Blue Valentine (R) ★★★★

Review Date: January 3rd, 2011

It's a shame that the MPAA has a hard-on for Derek Cianfrance's Blue Valentine, because its controversial NC-17 rating has taken focus off of the film's quality and become a dramatic story all its own. A provocative, non-linear exploration of a failing marriage, it pulls no punches in terms of its heavy subject matter and boasts wonderful performances from stars Ryan Gosling and Michelle Williams (Gosling in particular proves that he is perhaps the most talented young actor in the business right now).

So what's all the fuss about? What did this little indie do to deserve a rating reserved for movies like Bad Lieutenant and Last Tango In Paris? Absolutely nothing, which is why there's been such commotion. While the fore mentioned films received the "mark of death" from the MPAA because of graphic violence and/or explicit sexual content, Blue Valentine's most risqué moments are realistic, non-sensationalized love scenes between a girl and her boyfriend and, later, a husband and wife. There's absolutely nothing distasteful about these sequences; the latter is truly heartbreaking and affecting, presenting a couple in their most intimate and damaged state. In my opinion, the rating is a reflection of how backwards American values are. It's nothing short of a crime that the Saw films, with their over-abundance of gratuitous torture scenes, can pass for a hard-R while Blue Valentine faces a potentially crippling fate because of a sex scene that is tame compared to the raucous romp's in movies like Monster's Ball and Lust, Caution, but I digress.

Let's talk about the film as if its rating was a non-issue. Blue Valentine charts the course of a marriage from the moment the man and woman meet to the revelatory conclusion that their relationship is doomed. Dean is an honest, hard working blue-collar guy who has a chance encounter with Cindy. It's love at first sight that sets them on a collision course with destiny, but as we learn throughout the film, love at first sight isn't all it's cracked up to be.

From the moment they set out on a life together, they are met with conflict. First it's exterior forces like a jealous ex-boyfriend (Mike Vogel, in his usual alpha male persona), but writer-director Cianfrance steers clear of the pitfalls of the textbook Hollywood drama by having his characters ultimately face problems that plague contemporary couples: financial troubles, alcoholism, etc., giving the narrative bleak authenticity. Through non-sequential editing, the filmmaker emphasizes the broken relationship by juxtaposing happiness and sadness and we see that, though their love it strong, Dean and Cindy may have never really had a chance to flourish. Cianfrance uses every element of production, from mise-en-scene to makeup, to draw attention to their fledging union; it's subtle but smart filmmaking that serves the story first and foremost.

Still, without question the best asset's the film has is its stars, whose characters regress as the story unfolds. Gosling gives Dean, a poor Florida native who relocates to Brooklyn, NY with hope and ambition, an introspective charm and confidence that could easily win over the wealthiest debutante. After the "honeymoon phase" of the courtship has concluded, we cut to the future where he's become a cold, hardened cynic. Williams is equally as impressive in different ways. She can be so emotionally reserved but snap at a moments notice and become an energetic firebrand. If the film itself is sadly disregarded because of the rating fiasco, I truly hope that the Academy can look at their work without judgment and honor them accordingly.

Blue Valentine is not for the weak-hearted. It's a dark tale that explores the reasons why we fall in love and provokes questions about examining our own loved ones. Like Dean and Cindy, you may not like what you find on the backend of the analysis, but you should be intrigued to have been challenged to do so. rated this film 4 stars.