When the MPAA handed Derek Cianfrance's Blue Valentine an NC-17 rating this fall, cynics suggested that the so-called "kiss of death" was better publicity for the gently experimental marriage drama than anything famously crafty distributor Harvey Weinstein could buy. When the rating was reversed — downgraded to an R without a single cut to the film — after Weinstein himself reportedly appeared in front of the appeals board armed with a "200-page dossier of letters and arguments, as well as 3,000 tweets," it didn't seem so cynical to cite the controversy as a work of genius. Back when Weinstein bought the film, shortly after its Sundance première, it was just another tough-sell film festival indie. Now, Blue Valentine is the movie that was both hot enough to rankle the censors and beloved enough to make them change their mind.
To be sure, anyone looking for porn here will be disappointed: Blue Valentine's stars only partially disrobe, and though their couplings are frank, they're not explicit or gratuitous. In keeping with the rest of Cianfrance's picture, Blue Valentine's sex is both unimaginatively blunt and frustratingly obscured.
The story of how a couple travels from too-cute introduction to irreconcilable differences in just more than half a decade, this divorce movie begins with a child's scream. Frankie, the kindergarten-age daughter of Dean (Ryan Gosling) and Cindy (Michelle Williams), discovers her dog is missing while Mom and Dad are still asleep (she in bed, he slumped in last night's clothes in the living room). When Cindy later comes across the dog's corpse along the side of the road, the parents decide to ship Frankie to her granddad's house for the night so they can bury the family pet and figure out how to break the news to their kid. With a rare night off from parenthood, Dean decides the time is right to cash in a gift certificate for a future-themed room at a pleasure hotel. "C'mon, let's get drunk and make love," husband coaxes reluctant wife, then unsubtly announces the evening's make-or-break potential for their marriage. "Pack your bags, babe — we're going to the future."
They get drunk, all right, but it becomes clear that there's a scant supply of love left between them. There was once a surplus: Cindy's chance run-in with an ex-boyfriend at a liquor store on the way to "the future" touches off the first of many long flashbacks to Dean and Cindy's early days, which Cianfrance weaves through the film to the end, ultimately dovetailing the couple's wedding day with the last moments of their marriage. Dean was a working-class Brooklyn boy who caught a glimpse of Cindy, a pre-med student in the process of disentangling herself from a long-term boyfriend, and fell in love at first sight. Seen in halcyonic, highly saturated flashback (as opposed to the generally low-contrast, shades-of-blue present), Cindy and Dean's relationship moves quickly from cloyingly quirky courtship ritual to a deep bond rushed by literal life-or-death drama and blinkered by lust. As past and present weave together, the deeper Cindy falls under Dean's spell in the past, the more cruelly her present-day version rejects her husband's sexual advances.
As is the case with other non-linear romances (the musicals Merrily We Roll Along and The Last Five Years come to mind, as does Gaspar Noé's Irreversible), the emotional depth produced by the juxtaposition of the naive, idyllic beginning and the post-knowing, crushing end is Blue Valentine's raison d'être. It's a gimmick, but not necessarily a bad one: In the film's final act, as the parallel tracks veer in wildly different tonal directions, Cianfrance's montage increases in fluidity, and the crescendo it all comes to is effective, if over-reliant on Grizzly Bear's ethereal score. It's an improvement over early scenes, when Cianfrance's thesis on the evanescence of mutual adoration is too often spelled out in literal language.
Even when transparently plumbing for depth, Cianfrance's film is frustratingly surface-bound in ways that reflect, if not out-and-out misogyny, then at least a lack of interest in imbuing his female character with the rich interior life and complicated morality he gives his male lead. Cindy is written as a cipher, inexplicably veering from indifferent to Dean to purringly hot for him (and not just him — in an infuriating scene set in a women's clinic, Cianfrance gives us just enough information about Cindy's past to be able to write her off as a tempestuous slut), and then back to uninterested. Williams performs Cindy's enigmatic hot-and-cold routine as blankness. At the film's emotional peaks, Cianfrance's camera assumes Dean's point of view, getting extremely close to the actress as if that's the way to capture the inner life that's invisible to the eyes of both husband and lens.
Do "feelings just disappear," as Cindy puts it at one point, without a visible trace? If so, Blue Valentine may be an accurate, naturalistic portrait of what it's like to be locked out of your lover's heart and head, but in contrast to Gosling's hyper-expressive Dean, Cindy's poker face reads as an imbalance. It's one thing that Dean has no clue who his wife really is, but, in a film that purports to study intimacy, the filmmaker could give us more of a glimpse. Without it, Cindy isn't just a heartbreaker — she's a villain.