A dark bluesy ode to love
By T.T. Stern-Enzi
Rating: R Grade: B+
“No Strings Attached” captured hearts and the opening weekend box office by giving audiences the same old, same old vision of love, which, in the end, isn’t really about love at all. Love doesn’t live at the multiplex; the reflection of it that Hollywood casts bends and swirls like a carnival funhouse frame, stretched too thin in one instance, and then pulled into a flattened pose that is also one-dimensionally thin. It looks cute as couples playact their way through the arc of meeting, breaking up, and getting back together, but that’s reel love, not the full-bodied real love that lasts and abides.
During my first decade in the dark as a critic, I searched desperately and found a few real valentines dedicated to the glories of love, films like “The Fountain,” “Solaris,” “Punch Drunk Love” and “The Constant Gardener.” The love for sale, in these cases, wasn’t pure and simple; it wasn’t a fairy tale. Love was grim and fiery and full of passion and dark impulses. The one constant in that collection is the emotional focus, one centered on the male protagonist. The men in these stories struggle to find and hold onto scraps of memory and fading hope. And of them all, only one – Adam Sandler in “Punch Drunk Love” – with lovers united and moving forward together.
There has been a sneaky spy in the house of love though, one who has come in from the cold again. Ryan Gosling. Who would have thought that Gosling, having broken through with the politically charged indie thriller “True Believer” and continued pummeling our senses and sensibilities in “Murder By Numbers,” “Stay,” and “Half Nelson,” had need for reel love? The truth is that Gosling doesn’t have time for the Hollywood stuff. Even “The Notebook,” his most mainstream effort (based on a Nicholas Sparks novel), fractures time and our expectations, clouding the sentimental mood with his usual brooding intensity.
So, it should come as no surprise that “Blue Valentine,” from writer-director Derek Cainfrance, finds Gosling in love with the dark side all over again. His character, Dean, is a slacker intellectual, an autodidact with little drive, but a huge heart and an even greater openness to the potential of the world. He wants to live and love like an exposed nerve that hasn’t experienced pain, yet once rubbed raw, continues to masochistically seek any and all sensory stimuli. He latches onto Cindy (Michelle Williams), a fellow lost soldier of love, and they trudge headlong towards heartbreak.
Cianfrance alerts us early on that this is not a love story. The intoxication of young love has quickly shifted into an addictive downward spiral that is obvious to everyone. Rather than tease us with the possibility of a happily ever after, “Valentine” cuts back and forth from those initial highs to the couple and their young child as the bottom nears. All of the hearts are lonely and broken; there’s nothing left but the crash. This is the blues, straight with no chaser and it flays the flesh off the bone. The ugliness and pain that you hear in the voices of blues singers, that is what you see in the faces of Gosling and Williams and in these jagged hand-held frames.
During its first review, the ratings board found “Blue Valentine” too raw for an R-rating, although it earned the rating on appeal. That initial NC-17 decision likely came due to an oral sex scene deemed too intense, despite the fact that as it was cut, there was little to no exposed flesh. A far more relevant warning should have been raised for the state of the hearts of sensitive viewers because “Blue Valentine” will break your heart and leave you afraid to even dare to love again.
Reach DCP freelance writer T.T. Stern-Enzi at T.T.Stern-Enzi@daytoncitypaper.com.