By Sarah Sluis
Blue Valentine is one of the rawest, real movies I've ever seen. It's certainly one of the best films coming out in 2010. It's also been rated NC-17 by the MPAA.
Last week, I went into a screening knowing that the movie had been assigned an NC-17 rating, which the distributor,Weinstein Co., is appealing. I heard the movie included sex, violence, and scenes from an abortion. I was expecting something to be so bad that it would really stand out and deserve such an extreme rating. I was wrong.
If this movie is guilty of anything, it's making such a compelling, real story that everything hits you three times as hard. The screenplay originated from a child of divorce, Cami Delavigne, and it shows. The dialogue captures the nature of a dysfunctional relationship perfectly. Even when one member of the couple tries to make nice, the other one shuts down their efforts. Dean (Ryan Gosling) tries to plan a romantic getaway, and Cindy's (Michelle Williams) weariness with every extra effort he attempts is excruciating. I have never before been able to intuit a couple's dysfunction from dialogue like this on screen. Their phrases are like psychological onions, with so much hidden meaning and rage and discontentment to unpeel.
According to The Wrap, the MPAA took issue with "a single sex scene in which there is minimal nudity and the sex act is not even entirely shown." Based on that clue, I suspect they're referring to a scene that could be considered the husband raping his wife. Though disturbing, and certainly not appropriate for children under 17, I don't feel it warrants a NC-17 rating. In reality, such a rating is a kiss of death, locking a film out from being advertised in mainstream outlets and branding it as exploitative, gratuitous, and near-pornographic, something that Blue Valentine most assuredly is not. Moreover, Blue Valentine received no comments at all on the festival circuit about "graphic" content--compare that to the outcry last year over Lars Von Trier's Antichrist (which didn't even bother to get a rating).
In the old days of the rating system, filmmakers could only show "bad things" if there was a moral message (e.g. gangsters dying at the end of the movies to show that bad acts are punished). I don't advocate requiring such messages, but context does matter. Blue Valentine does not glorify such acts but takes us to the breaking point in a couple's marriage. This is not "throwaway violence" but an emotionally draining experience that leaves you feeling a bit shell-shocked as you leave the theatre. If realism makes such graphic content acceptable in my eyes, the MPAA often takes a different point-of-view. "Comic book" violence often is considered more acceptable than realistic, bloody encounters. But this viewpoint can also lead to distorted judgments. There's a huge difference between truly innocuous, non-violent "fights," like the enemies just kind of disappearing in G-rated Up (it's unclear if anyone dies) and comic book heroes blasting or hi-yaing enemies to death again and again in PG-13 movies. When it comes to graphic portrayals of violence in R-rated films, there's also a split between spurting, gratuitous horror movies and similarly graphic but drama-driven deaths in war films.
Blue Valentine has a strong case for appeal. The film is stunning and could perhaps find a kindred spirit with Boys Don't Cry, which successfully appealed its NC-17 rating and went on to win an Oscar. The producers of Boys Don't Cry, however, re-cut the film to win an R rating, something the makers of Blue Valentine won't do.