By: Roxana Hadadi
Don’t underestimate “Blue Valentine” just because its two stars respectively got their big breaks on a TV teen drama, “Dawson’s Creek,” and the film adaptation of a sappy love story penned by Nicholas Sparks, “The Notebook.” Michelle Williams and Ryan Gosling are visceral, brutal and unforgiving here, coming together and moving apart in a sometimes-beautiful, more-often-cruel way that will probably make you want to crawl into your bed and cry. Like, a lot.
Everyone loves a good romance, but who really wants to see a marriage fall apart onscreen? It’s undeniably painful to watch others in pain, too, so while films like “Revolutionary Road” and “American Beauty” are certainly amazing in terms of the performances involved (here’s to you, Kate Winslet), they’re not really something you want to watch again. “Blue Valentine” is like that, too – Williams and Gosling are powerful, the writing is poignant, the conclusion is emotionally wrenching. At the end of the film’s two hours, you know you’ve seen something profound and unforgettable – and scarily honest, too.
Much has been written about the sex scenes in “Blue Valentine,” so let’s just get to it: Yes, there are a lot of them. But should the film really have been rated NC-17, as the MPAA originally wanted? Doubtful, as the sex here isn’t unnecessarily graphic or overdone. The film’s modified R rating, though, is certainly fitting: There’s nudity here from Williams, so you see her topless and her backside; you also see Gosling bottom-down, but from behind. You never see the pair fully have sex, but you see them trying and nearly venturing down a violent path; there’s also oral sex performed on Williams a few different times, a shared shower and a sex scene between Williams and another character. There’s an abortion that gets a few steps in, and a gory fight scene. Even 17-year-olds who are technically allowed to see “Blue Valentine” probably shouldn’t, not just because of the sexual content, cursing and violence but also because of the weighty emotional trauma Williams and Gosling have inflicted upon them by others and then throw back at each other.
Perhaps “Blue Valentine” seems too raw already. But if you could sit through the paranoia and dementia of one of this winter’s other standouts, “Black Swan,” you owe it to yourself to see this drama, which centers on Dean (Gosling) and Cindy (Williams), a young married couple raising a daughter, Frankie (Faith Wladyka). They were in love once, but now it seems they do little more than snap at each other and complain: Nurse Cindy can’t handle Dean’s immaturity, while house painter Dean is painfully aware of how Cindy relishes her time at her job, and effectively away from home. She nags him about how he’s wasting his potential. He rants about what “potential” even means, and why it’s such a big deal for her that he’s lacking it. They spar over Bobby (Mike Vogel), a guy Cindy sees at the liquor store, and both she and Dean say the wrong things to each other to escalate the fight. It seems that’s all they can do.
But through flashbacks (which are distinguishable due to a crisper film quality, shot on 16-mm film), we become swiftly, sadly aware that these two truly loved each other once. As a medical student, Cindy dreamed of being a doctor and enjoyed visiting her grandmother – the only person in her family who talked instead of yelling – at her nursing home. A young high-school dropout working for a moving company by day and tinkering with music at night, Dean had no idea what he wanted do with his life – he has life experience, he tells his future employer during an interview, but not so much work experience – but after seeing her at the nursing home, knew whatever he did had to include Cindy. After a random meeting at a bus and a night of goofy romance, with her tap-dancing to his strumming on a ukulele (which channels Gosling’s real-life singing style with band Dead Man’s Bones), they’re hooked on each other, so much so that Cindy even brings Dean home, an unprecedented move that piques her parents’ attention.
But even from the start, there are cracks we’re meant to know about. Cindy wasn’t single when she met Dean, and her choice to start a relationship with him when not fully out of another foreshadows what will happen later on during their marriage. Dean’s ability to adapt to any technical or creative skill, but lack of interest in anything specific, mirrors his future apathy. It’s only their affection and warmth toward each other that is wholly unrecognizable, a stark contrast to the chill we see later on.
“Blue Valentine” doesn’t really assign blame to either character, as each of them brings their own emotional baggage into the marriage and hurts the other. But as they fumble toward a conclusion, with Dean desperately yearning to make things work and Cindy realizing the relationship is killing her, their dueling motives are both irritating and totally understandable, in the sad, conflicting way that these things often are. The film wouldn’t have worked if Gosling and Williams couldn’t handle both parts of their characters’ lives, but they’re gripping the whole way through. Gosling imbues his younger character with a charming aimlessness and his later life with a jaded protectiveness of Cindy, while Williams’ rejection of his concern, despite her obvious need to be loved, is heartbreaking. “Blue Valentine” will certainly hurt, and you’ll walk out wondering if the ones you love really are whom you thought. Just don’t get caught up in the musings – take a hug instead.