Monday, 17 January 2011

'Blue Valentine' review:

Stills and posters don't do 'Blue Valentine' justice. It looks too smug and indie, even a little high on itself with its brooding, handsome leads locked in a po-faced embrace. It seems self-consciously "cool" and "stylish", flaunting various garlands on the poster stating that it played in Cannes as well as the hippest international film festivals: Toronto and Sundance. It comes from the shamelessly Oscar-nomination-savvy Weinstein Company and the knowingly trendy soundtrack is composed by indie darlings Grizzly Bear. It was also subject of a high-profile age rating controversy in the US which was over almost as soon as it began, leading the more cynical to speculate that the whole thing might have been a publicity stunt to raise the film's profile (certainly nothing in the film warrants the original 'NC-17' rating from the MPAA). Worse still, I've heard people say things like "it's this year's '(500) Days of Summer'" - which is the worst thing anyone could ever tell me about a movie (except maybe "it's like a Michael Bay directed episode of '24'").

Forget all that though. 'Blue Valentine' is sensational and the performances of Michelle Williams and Ryan Gosling searing. It is an emotionally raw, sexually frank and honest movie about relationships, with rounded, multifaceted adult characters and a nonjudgmental attitude. There is something in this movie for anyone who has ever been through romance. But it doesn't stop there. A lady sitting next to me wept during one scene in which Gosling's character, who works as a removal man, helps a lonely old person move into a nursing home by organising the frail gent's photos and war memorabilia around the small, impersonal room. In another scene Michelle Williams' character talks to her ailing grandmother about the decline of her parents' marriage. Another harrowing scene sees her confront the physical process of having an abortion. It's a film that will resonate strongly with people who've been through any of these experiences - not just a painful break-up.

It's not all doom and gloom however. The shade wouldn't have any impact if not for the bright light that shines on half the movie, which flicks back and forth between the happy beginning of the relationship and the fraught end of the couple's married life - prompting those unfair comparisons with the superficial, winking atrocity that is '(500) Days of Summer'. This narrative structure isn't employed for its kookiness however, as the film plays these moments against each other for contrast and often for a change of pace and emotional gear. The salad days of the relationship are probably harder for the film to get right than the sadder stuff. It's relatively easy to do bleak and receive acclaim, whilst genuine romantic warmth is hard to convey and all too often it can read as cheesy, grating and cloying. But when Gosling flirts with Williams, when he sings to her and plays the ukulele, it is properly lovely and wholly sincere.

Director and writer Derek Cianfrance strikes this balance so wonderfully that 'Blue Valentine' avoids becoming a blandly anti-romantic "isn't love bullshit" movie and is instead something much more complex and truthful. "Honest" is perhaps the best adjective to describe the film, in its depiction of sexuality and love. And as with the very best films, in 'Blue Valentine' it is always possible to take any character's point of view and empathise with it. There isn't really too much moral grandstanding here. Nobody is ever obviously in the wrong. Yet at the same time you can understand why they might appear to be in the wrong to the other party. I'd also wager that anyone who watches it will encounter a situation or even an entire conversation that has literally happened to them at some point - for me it was the argument during which Gosling attacks the notion of "potential" (as invariably measured by economic success).

If I had one mild criticism it would be that male sexual gratification is never shown positively and the only scene we see of intimacy between Williams and Gosling is one of cunnilingus. Male sexual pleasure is aggressive and potentially destructive - something to be either put up with or resisted by women. This is only a mild criticism though and I certainly wouldn't advocate an additional love-making scene specifically to tick some sort of affirmative box. What we do see is well handled: tastefully filmed and extremely intimate, and always in service of the characters and their emotional journey (what a turgid, overworn phrase, but I can't think of a better one). It would also be hypocritical of me (given my attack on the Apatow comedies) not to mention that Gosling's character is the typical modern movie male (an overgrown man-child) who just wants to drink and have fun, whereas Williams is the stern, career-minded one who lays down the law with their daughter. But here it is done so well that it rings true and doesn't feel like standard 21st century Hollywood sexism that it perhaps is.

'Blue Valentine' isn't that sad little emo poem of a movie you might think it is from the poster. It's a riveting film that says as much about love and romantic relationships as any other film I've seen as it bravely and skilfully jumps between emotional extremes with great economy and even subtlety. If it doesn't resonate with you on some level then I can only surmise that you haven't ever left the house. It's one of those movies that makes two hours feel like twenty minutes and leaves you feeling satisfied by the art form you love so much, despite the fact it so often breaks your fragile little heart.

'Blue Valentine' is rated '15' by the BBFC and is out now in the UK.

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