“Blue Valentine” stands back from its characters, watching carefully as they slowly crumble. Most movies are fairly clear about how they want you to feel, but this movie leaves those questions completely in the audience’s lap.
Derek Cianfrance, the writer-director, gives us a young couple at the start of their relationship and the same two people six years later, after the wear and tear of domestic life have worn away much of their early affection. Cianfrance watches, closely but quietly, as his protagonists, once so connected, slowly become repelled by each other. At times, its like watching a pair of reptiles tearing away at each other’s flesh.
Marriage has always provided an extremely fertile context for examining human relationships, particularly in the movies. “Blue Valentine” fits nicely into Hollywood’s continued meditation on marriage, whether we’re talking about “Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?”, “The War of the Roses”, “In the Bedroom” or the most recent foray into these waters, 2008′s disappointing “Revolutionary Road.”
It’s easy to understand both the fascination with marriage and the reasons why it is so often dramatized. There’s something inherently interesting about marriage dramatically. It always provides a mechanism for looking at people at two different times in their lives, as Cianfrance does here and as Sam Mendes did with “Revolutionary Road.” You can set things up with the early optimism of young romance and then stand back as that romance deteriorates. But unlike other stories, you don’t have to create external events to propel things along. In marriage, the conflict can arise simply through the tedium of life. Financial insecurity, sexual monontony, unsatisfying jobs, too many nights of watching the same show on television. These are the things that can alter the flow of a relationship, and transform someone you once loved into someone you truly can’t stand.
At least that’s the place where Dean (Ryan Gosling) and Cindy (Michelle Williams) seem to have arrived at the beginning of “Blue Valentine.” Both are fairly nondescript and aren’t burdened with cumbersome backstory. He is a house painter, and she a nurse. They live in a small suburban house and have a young daughter they both dote on. As a father, Dean is playful and endearing, but as a husband he is frighteningly sensitive, burdened with the ability to turn even the most insignificant comment into an affront on his masculinity. Cindy tiptoes through conversations, carefully measuring her words.
Cindy is hurt, tired, unfulfilled, living her life on the move from one obligation to the next, suffering under the knowledge that any love she had for Dean has left her. Dean isn’t a bad guy, but he’s drifting into the complacency of middle age. Played by Gosling with thick bifocals and a balding hairline, he likes to drink and chain-smoke with reckless abandon; one of the perks of his job, he says, is that he can have a beer at 8 in the morning and not feel bad about it. But he loves his daughter and, as the film makes very clear, his wife as well. For him, marriage was always the destination. He never wanted anything other than to be a loving father and husband. Coming home to his family each day is what fulfills him, and he needs little else.
Cindy, however, has always wanted more. Part of her struggle comes from knowing that she was supposed to get more out of life than simply being a wife and mother. Exposing this part of her character is what makes the film’s parallel storytelling so effective. Contrasting the scenes of Dean and Cindy’s marriage are scenes of their early relationship. Gosling and Williams both look significantly younger (they both gained weight to the play their characters as older) and more appealing in these scenes, and the overall tone is more upbeat. You become immersed in the joy of watching something begin.
As these passages open, Dean is working a blue collar job as a mover and Cindy is studying medicine at a local college. Both are damaged goods; Dean, we learn, never graduated high school and comes from a broken home. Cindy is a victim of abusive men; her father likes to bluster at the dinner table and make her mother feel small, and she is dating an aggressive jock (Mike Vogel) with a penchant for rough sex. Despite their problems though, there is an air of possibility about both of them.
Cianfrance and his actors bring an incredibly real quality to these scenes of early romance. The two first meet in a nursing home where Cindy is visiting her grandmother and Dean is helping move a resident’s furniture. When they first gaze into each other’s eyes across a hallway, there is an immediate connection. Dean isn’t blessed with a lot of smoothness though, and bungles his first meeting with Cindy by being too aggressive. But the proverbial arrow has struck his heart. He goes back to the same nursing home repeatedly, hoping he’ll encounter Cindy again. He never sees her there, and thinks he may have blown his one opportunity. He’s overjoyed when, a month later, Cindy haphazardly wanders onto the same bus as him.
Dean, of course, makes a second attempt at winning her over, and the result is an incredibly authentic, endearing scene of young romance. There is a tendency in screenwriting to always want your characters to sound and act like the wittiest, sharpest people in the world, but here Dean and Cindy feel like real people having an actual conversation. You can feel Dean trying his best to seem confident and charming, but tripping hopelessly over his own notions of polite conversation. But Cindy is kind to him and recognizes his good intentions. It’s refreshing that there isn’t anything very smooth going on in this scene. Dean and Cindy come together as real people would, with real attraction overcoming the awkwardness and insecurity they put in their own way.
Gosling and Williams were both attached to the project for years before it finally got made, and their understanding of the material shows in their rugged, dynamic performances. Gosling has long been one of my favorite actors. There’s just something inescapably magnetic about him, like James Dean or Marlon Brando. He also chooses better projects than almost any other actor working today. “The Believer,” “The United States of Leland,” “Half Nelson,” “Lars and the Real Girl”–all of these movies have given him a chance to explore his talent as an actor and push his own limits.
“Blue Valentine” fits nicely into that body of work. He brings just about every quality or flaw to Dean that you can imagine and plays them in a credible, compelling manner. You never really hate Dean, and you never really like him. He’s a good, well-meaning man who doesn’t understand that good intentions simply aren’t enough. He never understands that in order to make Cindy happy, he may have to change his own expectations of himself. The deterioration of his marriage forces him to recognize his own flaws, and as Cindy starts to pull away from him, he lashes out. It’s a credit to Gosling that, despite some of the things you watch Dean do in the film, you can never fully turn your back on him. He expresses all of the character’s complexity in a nakedly honest, heartwrenching performance.
Williams has a harder job as Cindy. Because Dean is so often the aggressor, Cindy has to bury her emotions for fear of showing him her true feelings. She has to communicate her character’s despair using only the subtlest of nuances. Yet she is able to portray the character in such a relentlessly human way. Her clothes, her face, her body language, they all communicate a sense of someone who has been beaten down by life and is now living out one of her worst nightmares. Williams doesn’t get the same pyrotechnics as Gosling but matches him stride for stride with her remarkable work.
I’m not sure what Cianfrance was trying to do with the parallel storytelling device. As the film moves toward its conclusion, you watch Dean and Cindy’s relationship reach its darkest hour just as it hits its romantic crescendo in the very next scene. This technique gives the film an immersive quality; your never sure what moment Cianfrance will cut away on or what we will see in the other storyline. I just don’t know what he was hoping to expose in his story by employing this technique.
I think I would have walked away with the same shattered feeling had I only watched Dean and Cindy as older characters. Those scenes provide the real meat of the film. The scenes of young love are well done and effective, and they add something to your understanding of who the characters are and why they now suffer the way they do, but I don’t think they reveal anything that earth-shattering.
So why did Cianfrance feel the need to tell his story in this way? I think it was simply because he had a fascination with this relationship and wanted to watch it unfold at two different times. One of the inevitable questions you ask in a crumbling relationship is where did it all go wrong? How did we start here and end here? I think Cianfrance wanted to reflect on these questions and allow us to reflect on them as well.
This desire felt very honest and sincere to me. When a relationship ends, how much time do we spend looking at old photographs, watching old videos, trying to figure out how the closeness we once felt to a person could so completely disentegrate. The parallel storytelling of “Blue Valentine” may not have a clear objective behind it, but it gives the film a kind of experimental quality. It’s as if Cianfrance wanted to slow down enough to simply watch a relationship unfold, looking closely to catch the specific places where things break down. The result is extremely personal and inescapably powerful.