There was a time when Hollywood portrayed marriage as a happy institution that was key to a healthy society. Sure, a lot of those films and TV shows were propaganda along the lines of Father Knows Best, going over the top in their promotion of a world in which a kindly man ruled the roost over his doting wife and children.
Then along came Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?, a devastating cinematic portrait of poisonous marriages and repressed lives that featured Elizabeth Taylor shrieking her way to winning one of the film’s five Oscars. But even as that 1966 film presaged the social revolution and decades of divorce to come, it seems that it also resulted in any serious portrayal of marriage being filled with hatred and negativity, in which “’til death do us part” became as much of a fairytale concept as “once upon a time.”
This winter marks the release of another low point in movie marriages, as Blue Valentine hits theaters with the red-hot indie-actor coupling of Ryan Gosling and Michelle Williams. The film has already stirred up reams of headlines because of the battle surrounding its rating, which originally was NC-17 for a graphic sex scene, but which the film’s head distributor, Harvey Weinstein, successfully appealed to be released with an R.
Blue Valentine follows the relationship of Dean (Gosling) and Cindy (Williams) as they meet, fall in love, marry and fall out of love over the course of six years. Director Derek Cianfrance and his co-writers, Joey Curtis and Cami Delavigne, jump back and forth in time throughout in what appears to be an attempt to mask that the story is so threadbare and often unpleasant.
The biggest problem with Blue Valentine isn’t the fact that an unhappy marriage is depicted, for of course there are plenty of those and cinema needs to reflect all aspects of life. The problem is that if you’re going to put the audience through an emotional wringer, then the characters involved should all have their good points and bad points, or the “bad guy” in a relationship should really be bad.
Here, the couple’s core problem seems to be that Dean is a blue-collar guy with simple ambitions who loves to play with his young daughter on her level. Cindy, meanwhile, used to have bigger dreams of medical school and feels like she’s the more responsible party raising two children—including her husband. The guy may have his childish moments, but considering the sacrifices he makes for Cindy early in their relationship, it’s easy to demand that she cut him some slack and put more work into the marriage.
Everything deteriorates to the point that Cindy is so dispassionate about sex that she appears to be squeamishly resigning herself to it during a one-night attempt at a romantic getaway. The scene itself isn’t much more graphic than plenty of other R films, but the emotions it lays bare are extremely awkward and uncomfortable to encounter.
Kind of like Blue Valentine as a whole.