Sunday, January 23, 2011

The one thing in "Blue Valentine" that I just can't shake (and no, it's not the sex!)

Like too many of 2010's critically acclaimed Oscar hopefuls (including The Fighter, Winter's Bone, Get Low, The Kids Are All Right and frontrunner The Social Network), Blue Valentine underwhelmed me. Though it's superior to much of what passes for cinema these days, unlike Rabbit Hole (another drama about love on the rocks, though for entirely different reasons), it failed to move me. It's hard to get invested in a couple when you don't understand why they're together in the first place.

Well, that's only half true. I totally got why Michelle Williams's character, Cindy, would fall for Ryan Gosling's Dean, though neither Williams nor the screenplay completely sold me on the fall (a bit more on that later). He was sweet, charming, funny, and, being played by Gosling, all kinds of sexy. I'm still not sure how he turned into such a balding loser in the space of the six or so years covered by the movie, but I guess viewers, who probably were supposed to identify more with Cindy, wouldn't have bought that she wouldn't want to have sex with a guy who looked like Gosling.

As for Cindy's appeal, it remains a mystery to me. I still haven't figured out why a total of three men in Blue Valentine were crazy for her. To me, she was a lot like Jen Lindley, the charcter Williams used to play on Dawson's Creek -- kind of slutty, kind of smart, kind of bitchy and kind of dull. Normally, I cringe at the threat of onscreen violence, but I was almost relieved when Dean finally lost it near the end because Cindy, and by extension Williams, finally started to come alive. I wouldn't complain if either or both actors received Oscar nominations on Tuesday, but I think Gosling and Williams have done and will do more impressive work in other films.

What really stood out in Blue Valentine for me, though, was neither the performances nor that weird little jig that Cindy did during the courtship scenes. (Though I loved the song Dean was singing, whatever it was.) It was something Dean said early on. He told his colleague at the moving company that he believes guys are more romantic than girls are. At first, I laughed and wondered how he could dare to make such a bold, erroneous comment, but when he explained himself, he actually made a lot of sense.

The gist of what he said was this: Guys spend their lives fooling around until they find the perfect girl, the one they can't live without, and they settle down with her -- or at least try to. Meanwhile, women start out looking for the the same perfect mate, the one they can't live without, and when they don't find him, they settle for the best of whatever options they have. I don't know if that makes them less romantic, which has as much to do with ideals as it does with actions, but it's one of the more interesting observations I've heard in a while.

I won't make any real-life generalizations here (though I feel that he made a valid point), but I did like the way the eventual arc of Cindy and Dean's romance supported Dean's theory. Dean's feelings for Cindy were palpable from beginning to end, but I never noted any real sparks on her side. It seemed to me that he won her over because he was in the right place at the right time, and he was persistent. She was settling. Her parents knew it, Dean knew it, and she knew it.

Dean's idea, so casually presented, leaves me wondering about the dynamic of straight relationships nearly a week after seeing the film. I often hear people say that it's impossible for straight men and straight women to be platonic friends because sex eventually gets in the way. (Hell, that was the entire premise of When Harry Met Sally...!) If this were true (and I believe such friendships are hard, if not impossible, to establish), that would make sexual attraction the defining element of relationships between heterosexual men and women, the strongest bond. That would certainly be the case for the typical male (lover of sports and action, the realist) and the typical female (lover of beauty and romance, the idealist), which might be why when they stop having sex, much of the time, they stop communicating, too.

For gay partners, both male and female, one might expect there to be more common psychological ground if gender does indeed play the prominent role in our overall identities, which I think it does. That might be why gay couples -- male ones, in particular -- can more or less fall in and out of lust, go outside of the relationship for sexual gratification, and still remain happy together. It's interesting that a lack of sex played a large role in widening the chasm between the warring couples in Rabbit Hole and Blue Valentine, while the lesbian pair in The Kids Are All Right, for all of their problems, sexual and otherwise, still seemed to be more in sync.

Straight relationships, of course, are more complicated than just sex. But if that is the primary glue that brings two people together, sticks them together and keeps them together (and there really wasn't any other glue in evidence in Blue Valentine), then when sexual desire dims (as it invariably tends to do for most couples, regardless of sexual orientation), when the romance is gone, what else is there? For many real-life pairs, kids and bills, which probably keep the divorce rate from closing in on around 90 per cent. For Cindy and Dean, a lot of resentment and angry sex. I wouldn't want to deal with that in real life, and I surely don't want to sit through two hours of it onscreen.
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