rather, the emotions behind these acts are what makes them so difficult to watch.


Cindy's (Michelle Williams) looks of depression on the floor, or Dean's (Ryan Gosling) repeated attempts to please although he knows they will fail, make these sex scenes decidedly unsexy. 


But these moments, which make headlines before most saw the film, are nothing without the brilliant scenes around them. The story alternates between the beginning and end of a marriage, dreamy moments of pure infatuation contrasted with heartbreaking confrontations. Director and writer Derek Cianfrance marks these scenes with such an understated realism that the conversations seem plucked from real life.


Some of this has to do with the location - the film was shot in Brooklyn and Scrantion, Penn., which adds a dreariness to the affair. In Los Angeles, this story would have felt fake.


Furthermore, the actors literally lived with each other in preparation for their roles, and many lines were improvised. In the later scenes, Cindy and Dean feel like totally different people, with their looks transformed and their mindsets irrevocably changed.


The heartbreaking thing is, there is no quick fix for a dissolving marriage. The characters know it, yet they keep trying. There's an ambiguity about what caused the marriage to fall apart as well, as there's no obvious trigger.


This story is fundamentally American in that respect: domestication gradually brings the faults of the characters to light. In the beginning, their jobs seem as the only thing blocking their love. By the end, their jobs seem to be the only thing keeping them temporarily together.


Williams was nominated for an Academy Award for the role, and it doesn't take a careful observer to see why. Whereas Dean is a man-child whose charms wear off over time, Cindy slowly begins to separate herself from him, and even their child can't change her mind.


Which brings us back to the sex scenes. The NC-17 rating wasn't totally ridiculous - there have been plenty of scenes more physically graphic. 


But few have been more emotionally graphic. The MPAA must have been impacted by the film as well.


3.5/4 stars


"Blue Valentine" is playing at The Lyric from March 18 to March 23.