***originally written 19 January 2011***
There are some movies that are not ‘date’ movies. Irreversible, for instance, would’ve been a pretty shocking choice, and I’ve heard a funny story about a friend who chose Shortbus. Blue Valentine doesn’t go anywhere near the unflinching territory of those movies, but, in it’s own way, pulls as few punches. Sure, it says ‘valentine’ in the title there, but it also says ‘blue’. Blue as in the blues. Yes, this is a movie about a relationship, and yes, this is a movie about love. But it’s as much about what’s hurtful in love as what’s luxurious. About the feelings that kill you as much as stand you on your feet.
Ryan Gosling and Michelle Williams are our couple in this movie, playing Dean and Cindy respectively. They are both astonishing. These are pretty thankless roles, unlikely to draw the big nominations as the awards draw closer, but they ought to. Gosling and Williams turn these cookie-cutter characters into completely believable human beings. Dean is clownish, cocky, drifting through his life, enjoys a drink. Cindy is ambitious, intelligent, withdrawn, flaky.They are both flawed individuals. This is their relationship; the beginning and the end.
Director Derek Cianfrance intercuts scenes from their humble beginnings together with the (possible) last 24 hours of their marriage, drawing tough contrasts between the flush of blossoming romance with the washed out final sigh of dying love. Nothing is showy, nothing is stagy. Okay, some of the scenes dedicated to their initial meetings veer toward the syrupy, some of the dialogue hyper-real, but as an audience member it’s what you want, especially after some of the emotionally wrought kitchen-sink moments that sandwich them. In the sequences that focus on their disintegration (Dean is coasting, Cindy has grown indifferent) Cianfrance fills the screen with his actors. The corners of the frame cut into their features. They feel uncomfortably close to you. There’s nowhere to look away, nothing else to distract, just as Dean and Cindy are running out of reasons not to talk about why things are no longer working out. A terrible drunken evening in a tacky themed hotel room brings things to a head, and the following day charts the messy fallout. No prizes for finding the ‘hidden’ meaning to the dead dog in the film’s first reel.
Again, full marks to Gosling and Williams. I can’t praise these portrayals enough. Gosling I kinda knew had it in him. The talk of his method approach on Lars And The Real Girl from his colleagues and that performance in itself showed he had the chops. Williams however I have had less experience of, and she really is a revelation here, especially in the film’s most uncomfortable sequence – a flashback to an abortion procedure that is made all the more dreadful by the mundane dialogue as much as the horror-movie what-you-don’t-see trappings.
By shifting from the good to the bad and back again, Cianfrance has made a literal ’emotional rollercoaster’ ride of a film – that phrase is banded about far too much; here it is perfectly justified. You’ll smile at Dean’s success in worming his way into Cindy’s life, you’ll sit uncomfortably through the least sexy shared-shower sequence in film history. Blue Valentine is as lovely as it is difficult. And the music by Grizzly Bear works a treat too, especially when cribbing from their excellent last album Veckatimest.
Blue Valentine does go for the difficult more than it does the lovely though. For this, one can argue, it should be praised. In the history of cinema break-ups, this one feels tragically real, partly for how mundane it all is. However, this over-eagerness to wallow in Dean and Cindy’s misery tips the film slightly too far. The whole thing feels at least thirty minutes too long. And whilst it’s very realistic for people when arguing to simply repeat themselves over and over until their words have lost all meaning and their point has veered away, it’s not something that’s particularly interesting to watch, especially over and over and over. And as we follow Dean and Cindy’s emotional baggage from the tacky hotel to the hospital where she works to her parents’ house, it feels rather conspicuously like a) we’re getting nowhere and b) Cianfrance and his fellow scriptwriters didn’t really know how this movie ends. There comes a point when you’re watching people argue that it either becomes boring or annoying. Cianfrance never falls fully into either of those pits, but he dances dangerously close more than once.
A refreshingly honest piece of cinema that celebrates what’s great about being in love and simultaneously makes you want to build walls around your heart to avoid all the pain. I’m not sure it’s something you’ll want to return to, but you’ll certainly walk away with a new favourite joke about child molesters.
Just don’t make it a ‘date’ movie; you’ll be in for an uncomfortable walk home.