Of all the films likely to be awards contenders at the year's end, if you had to guess one that might prove to have had a major ratings controversy with the MPAA, you might have assumed, until a few weeks ago, that it would be the nudity-packed "Love and Other Drugs," or Danny Boyle's "127 Hours," which has seen frequent reports of patrons passing out in early screenings with the gory detail of the film's key act.
The one that we wouldn't have picked up at all is Derek Cianfrance's "Blue Valentine," which is heading for a December 31st release through The Weinstein Company after picking up great buzz at Sundance and Cannes earlier in the year. But that's exactly what happened two weeks ago, when the MPAA granted the indie romance an NC-17 rating, which, if the appeal fails, more or less dooms its commercial prospects just as did to the last major film that went out with the rating, Ang Lee's "Lust, Caution."
We were already keenly anticipating the film, even before our colleagues that caught it at Toronto and Cannes raved about it, but with the ratings decision coming just a few days before its London Film Festival press screening, it seemed like a perfect opportunity to take another look. What could the film possibly include to get it the dreaded NC-17? And could it possibly be as good as our other reviews suggested?
We'll return to the first question momentarily, but the answer to the second is a resolute 'Yes.' "Blue Valentine" is perhaps the most incisive, truthful and painful examination of a disintegrating relationship since "Eternal Sunshine of A Spotless Mind." Using a dual structure, we follow twentysomethings Dean and Cindy over their last 24 hours as a couple, mixed in with flashbacks to their courtship and eventual marriage. Cindy's a nurse, Dean's a house painter, but has drifted aimlessly through a series of jobs through most of his 20s, and they have a daughter together.
In many ways, the 'Eternal Sunshine' comparison is an unfair one: this is a relationship story without bells and whistles, without gimmickry -- even the structural trickery feels like a natural choice in context. It's ultimately a simple, and yes, familiar story, but almost better for it. Helmer Derek Cianfrance is clearly telling a tale with a degree of autobiography to it (Ryan Gosling looks as much like his director here as Leonardo Di Caprio did in "Inception"), and our guess is that you'd be hard pressed to find an audience member who didn't identify with some aspect of the film.
Even the allegedly less-mainstream likes of "500 Days Of Summer" are stuffed with artificial, false moments, but there's nothing of the kind to be found here: every moment, every argument, every snatched memory has the ring of truth to it. And this is down to a huge degree to the two central performances: both Gosling and Michelle Williams are exceptionally good, perhaps the best they've ever been -- and when you have actors with credits like "Half Nelson" and "Wendy and Lucy" to their names, that's a fairly significant statement.
Gosling perhaps has the showier role, his impulsive, heart-on-sleeve New Jersey romantic switching effortlessly between being charm itself and being deeply irritating. Yes, it's another man-child, the archetype that's haunted the 21st century so far, but it's such a definitive, eviscerating portrayal that we can't imagine anyone else wanting to take another stab for some time. As maddening as Dean can be, we're also never in doubt as to why Cindy would want to stay with him -- no mean feat, for a film that's based so much around the couple's unhappiness.
Williams, meanwhile, continues to shore up her reputation as one of the best actresses we have right now. Both fierce and fragile, she seems almost impossibly young in the flashback sequences, and almost impossibly world-weary in the final ones. And they work like gangbusters together -- the climactic scene, in the surgery where Cindy works, might be the best-acted scene of the year.
It's very much Gosling and Williams' show, but we'd be remiss in not mentioning John Doman ("The Wire") as Cindy's father and an excellent, near-unrecognizable Mike Vogel ("Cloverfield") as her high-school jock ex-boyfriend. Cianfrance, meanwhile, does a sterling job, in only his second film in 12 years (supposedly the film's been trimmed significantly since Cannes, and this version seemed fairly fat-free), ably assisted by DoP Andrij Parekh ("Sugar"). Parekh's work here is absolutely stunning, and more than ever we're kicking ourselves for not including him as one of our cinematographers to watch a few months back.
The film's a real aural pleasure as well -- Grizzly Bear's score, while probably providing fuel to the fire for those who dismiss the film as navel-gazing hipster romance, is terrific (finally exploding gloriously during the excellent final credit sequence), and Gosling's rendition of The Mills Brothers' "You Always Hurt The Ones You Love" on a ukulele (as seen in the trailer) is one of our favorite musical moments of the year.
And as for that rating? We honestly can't see where the MPAA are coming from. There are some fairly graphic sex scenes, but nothing that hasn't been seen in R-rated fare before. Some whispers have suggested it might revolve around a motel assignation between the couple that goes somewhat awry, but we suspect that the board's old friend cunnilingus is responsible -- as recently as 2003's "The Cooler," they were demanding cuts from relatively graphic portrayals of oral sex, and there's one here that's bound to get their backs up. It's ludicrous, but we can't imagine it standing on appeal, somehow.
Of course, even if 16-year-olds are allowed to see the film, we're not sure they'll appreciate it -- the film probably works best for those who've been hit by the freight train of a relationship disintegrating without either of you being able to work out exactly why. "Blue Valentine" has to be seen, but it's probably best to go on your own -- this may be the worst date movie since "Shoah"... [A]