The sex in Derek Cianfrance's "Blue Valentine" is so raw and so stark that the movie was originally threatened with a cinecidal NC-17 rating, thereby assuring we'd likely never have seen this film at all.
And then came one of those low-level bureaucratic miracles that sometimes touch the world of arbitrary power. The MPAA ratings board reconsidered. The members actually looked at the film in front of them and realized that for all its carnal candor, this is a film about love, not sex. Its appeal is to organs far above our midsections.
That is the true power of it. It's what moves you about these two young people who feel so much but can analyze so little and verbalize even less. It's about a marriage that fails when, as is so often the case, feelings just can't find the way to overrun circumstances.
"The Fighter" is the story we tell ourselves to keep us happy. "Blue Valentine" is the story we need to stay grounded.
It is one of the best films, by far, of 2010, though I wouldn't dream of claiming to anyone that it partakes of the kind of clean, inspirational uplift of, say, "The King's Speech" that anyone can see.
This is the kind of movie that can affect you the way romantic splits do among people you know and care about -- especially the splits that everyone knows are coming and no one can avert.
And that's an immense tribute to the film's realism -- the verite-style direction of Cianfrance, the performances of Ryan Gosling and Michelle Williams, both of them so powerfully credible but neither close to the level of verbal articulation or showiness that makes for the big year-end statues (Williams, not Gosling, was nominated for an Oscar, but her chances of winning one are small.)
We meet them as young marrieds, Dean and Cindy, with an adorable young daughter, Frankie (Faith Wladyka), when Frankie and her dad are trying to find a lost dog.
They are at that sweet marital stage when a wife can say to a child, "Show Daddy you know how to use a spoon."
But we can see ever-so-tiny seeds of trouble: the different music they like to listen to in the car, the slight but unmistakable infantilism of the father's sweet and loving relationship with his daughter.
They seem a small marital mismatch -- not that a huge number of ultimately successful and enduring marriages aren't, of course, but we're obviously looking at young people whose love hasn't any protective outer layer.
He's a scruffy guy, more than a little lost in life, a professional mover with a huge heart whose total exposure we await with apprehension.
"Men are more romantic than women," he tells his wife. And he's right in their case. This is not a young guy with a patented line of B.S. Nor, as any cold-hearted mother or father-in-law could see, is he a guy with what used to be called "prospects." (A word of advice from her grandma: "Be careful that the person you fall in love with is worth it to you.")
Cindy works as an assistant in an OB/GYN office. When she meets an old boyfriend who says "wow" of the encounter, he asks if she's been faithful to her husband.
For large stretches of time, there is no music in "Blue Valentine." You're on your own with these people. So are they, with each other. Everyone is left alone, to feel or not.
When things get tense, Dean insists on a weekend away for just the two of them, at an elaborate motel. The futuristic room they get, he says, makes it look as if they're "inside a robot's vagina."
They have drunken sex. If the aim was raw intimacy, it misfires. Unfortunately, the outcome isn't pretty.
All of this is told in a way not unlike Harold Pinter's brilliant stunt-play "Betrayal," in which we begin with marital collapse and go backward in time to the tragic moment of greatest romantic happiness.
Only this time, we're going back in time to see the insurmountable hurdle of this relationship, the one that both parties, in their love, went around in the first place but never jumped over.
At the end, love still remains.
But it's all that does. What breaks your heart with these two is that it's just not enough.
A powerful report from romantic reality from an actor who's nothing if not adept and an actress who, in life as Heath Ledger's lover and mother of their child, knows far more than any young woman her age ought to about love and loss.
It is a rare movie, a stark portrait of two young people at the moment they discover that love, sadly, isn't all you need. In fact, sometimes, it's not nearly enough.
3 1/2 stars (out of 4)
Ryan Gosling, Michelle Williams and Faith Wladyka in Derek Cianfrance's acclaimed film of a young marriage that fails.
Rated R; opening Friday in area theaters.