While watching Blue Valentine on Friday, the MPAA controversy surrounding it a few months ago completely escaped me. It was only after I was reliving the movie in my head later that night at work that I remembered the big ruckus about a certain sex scene that was gratuitous enough to earn an NC-17 rating. Usually, when a film receives an NC-17, it's quite obvious why it got the rating, whether or not you agree with the decision. Tellingly, I couldn't remember anything vaguely offensive in Blue Valentine for the longest time. After awhile, I decided that it must have been one very uncomfortable scene that I'm going to discuss more in-depth in a second, but, after some research, I came to the realization that it was the two moments where Ryan Gosling goes down on Michelle Williams that got the MPPA's panties in a twist. In hindsight, the answer is obvious, but I honestly can't believe that that was what was deemed so grossly offensive that it needed an NC-17 rating. You can't even fucking see anything! If I'm gonna watch an NC-17 film, I at least want a penis shot or something similarly out there to warrant such an outlandish rating.
The sex scene that made me more uncomfortable than the oral sex ones occurs about halfway through Blue Valentine's two-hour runtime. After a rough day, married couple Dean (Ryan Gosling) and Cindy (Michelle Williams) are spending the night away from home in a cheap couples motel--the kind of motel where each suite has a wacky theme--in an attempt to escape their crumbling marriage and relax together. Cindy is clearly annoyed that she has been dragged away from home when she's on call for work the next morning, so she wastes no time in getting this show on the road as soon as they settle into the futuristic-themed room they have picked: Dean is playing around on the rotating bed, imploring Cindy to come and join him on it but she's busy looking for the alcohol they bought so she can get this over with. This retreat from their life is not a vacation for Cindy and I think Dean senses this, which is why he, in the beginning at least, chooses to tiptoe around her precarious mood. He's hoping his playfulness will slowly ease her into the situation.
After some failed shower sex and an uncomfortable conversation about Dean realizing his potential that quickly and unknowingly switches between bitterness and hilarity, Dean and Cindy finally get drunk. They are on the revolving bed when Dean suddenly gets off to do something. He leaves the room, falls down on the ground and calls for Cindy to come help him. She gets off the bed, slowly and completely buzzed from the alcohol, but isn't much help. She falls down next to him and, before she knows it, Dean is putting the moves on her. He starts sensually kissing her neck, hoping to make this a sweet, passionate lovemaking session, but she is visibly uncomfortable with the level of intimacy. She quickly takes off her underwear, hoping this will speed up the process. Dean tries, but is ultimately turned off by Cindy's lack of intimacy. An argument soon erupts and the couple ends up spending the night separately.
The first unpleasant thing about this scene is the role reversal and its ideology. Normally in the movies, it is the woman who craves intimacy while the man is after a quick fuck. In Blue Valentine, however, it is Dean who needs the emotional connection for the sex to be any good. "I want you," he tells Cindy, obviously interested in more than using her vagina as a tool to get off. What I think made the MPAA so eager to brand this film with the NC-17 is the fact that sex is used in Blue Valentine as a way of showing how obviously disconnected Cindy and Dean are. There are no happy endings here where one quick roll in the hay makes the two of them realize how they are meant to be; if anything, sex draws them apart, revealing just how far gone this relationship is. People do not like to be confronted with the fact that sex can be just as painful emotionally as it is pleasurable physically.
Secondly, the overall composition of the scene really makes it hard to watch. Shot mostly in brown and yellow shadows, the scene certainly is not pretty to look at. In fact, the color scheme is supposed to repulse us, just as Dean kissing her neck repulses Cindy. The fact that the camera hops around the room, going in and out of focus, capturing everything and nothing at all, yet remains suffocatingly close to the action, lends an almost perverse edge to the scene. We know we should not be watching this moment, yet we cannot help but to be involved in the scene. We wince with every wince of Cindy's. We want her to enjoy this moment but we also know that even if she did enjoy the sex, it would not solve the major issues in their marriage.
Thirdly, Derek Cianfrance and company's screenplay elevates this scene with a few choice lines of dialogue. In his initial "seduction," Dean tries getting Cindy in the mood by asking her "Do you want my baby?", much in the same way a male porn actor asks the person he's fucking "Do you want my big dick?" He repeats different variations of this line to her, all receiving a stony, chilled silence in response. Clearly, Dean is reading her completely wrong; she barely wants to have sex with him, let alone a baby. The aforementioned "I want you" line, uttered right after he realizes he can't have sex with her when she's not remotely interested, reveals Dean's desperation to reconnect with Cindy in a startlingly concise way. And Dean's later uttering of something to the effect of "Would you like it if I hit you?" is an interesting way of bringing up the idea that maybe Cindy has simply shut down and is no longer emotionally or physically invested in their marriage at all. Maybe getting slapped around would be the only way she could feel anything for him anymore.
This sex scene is far less gratuitous than the oral sex scenes that were initially condemned by the MPAA, but it is definitely the scene that is far more complex and mature in nature. It is almost impossible to put into words, but the scene leaves you with a pit in your stomach, gnawing at you the entire time. You want to stop looking at the mess unfolding before your eyes, yet the moment is so beautifully realized that there is no way you can emotionally divest yourself from watching it. This scene is a grade-A moment in a film filled with many of them and a true testament to the power of Blue Valentine.