A film review by Craig J. Koban March 2, 2011

Rank:  #3


2010, R, 114 mins.


Dean: Ryan Gosling / Cindy: Michelle Williams / Frankie: Faith Wladyka / Jerry: John Doman / Bobby: Mike Vogel / Glenda: Maryann Plunkett

Directed by Derek Cianfrance/ Written by Cianfrance, Joey Curtis and Cami Delavigne

There 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. 

Hollywood 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 defining trait.

The 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. 

The 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. 

They 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. 

Juxtaposed 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 opportunities.   

From 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. 

The 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.   

There 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. 

Gosling - 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). 

BLUE 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.  

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