The imminent release of writer-director Derek Cianfrance’s The Place Beyond the Pines prompted a re-watch this week of his previous feature, Blue Valentine. Released in 2010, Blue Valentine charts the relationship between Cindy and Dean, using a cross-cut device to focus on the beginning and seeming end of the relationship. I say seeming end because the movie’s plot is ambiguous, not least in its refusal to identify fully the reason or reasons why the relationship is failing. It just is, which is how many relationships in real life fail, is it not? They just do. Nonetheless, Cindy’s exhaustion and the extent to which she is exasperated with Dean is obvious. Furthermore, the couple’s sniping at each other is indicative of a fundamental breakdown in communication. There is an integrity about both of these characters, but it doesn’t seem to be enough to salvage their relationship.
In a Q&A on the DVD release, Cianfrance references his background in documentary and how it taught him to listen. And the movie does feel like eavesdropping on the conversation between the two protagonists. Cianfrance’s documentary experience is also reflected in the hyper-real cinematography and the spontaneous feel of the performances from Williams and Gosling, the result undoubtedly of the actors’ improvisation of dialogue. For his part, Cianfrance was fortunate to be working with Williams and Gosling, two of Hollywood’s most extraordinary talents. The scenes of their first date are beautifully rendered, as the two characters awkwardly find their way into getting to know each other. The movie’s feel is strengthened by Cianfrance’s own approach to its production. The part of the movie depicting the development of Cindy and Dean’s relationship was shot using Super 16mm, giving it a natural, lived-in and intimate look. The blue tint of the scenes depicting the relationship as it falls apart washes the vitality out of the camera work, almost as if it has been bleached, and reflects the distressed nature of the marriage.
Blue Valentine became caught up in a ratings controversy when the MPAA rated it NC-17, the category that replaced an X rating in 1989. The rating was in respect of a cunnilingus scene, prompting Gosling to accuse the ratings association of sexism and misogyny on the grounds that a scene involving oral sex performed on a male would never have received similar censure. Although the rating was changed to R following an appeal lodged by The Weinstein Company, distributors of the movie, the controversy did highlight the seeming discomfort with depictions of female sexuality in mainstream popular culture. The NC-17 rating is less about stopping children under 17 from being admitted to movie theatres to watch certain movies than it is about censoring movie content itself. In the case of Blue Valentine, the retention of the NC-17 rating would have effectively stigmatized the movie for its depiction of oral sex. At the time, Gosling was quoted as saying:
‘You have to question a cinematic culture which preaches artistic expression, and yet would support a decision that is clearly a product of a patriarchy-dominant society, which tries to control how women are depicted on screen. The MPAA is okay supporting scenes that portray women in scenarios of sexual torture and violence for entertainment purposes, but they are trying to force us to look away from a scene that shows a woman in a sexual scenario, which is both complicit and complex. It’s misogynistic in nature to try and control a woman’s sexual presentation of self. I consider this an issue that is bigger than this film.’
The link below is to a recording of Cianfrance, Williams and Gosling on PBS’ Charlie Rose. It is well worth watching for the discussion of how Blue Valentine evolved and how different it was in its making compared to other movies.