If you’re going to make a film about the downfall of a relationship, you better make sure the audience gives a shit about the people involved.
I recently saw Blue Valentine, a film made famous before its release due to a very public debate over whether it should receive an “R” or an “NC-17” rating. The scene that upset the MPAA was of Ryan Gosling, the male lead, performing oral sex on co-star Michelle Williams, who, for whatever reason, has been nominated for an Academy Award for her performance. Well, Blue Valentine got the “R”rating, and the aforementioned controversial scene, like the movie, is, at best, underwhelming. Some may argue that the filmmakers deserve kudos for including a graphic oral sex scene; it’s such a gutsy thing to do. I say gimme a break. The scene doesn’t advance the story in any way. It isn’t symbolic, beautiful, ironic, or anything else that may help give it the label of “interesting” as opposed to “unnecessary.” Plus, it’s not like it was spectacularly shot. If I ever write director Derek Cianfrance a letter, it will simply say, “You’re not Bernardo Bertolucci. The ‘70‘s are over. Go home.”
Enough whining about gratuitous sex — let’s go get down to it. Blue Valentine is “about” a married couple’s last attempt at salvaging whatever the Hell is left of their relationship. In the beginning of the film, Gosling and Williams decide to leave their daughter at grandpa’s house and spend the night at a cheesy motel to “get drunk and make love” and resolve whatever the Hell they need to resolve (you never really find out any specifics). En route to the motel, they both have flashbacks (Oh, you! I see what ya did there, Cianfrance, you utterly original filmmaker, you!) of the day they first met. Where? At a convalescent home. Gosling, a furniture mover, is moving an old man’s belongings into a new room when he spots Williams reading a saucy romance novel to her grandmother in a room across the hall. I cannot deny that Gosling looks rather attractive during the flashbacks, nor can I deny the fact that if I were approached by a cute, charming furniture mover with great facial hair and great tattoos, I would totally be tempted to go out with him (I’m so not kidding). However, at no point during the flashbacks did I think about how cute the two of them were when they first met/what a tragedy it was that their relationship goes south. Instead I thought, “I think I’ll have those frozen organic enchiladas when I get home.”
The early flashbacks don’t offer much information other than the fact that the two leads come from humble, somewhat fucked up backgrounds. Like I said, all we are shown about Gosling is that he is a furniture mover. Meanwhile, all we are shown about Williams is her father is an angry bastard. I suspect I was supposed to be afraid of her father, but all he does is throw some meatloaf during a stereotypical “You call this dinner?” moment that’s about as believable as Brad’s Pitt’s accent in Troy. (You want a real “You call this dinner” scene? Watch Alice Doesn’t Live Here Anymore. Haven’t seen it? It’s Martin Scorsese. Stop jerking off to The Departed and visit Netflix.) After the meatloaf flinging, we see that Williams wants to break away from her white trash family and make something of herself, but totally ruins her chance when she lets her jock boyfriend screw her without a condom. You don’t understand, she coulda had class! She coulda been a contendah! She coulda been somebody, instead of a bum, which is what she is. Let’s face it.
At this time I wish to apologize to The Movie Gods for making a reference to On The Waterfront whist writing about Blue Valentine. References happen, and I’m sorry. I can’t help myself.
What happens when they arrive at the cheesy motel, you ask? Williams takes a shower and Gosling tries to initiate shower sex, but Williams isn’t interested. Then they put some music on the CD player and dance. Then there’s more flashback bullshit, during which Gosling and Williams have a chance second-meeting on a bus and start flirting. They have an impromptu ice cream date and sing and dance in front of a freaking bridal store. While I watched Gosling and Williams give it their best, I couldn’t help but roll my eyes. The shaky, It Feels Like You’re On The Outside Looking In! camera work was bothering me, plus I wanted to smack Cianfrance upside the head — yet again — for the bridal store bullshit. We know they end up getting married; we’re not stupid (although maybe we are, because we’re watching Blue Valentine).
Flash forward to the motel — Gosling and Williams get very drunk and have an argument about Gosling’s “potential.” Williams talks about how Gosling is good at everything he does, and he shouldn’t continue to sell himself short. Gosling says that all he wants is to be a husband and a father. Blah blah blah, awkward sex scene that was obviously shot with the intention of being awkward, blah blah blah.
I could go on and tell you about how underwhelmed I was by the ending, but, truthfully, I don’t really care to examine any more scenes because it is starting to bore me. This is all I am trying to convey: Blue Valentine is shit. I understand that the filmmakers wanted to present a true-to-life story (IE: cunnilingus and nipples) about two people who fall in love and then fall out of love. I understand that the realism (IE: cunnilingus and nipples) is meant to be mind-blowing. What I do not understand is how they, the filmmakers, failed at making me give a fuck about anything I saw on the screen. Throughout the entire film I wanted to care about something — the characters, the story, the fucking art direction — but I just didn’t. Instead, the thought of frozen organic enchiladas was the only thing keeping me awake. What was keeping me in the theater? The thought that I’d have a blast writing a scathing review.
Here’s a clip. Williams has to leave the motel early in the morning because she gets called in to work. Not only does she warn Gosling of the possibility the night before, but she also leaves him a note the next morning. I have no idea why he claims he does not know what happened. Perhaps he cannot read? Perhaps that is the reason they fight all the time?
Before going to see Blue Valentine on Saturday afternoon, I watched a bit of the 1968 period film The Lion in Winter, starring Katharine Hepburn and Peter O’Toole. The film takes place on an exceptionally stressful Christmas Eve, when King Henry II (O’Toole) is supposed to name an heir. His wife, Eleanor of Aquitaine (Hepburn), wants their son Richard (as in “The Lionhearted”) to succeed Henry, while Henry wants John (as in, “The Total Loser”) to be king. Given the circumstances, as well as given the two lead actors, drama ensues.
In my humble opinion, The Lion in Winter features two of the most kickass performances ever captured on film. Just thinking about the performances heightens my energy level — my mind races and I start thinking about specific scenes and specific techniques and unique choices and unpredictable deliveries and the delicate art of combining subtlety and theatricality. Basically, the full moon rises and I become a Werenerd. Hepburn and O’Toole bring their A -Games as the deceitful, conniving, pissed off King and Queen, both presenting multidimensional performances that put Gosling and Williams to shame. (Duh.) Yes, The Lion in Winter is a work of historical fiction that involves references to King Louis and Thomas Beckett and Eleanor’s “uncle Raymond,” but period film whatnot aside, the film is about a troubled marriage. While The Lion in Winter doesn’t have graphic sex scenes with oh-so-realistic moaning sounds, it does have — gasp! — a fucking great script. Meaty dialogue. Subtext. Complex fucking characters. It tells the story of two people who were in love, and now are out of love, and dammit, I love both of the lead characters from start to finish. I love the horrible things they say to each other while they’re fighting, and I love the few tender moments they share together when they both let their guard down. The writer, James Goldman, neglected to include any scenes where Henry and Eleanor get drunk and yell at each other, and he didn’t include any sappy, indulgent flashbacks; no half-assed, old-hat shocking shit. He kept it simple and created people, not just parts.
At this point, you may think that I am a judgmental, stuck-up bitch who tries too hard to be cynical. Not true. In truth, I wish I loved everything that I hate — life would be so much easier. I wish I totally dug all the films that are up for Oscars this year — I wish that Black Swan hadn’t made me smirk and that The King’s Speech was my idea of breathtaking. I wish that my top three celebrity crushes were Ryan Reynolds, Jake Gyllenhaal, and Robert Pattinson instead of Marlon Brando, Peter O’Toole, and Robert De Niro. I wish I was counting down the days until the release of the Russell Brand version of Arthur! and that I had never heard of Dudley Moore. I wish my favorite film was The Notebook. Unfortunately, my parents instilled in me an appreciation for good shit, and now here I am, constantly having to bite my tongue when perfectly nice people talk about the brilliance that is It’s Complicated, or about how they can’t wait to see No Strings Attached. It’s a tough life, but fuck it — Blue Valentine is terrible, Michelle Williams didn’t deserve a nomination, and had it not been for those organic frozen enchiladas my Saturday night would have been ruined. For the love of Brando, watch something else. It really isn’t difficult to find something of substance — something conceived by an intelligent writer and brought to life by a brave director and powerful actors. Don’t settle for all the sterile garbage disguised as cutting-edge cinema — you’re better than that, and don’t forget it. Derek Cianfrance, blow me.