It’s taken Derek Cianfrance’s script twelve years to take shape as his directorial debut proper, only becoming Blue Valentine after he’d relocated the film from California to Brooklyn to allow Michelle Williams to be closer to her young daughter, and after her co-star Ryan Gosling cleared his schedule (and learnt the banjo for one crucial scene) to make the film. Movie duly wrapped, there was then the issue of classification – the film only escaping a dreaded NC-17 after personal intervention by Hollywood heavyweight Harvey Weinstein.
The film is now showing as an R, yet there’s almost no nudity and contains violence no more savage than in other more sympathetically rated features. I suspect the issue is the film’s honest, unflinching tone. Cianfrance turns in a case study of a young, then slightly less young, couple falling in and out of love via a host of difficult circumstances romantic dramas rarely dare to screen. It’s been reported that Williams and Gosling used the director’s twelve-year old script as a marker rather than a guide – much of their lines are ad-libbed – and both leads puppeteer life-worn, nuanced characters. Williams tackles difficult subject matter with a stern yet not unsympathetic performance. Gosling – rapidly becoming the thinking man’s leading man – is sensational in the range of emotions he reaches for and nails.
Consequently, Blue Valentine often makes for emotionally draining viewing. There are moments of lightness – Grizzly Bear’s soundtrack is pretty, and suits the visuals perfectly; Gosling’s sussed cool lights up the screen during his and Williams’ courtship – but the film is otherwise relentless in its pursuit of showing all the dirt beneath the fingernails of love, and all the tears in the seal of romantic union. It’s a happy film. It’s a sad film. It’s an angry film. And then it’s a film that bludgeons any surviving happiness until it’s gasping for mercy. Does Blue Valentine‘s emotional honesty make it more romantic or less? That’s just one question this artistically commendable, particularly challenging film will pose in the hours while it’s screening, and after it’s done. Me? I’m still trying to work it out.