No Strings Attached captured hearts and the opening-weekend box office by giving audiences the 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 kind 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 only one of them (Adam Sandler in Punch-Drunk Love) ended with lovers united and moving forward together.
Yet there has been a sneaky spy in the house of love, 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 The 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
His idea of love would seem to be Lars and the Real Girl, an indie gem about a socially inept guy who falls in love with a blow-up doll. Although it’s downright sweet and endearing, Real Girl had quirks that elicited far too many uncomfortable laughs for regular audiences. And even The Notebook, his most mainstream effort (it’s 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 Cianfrance, finds Gosling in love with the dark side all over again. His character, Dean, is a slacker intellectual; an autodidact with little drive to succeed in the traditional sense (middle-class employment stability with the wife and kids in tow) but a huge heart and an even greater openness to the potential that the world has to offer. He wants to live and love like an exposed nerve that hasn’t experienced pain, yet once rubbed raw, he continues to masochistically seek any and all sensory stimuli. Dean latches onto Cindy (Michelle Williams), a fellow lost soldier of love, and they march headlong towards heartbreak ridge.
Cianfrance alerts us early on that this is not a love story. The intoxication of young love quickly shifts into an obvious addictive downward spiral. Rather than tease us with the possibility of a happily ever after, Blue Valentine cuts back and forth from those initial highs to the couple and their young child as the bottom nears. Hungover mornings on the couch, dead pets and overnight stays at seedy sex motels mar the landscape. Unspoken truths prevent Dean and Cindy from walking away. They both stand, side by side, on homemade land mines waiting for the inevitable explosions.
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 (it eventually earned an R after appeal). That initial NC-17 decision likely came due to an oral sex scene deemed too intense, despite the fact that 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 dare to love again. But it also illustrates that love is blindness, and we shouldn’t fear losing sight because our other senses will take over and guide us. Grade: B-plus
Opens Jan. 28. Check out theaters and show times, see the trailer and get theater details here.