Director Derek Cianfrance and his leading dynamic duo, Ryan Gosling and Michelle Williams, ring in the new year with a stunning examination of the bittersweet highs and lows of modern love. Blue Valentine offers a palpable sort of neo-realistic look at love, both in bloom and beyond “happily ever after,” an anti-romantic comedy, if you will.
This is not a date movie, which is not to say that you can’t take a date to see Blue Valentine, just that you should be wary of what’s in store for any fledgling relationship that’s exposed to the film’s brutal honesty. Of course, this frankness could serve as a reality check for the faint of heart… a warning… somewhere between “abandon hope, all ye who enter here,” and “mind the gap.”
Make no mistake, this is a film about the dissolution of a relationship. But with dual narratives chronicling both the withering and the blossoming of love, it is peppered with such joyous elan that at times it’s easy to forget. Thanks in no small part to the life Williams and Gosling imbue their characters with, you feel you know these people. You’ve met them. You went to school with them. You hear stories about them when you go home for the holidays.
Gosling and Williams present an extremely intimate portrait of Dean and Cindy, young thirtysomethings, married with child, working class, “living the dream.” Cianfrance thrusts us to the forefront of the action, opening with Frankie (Dean & Cindy’s daughter) searching for her dog, Megan. Right away, you’re worried.
As Frankie wakes a disheveled Dean (a surprisingly aged Gosling, sporting a receding hairline) to aid in her search, we get an immediate sense of the state of the union. He seems to have drunk himself to sleep on the couch. Cindy sleeps alone in the bed, and is more than a little agitated by her family’s wake-up call. The honeymoon is clearly over.
Both actors convey a clear sense of the toll time has taken on each of their characters, wearing the weight of their world on their faces, in their eyes. The lost dog serves as a pretty clear metaphor for the love in Cindy and Dean’s relationship. The tone is set. This is a death knell. Where is the love?
Cut to: the beginning… full of life, the vim and vigor of youth, Dean and Cindy seem like completely different people. Dean walks tall, cocksure, a working-class bon vivant, invincible, ready to take on the world. He seems a completely different person, nowhere near the broken-down husk of man we’ve just met. Cindy is her own person, unafraid of sticking out from the crowd, ambitious (studying to be a doctor), and fun. These two vibrant people seem worlds apart from who they become.
As the film cuts back and forth between the two storylines, the juxtaposition of each adding to the gravity of the other. The scenes with the broken-down shadows of their former selves add a wistful, lovelorn nostalgia to glimpses of their salad days. And the two stories blend together so beautifully, a perfect yin & yang, that the film becomes all the more heartbreaking.
It’s an illustration of the painful effects time and neglect can have on a relationship. The blissful intimacy of burgeoning sexual exploration parlayed into feeble attempts to rekindle desire. Passion and ambition diminished over time, leading to resentment and regret. Yearning, once welcomed, now met by indifference and rejection. All of this pitch-perfectly magnified by the scenes in the cold, unwelcoming “future-themed” hotel room where Dean hopes to fan the flames of passion. Of course, if you smother a fire, it goes out. And this is no exception, merely a strange, sordid setting for this band-aid over a bullet wound.
My one complaint about the film is that Dean seems a bit more developed than Cindy. Williams does create a wonderfully well-rounded character with Cindy, but she seems to have one hand tied behind her back with a bit less on the page for her to work with. It feels like the writers spent more time on Dean. Cindy is by no means a flat character, but the writing could have fleshed her out a bit more. In spite of this, Williams does a bang-up job endearing us to her. We see her charm at the outset, her spark, and later we see how conflicted she is. I would be happy to see both Williams and Gosling receive some award nominations for their performances.
Cianfrance constantly puts us uncomfortably close to Cindy and Dean’s relationship. He uses such extreme close-ups that there’s something almost perversely voyeuristic about it. These tight close-ups add a claustrophobic sense that instills a subconscious need to escape. And throughout the film there’s a tension, a sense that something is going to go wrong. The kinetic hand-held camerawork combined with the intense close-ups and the claustrophobic feeling all contribute to the uneasy feeling of violence waiting just beneath the surface. It keeps you on edge. Yes, the happier moments of levity assuage your feelings of dread at times. Still, there’s an almost inescapable, underlying feeling that something truly bad is going to happen.
At times dire, at times jovial, Blue Valentine is a beautiful portrait of a failing relationship, the lows made even more poignant by the highs. It’s a film reminiscent of Carnal Knowledge, Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf and Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, so it’s in good company. Music by Grizzly Bear, so no complaints there. Cianfrance crafts a poetic, sophisticated look at modern love. Blue Valentine is a refreshingly adult look at the oft-overlooked gap between romance and reality. Romantics need not abandon hope, just mind the gap.