27 January 2011

Blue Valentine *

It's been a while since I watched a film with this kind of emotional rawness or verisimilitude of character. The stuff I've watched lately has been classics, (good) Hollywood stuff, and silly adventures about wizard children. So in an odd way, although this was a little rough, it was also incredibly refreshing.

There was a point fairly early on where, even though I already liked both characters, I couldn't help but see all the clichéd plot points they were hitting, and was a little worried about where the story was going to go. The script takes some awfully familiar turns, like the use of extensive flashback counterpoints or Cindy missing her daughter's recital. I wasn't faulting it really, but I couldn't pretend not to notice. By the end, though, I think it actually did this cleverly, and in a way I was glad for it.

The characters are much more lived in than most movies (literally, it turns out, if you read any behind-the-scenes trivia about the filmmakers) and much more dimensional. Dean and Cindy act like real people, and they are both lovable and wonderful to each other, and deplorable and terrible to each other. For the writers to hang all this on a chain of familiar tropes is actually very clever, for a couple of reasons. First, it does have the effect of keeping your general audience a little more anchored and properly oriented -- that is, it keeps the tougher-to-take emotions more palatable -- but moreover I think it highlights the difference between this film and your typical romantic comedy (or drama).

At first glance, to this viewer, it seemed they were establishing Dean as the loving family man, capable of dealing with traumatic situations and keeping his cool, devoted to nothing so much as his wife and daughter; and Cindy as the more serious-minded, job-oriented marmish mother, concerned with propriety and a little neglectful emotionally of both Dean and their daughter Frankie. By the midway point however, these two traits had been magnified and on closer inspection, it became clear that Dean was oppressively affectionate, so intent on giving love that he was unable to see the recipient of it as a genuine person; and that Cindy had grown into who she was in part as a reaction to this, that her tongue-clucking and scatterbrainedness both stemmed from the difficulty of having a man-child love her too intensely. And by the end we see everything in such stark, unapologetic detail, that it's impossible not to blame both of them for their collapse, and yet it's equally impossible not to sympathize with both as well. Like Closer, a much more stylized story with equally flawed characters falling in and out of love messily, you sympathize because you've been that guy or girl.

Much of the film hits close to home, and of the people I saw it with, I think I had the least obviously relatable recent past. Even so, it hits hard to see the way you are, or more often the way you have been, up there on the screen, and see the good and the bad of it. Not enough films are willing to show that, to show love as messy and damaging and to show relationships as genuinely broken and unfixable and still the thing you want to cling to desperately (because at the end of Blue Valentine, against all odds and against all logic, I wanted them to work it out anyway).

This really was a hard-hitting story emotionally, and I'm not sure that comes through all this analysis of story and style. Only from the safe distance of home can I look back and see what I've seen. In the moment, I was Dean and I was Cindy and everything that hurt them hurt me, and all the tiny things that thrilled them thrilled me. It's rare to be swept into a movie, especially one that's sort of tonally bleak, but it's also a beautiful thing. Enough corniness now, though. It's a great movie, and I hope everyone sees it.

(And on a side note: that this almost got an NC-17 rating, I find atrocious and frankly, morally reprehensible. There is no excuse for shuttering a story like this and encouraging youth to see torture porn and movies with rape. Honestly, if protecting the children is the motivation of the MPAA, then a film like this where sex has seriously messy consequences and love and sex do not solve everything should be mandatory and films like Van Wilder and whatever Katherine Heigl is in right now should be reserved only for viewers 21+, who know better. End rant.)

Seen at the Regal Fox Tower.

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