EXCLUSIVE: In a surprising development, the MPAA ratings board has slapped an NC-17 rating on Blue Valentine, the Derek Cianfrance-directed drama that is creating Oscar buzz for the performances of Ryan Gosling and Michelle Willams. The film, about the slow corrosion of the relationship between a young couple, was acquired by The Weinstein Company after its premiere at the last Sundance Film Festival. The film also played at Cannes and Toronto.

Now, I’ve watched Harvey Weinstein use the ratings controversy for maximum promotional mileage on past movies that otherwise might have gotten ignored, but I saw Blue Valentine when it premiered in Park City. It is a powerful, worthy film, and the NC-17 is an absolute head-scratcher. I’m told the rating was given for a scene in which the characters played by Gosling and Williams try to save their crumbling marriage by spending a night away in a hotel. They get drunk and their problems intensify when he wants to have sex and she doesn’t, but will to get him off her back. That hurts his pride and the result is an upsetting scene that makes you squirm, but is an honest one that establishes clearly that  this couple has nothing left and isn’t going to make it because love has turned into contempt. There is barely any nudity in the scene, as I recall (though I haven’t seen it since last January) and there is no violence. It was hardly a moment that would make you think, well here comes an NC-17.

It wasn’t immediately clear what TWC and the filmmakers will do. Certainly the notoriety will help get the film attention, but it seems clear that if they fail in the appeals process, they will have to cut the film to get an R rating, if the picture is to have a shot at broadening beyond a very small release. There are likely complications in running an NC-17 film through TWC’s ancillary deals. This is the third Oscar season film on which TWC has butted heads with the MPAA. Weintstein lost a challenge appealing the R rating given The Tillman Story, and he has virtually no chance to overturn the R rating given The King’s Speech. The latter film, which many feel will be a strong contender for Best Picture and other awards, lost its chance at the PG-13 because of a scene in which speech therapist Lionel Logue (Geoffrey Rush) helps King George VI (Colin Firth) overcome his stammer by peppering his speech with curse words. He says “fuck” about 42 times in a short amusing sequence. Everybody knows there is a three “fucks” before the R is given, and Firth blows past that in a single line. Director Tom Hooper told Deadline recently that he won’t change a frame, but is perplexed that a scene that falls within the context of the film gets an R while a PG-13 is given to Salt despite Angelina Jolie getting waterboarded, and Casino Royale even though Daniel Craig has his testicles pummeled in a rather graphic scene. Hooper felt that the MPAA doesn’t consider context when it comes to curse words.

The Blue Valentine preliminary rating is bound to raise similar questions. It doesn’t get the R granted a movie like The Human Centipede (First Sequence), a graphic depiction of a mad surgeon’s campaign to kidnap victims and surgically link their digestive tracts to create a human centipede?

It was too early to roust the filmmakers, TWC and the MPAA for comment, but I’ll update when I do.