A film review by Craig J. Koban March 2, 2011
2010, R, 114 mins.
2010, R, 114 mins.
Dean: Ryan Gosling / Cindy: Michelle Williams / Frankie: Faith
Wladyka / Jerry: John Doman / Bobby: Mike Vogel / Glenda: Maryann
was rarely a moment during Derek Cianfrance’s BLUE VALENTINE when I did
not think I was observing a real relationship developing,
flourishing, and then tragically ending.
That’s the subtle genius of the film, which contains two lead
performances by Ryan Gosling and Michelle Williams that are as explosively
raw, emotionally intimate, and brutally authentic as any that I’ve seen.
By the time the film ended I felt less like I was passively
watching a dramatization of a working class marriage that slowly and
bitterly decayed and more like I was an actively eavesdropping witness to
it. BLUE VALENTINE is one of
those rare movie experiences that is so sweepingly convincing for the reality
it settles viewers in that it could have just as well been a documentary
chronicling lovers falling out of love.
has a nasty habit of idealizing romance and marriage in the
drama genre, not to mention the institution of marriage.
I’ve seen so many sanctimoniously contrived love stories that
comprise of the obligatory meet-cutes, the courtships, the unavoidable
misunderstandings, the inevitable reconnections, and ultimately the fairy
tale ending where love conquers all.
BLUE VALENTINE is like a slap in the face to those tired and
simplified clichés and conventions; It captures two young people that do
meet and fall in love, but then it methodically reveals the reasons why
these two people were probably doomed from the start and should not have
been together. Unlike so
many other movie romances, the one presented here is less euphorically
inviting and pleasurable: it evokes the nasty underbelly of toxic
relationships that once held hopes for a bright future.
BLUE VALENTINE is a love story, to be sure, but the exactitude it
shows with highlighting the more tarnished aspects of a marriage is its
film – written by the Brooklyn-born Cianfrance and Joey Curtis and Cami
Delavigne - adeptly bounces back and forth through time (from six years in
the past and into the present and so on) that shows the beginnings of its
couple, how they found themselves and got lost within their mutual love,
and then finally how they grow increasingly apart.
This decidedly non-linear approach is crucial for creating a sense
of exploration and momentum for the picture: the initial bleakness of the
opening scenes – set in the present – make us wonder how the man and
woman met and came together, and then the subsequent jockeying back and
forth in time allows us to get answers while simultaneously having new
questions about their lives presented.
The fragmented approach here keeps viewers both off-balance and
unsure – which echoes the emotional frailties and uncertainty that the
characters experience – but it also allows us to gradually develop a grander
picture of this couple's life together; by the end, you actually feel
like a part of it.
couple in question is made up of Dean (Gosling) and Cindy (Williams) and
they are first glimpsed in the present, where they both look drab,
depressed, and fading into obscurity.
They have a young daughter that they deeply care for, but that is
the only thing that appears to connect them.
Dean is a balding, tattooed, and binge smoking and drinking shell
of a man and Cindy is a hard worker in the medical profession that take
prides in her job and, in turn, develops less and less pride in her marriage
to Dean. He never graduated
from high school and has few aspirations in life, despite the fact that he
has artistic and musical gifts that he never nurtured.
He spends his days in lowly menial jobs, which Cindy secretly
detests. She really hates the
fact that Dean likes his job because it affords him the opportunity to
enjoy a beer at eight in the morning and after work.
both realize that the marriage is slowly melting, and in particular after
a sad event involving the family dog occurs, so Dean decides that they
need to rekindle their passion for one another.
He plans a one-night getaway in an obnoxiously tacky theme motel
(they get the sci-fi motif) and it is this moment that typifies the
film’s heart wrenching sentiment. They
guzzle down booze and sheepishly play an old tune from their youth (“You
and Me” by Penny and the Quarters) in a desperate attempt to find the
spark that once was a caring and stable marriage.
The evening is a slow-build to disaster: these two souls can’t
reignite the spark because they just don’t have it anymore.
within this sad and depressing present-day portrayal of Cindy and Dean is
sprinkled-in moments of their twenties as we see at how they met and the
forces (some direct, some indirect) that eventually brought them together
in marriage. These sequences
are a sharply contrasted from the pathetic scenes in the motel
(cinematographer Andrij Parekh shot the past scenes with a more rosy and
inviting 16mm film stock and the present-day scenes with saturated and coldly
blue-toned HD video) as we see Dean - youthfully handsome, quietly and
goofily romantic, and big hearted – attempt to court Cindy – strong
willed, attractive, and free spirited.
Cindy is involved in a relationship in college that is going sour,
so the appearance of Dean in her life offers her more tantalizing
their first awkward meeting we are given a portal into subsequent dates
(the first one, one of the film’s sublime highlights, shows Dean
stopping Cindy at a dimly lit storefront doorway where he whips out his
ukulele and starts singing Elvis’ “You Always Hurt The One You Love”
as Cindy merrily tap dances to it). Then
we see why they became close and later the rationale for their shotgun,
courthouse marriage. By
the film’s conclusion we have a more accurate picture of their six-year
relationship, marked by moments of real heat and passion that have
obviously disintegrated and may not ever mended.
manner that Cianfrance crafts all of the moments of Cindy and Dean’s
relationship is extraordinarily sparse with a loose and improvised vérité
style, but ripe with an acute attention to observational detail, which
ultimately makes BLUE VALENTINE feels so deeply honest.
Along with his carefree and rooming camera placement, he also
lingers on long takes, oftentimes in close-ups, which further heightens
our immersion in the story and characters.
This is one of the least beautiful looking love stories ever
committed to the silver screen, but it also makes BLUE VALENTINE that much
more compellingly unique. Its lack of sheen and glossy aesthetic allows for the
character dynamics to ring with more of an unsettling ugliness.
is not one false moment in the film provided by Ryan Gosling and Michelle
Williams, and the stars have the utterly thankless task of making
their relationship and marriage – spanning different time periods –
echo with a stark credibility. The
physical transformations are subtle, but effective (makeup is sparingly
used to suggest the transformation of the characters; but Gosling and
Williams use their performances to imply it more).
The film has gained some press about the crazy Method-infused focus
that the pair went through in preparation (they apparently had no
rehearsals, but they did live together for quite some time under their
characters' meager economic means to get a feel for their relationship
dynamics) and it certainly has paid huge dividends.
- as he has shown in films like HALF NELSON
- is a marvel to behold. I have said in past reviews that he is the
closest heir-apparent of the type of ferociously empowered roles of a
young Robert De Niro, and his performance here is a delicate balancing act
between playing a youthful and naively romantic slacker that later morphs
into a hot-headed, wounded, and frightening portrait of stomped-on male
pride. Williams, on the other
hand, has the more discrete and subtle character arc, as she has to relay
a woman that once showed deep love and commitment for Dean, but has now
become a deeply exhausted and disheartened figure of regret and sorrow.
When the pair are on screen together there is not one iota of
egregious movie star vanity: their portrayals have a cunningly brave
effrontery fuelled with a natural emotional exposure.
You just sense that you’re witnessing a bona fide couple and not
actors portraying a couple; they are that eerily convincing
(Gosling’s recent omission from the Best Actor race is one of the
Oscar’s most shameful omissions in recent memory).
VALENTINE was not a well-advertised film and did not get a large audience.
It did, though, get loads of free publicity regarding how the MPAA
slapped it with an NC-17 rating for its multiple sex scenes (which are
graphic without actually showing much, if any, nudity) that got trimmed
down to a more exhibitor-friendly R. The sexual frankness of the film is not gratuitous as it is necessary:
we need to bare intimate witness to the microcosm of Dean and Cindy’s
time together, through good and bad times.
It creates a rich and complex tapestry that makes BLUE VALENTINE
that much more absorbing, meticulously rendered...and a difficult
experience to endure. There
is a nihilistic pragmatism at the core of this anti-establishment film; it
is not the stuff of Hollywood fairy tales, nor should it be.