Blue Valentine screened here at the NO Film Fest the same week Welcome to the Rileys, Black Swan, and 127 Hours did. I did not end up seeing it due to a prior engagement the night it screened, and so I watched the controversy about its rating–should it be NC17 or R, and if the board said NC17 should they re-edit to get it downgraded to R?–with trepidation. After all, I’d blown potentially my only chance to see the “true” film. Thankfully the film’s producers successfully argued for an R rating without any adjustment of the film, and after watching it I really don’t understand what all the fuss was about. There was nothing that I saw which came even close to being NC17, so far from it, in fact, that I had to reconfirm with my companion that it had not, in fact, been edited. The whole situation created a lot of media buzz for the film, but what it should have been doing was highlighting the ridiculous double standards for violence and sexuality in our Puritanical rating system; 100 deaths an hour is no problem, but explicit, clearly non-exploitative sex is still Too Much. At least they got this one right in the end; this is not an NC-17 movie.
So what is this movie? It’s a movie about a day in the life of a couple (Michelle Williams and Ryan Gosling) whose relationship is on the rocks. We see in piecemeal flashbacks their courtship and the choices that led them to that place. By the end of the movie you feel like you can’t blame one more than the other for the situation; there’s no “bad guy” here, just the reality that life doesn’t always turn out as you hope and that sometimes other people let you down.
The movie is filmed in an oddly intimate way–you feel like you’re watching someone’s life through a zoom on a home video camera, so it has an almost voyeuristic documentary feel. This style of filming may have heightened the performances from Williams and Gosling, which were definitely competent, subtle, and relatable, but which might not have stood up to a more cinematic camera technique. But this was not a cinematic story; this was a story about putting one couple, one relationship, under a zoom lens and examining it in microcosm. So the acting didn’t need to be over-the-top dramatic to work; it felt real, like these were just two people any of us might know, or be, whom we were following around, watching.
This movie reminded me a lot of Closer, actually, in that it takes a hard look at romantic relationships and turns up the ugliness and insecurity at the heart of most of them. And, like Closer, it is a movie about love, not a love story, and therefore a better “date night” for people in long-term relationships than budding ones. I think the strength of this story, however, is its relatability. Even if you are not in the position of these two characters in a general sense, you will find moments that you have experienced in one relationship or another. Those in the movie might belong to a different string of moments than your life holds, but at least that moment, or maybe that one, will feel like one of your own.
Blue Valentine is also a movie that respected its own potential; it left the ending ambiguous, open-ended–just like life. You are left free to write the ending you want to see for this family. The final mood is more pensive than melancholy, more hopeful than uplifting, and more thought-provoking than final. I enjoyed this movie, and I think it is a much more realistic look at what family life and intimate relationships are in the real world than anything Hollywood studios can produce. It’s not a comfortable movie, but it’s a good movie. While I don’t think it will win any of the awards it’s up for this year, I think the nominations are well deserved.
Elena Nola is the imperial movie critic and the colder half of the Ladies of Ice and Fire.