There is a disturbing quality to the film Blue Valentine (2010) that dwells like an inescapable consequence of action, as much a living breathing thing as either of the two central characters, which permeates even the slightest detail of their life story. Though we’re given all the pieces of their lives inside the span of five years, the careful but effective first glimpse to the ensuing love affair, it is the jagged puzzle in the between spaces that gives the film the strength to persevere even when we cringe at such stinging, insistent honesty.
Constructed from fragments, the non-linear story is gathered like torn photographs and reassembled, jagged pieces that sometimes fit but need constant pressure to hold them together; the reality of love gone wrong, love beaten up, love destroyed often refuses to solidify. The film lingers on seconds that reveal in small, significant ways an intensity captured, bottled and released. Cindy (Michelle Williams) and Dean (Ryan Gosling) appear made for one another in that fairytale sort of way that only truly exists in cinema no matter how much we want it to be part of who we are, of who we were. This is the inevitable consequences of two people brought together by familiar circumstances like the Travis Tritt song, with the best of intentions. Yet the indefinable is ever-present; that chink in the armor of the valiant knight, that fatal flaw in the maiden betrothed to another who gives up everything, even her life, for seconds of true love. But it can’t last, it never does, not in the way the characters want it to last. For them the flame that burns the brightest burns the fastest and the fire cools as if on ice; this is where the story pivots, at the crossroads of two kids trying to stay young and mature and in love at the same time forever.
Filmmaker Derek Cianfrance began making films at 13 and later studied under avant-garde legends Stan Brakhage and Phil Solomon. Their influences and the work that followed was clear preparation for this, Cianfrance’s second feature after numerous award-winning short films and documentaries. He wrote, directed, shot and edited his first feature, Brother Tied at the age of 23. His interest in, and obsession with, human fragility is precise and focused. Blue Valentine doesn’t seem so much like a second film as an extension of all the work Cianfrance has been doing since he first picked up a camera or a pen with an eye toward movies. Blue Valentine reveals a command of character that is crystalline and complex, the beauty matched in challenging detail to the pain that lingers bitter-sweet. Audiences appeared off kilter when leaving the theater after I watched this film with my wife. Some sat through the credits, head held just so, listening to the aching ukulele strummed clumsily but necessarily so by Gosling as a series of photographs appeared and faded, appeared and faded. The pictures might have been a kiss, a breath of air, a glance across a crowded room before nothing but memory. Others stood quick, stumbling, fingers clutching seat backs for traction, trying to take it all in like breath and then let it go less the film leave an indelible mark with questions no one really wants to ask or be answered.
As Jeff Leins writes for www.newsinfilm.com, “…[the film was] a passionate labor of love for the director and co-writer who endured 12 years of preparation and 66 drafts before embedding with the actors in a Pennsylvania home.” That’s passion personified. Christopher Nolan’s debut film, The Following followed a similar trajectory; shot on 16mm on a shoestring budget, Nolan wrote, directed, filmed and co-produced over the period of a year while the entire cast and crew maintained full-time jobs. Sean P. Mean writes at http://www.sltrib.com, “Diana Ross once asked “Where did our love go?” — a question that director Derek Cianfrance’s drama “Blue Valentine” answers with shattering honesty” and his observation is deservedly poignant about a story that feels empty or on its way to empty. Of course I would be remiss not to include a line from godfather and querulous critic’s critic, Roger Ebert, where he writes, “the film’s writer and director, observes with great exactitude the birth and decay of a relationship. This film is alive in its details.” Hardly a second of screen goes by without serving some cause; muscle and tendons power this story with no need of excess, no place, for the fat that frequently weighs down character studies this exacting is cut down to the bone.
Ryan Gosling’s career is a mish-mash of odd and perplexed characters, at once charming, he wears handsome and vulnerability equally if not at odds with one another; his range at 31 is every bit as taught with emotion and psychological consequence as peers considerably older and with a list of films far larger. Gosling is a Canadian actor and musician, forming the band Dead Man’s Bones with his friend Zach Shields; they released their debut album in 2009. Gosling started at the age of 12 and by 21 he commanded attention with a riveting performance in the 2001 drama film The Believer for which he received an Independent Spirit Award nomination for Best Male Lead as a fanatic Neo-Nazi conflicted by a secret that slowly, methodically explodes from within. If you’re looking for an early, mesmerizing film by Gosling, The Believer reveals an undeniable intensity that would go on to serve him well in the romantic drama The Notebook (2004), Half Nelson (2006) and the oddball film, Lars and the Real Girl (2007). Blue Valentine feels like it was written for Gosling as his singular portrayal of a man with small, tangible dreams and love that comes from an unquestioned heart – where it lives better nowhere else – is striking if at times sedate, charming and giving. He makes us believe no matter how much the story pulls him toward the fireworks popping off into nothing at the finale.
Michelle Williams’ career really started with her role as Jen Lindley on The WB television series Dawson’s Creek that ran for 16 seasons from 1998 to 2003. Destined for the big screen, she starred opposite Christina Ricci in Erik Skjoldjaerg’s film Prozac Nation (2001) and then in Ang Lee’s award winning film Brokeback Mountain (2005), Todd Hayne’s creative film, I’m Not There (2007) and Martin Scorsese’s Shutter Island (2010) — my review here — among many other smaller, less notable work. Praised for her genuine and varied performances, she has received a number of awards and nominations, and like Gosling, her career began on television but soon needed the space and audience of the big screen. She too seems selectively chosen for the role of Cindy, a young woman searching for love and intimacy in one empty relationship after another. When she finally finds someone different (Dean), someone who seems to offer her all the things she wants out of life, emotions sweep her up and in the blink of an eye she wakes up on the other end of a five-year marriage with mounting uncertainty that threatens to unravel everything. William’s gives her character a broken quality that sustains like a single note that fills the ear long after it is recognizable. While her transformation from young mother to conflicted woman is clear, there are moments when the two seem interchangeable and perhaps rightfully so. Like the world around her, her life was never allowed a natural course of development and as such, her distance and rage explode with too long a fuse to know when it is safe to be near or go running away.
Blue Valentine is at times a joyous, affirmation that relationships carry with them the blessing of togetherness, romance, and passion but also the weight of responsibility. This is a film that never steers too far off course, suggesting that for every smile there is a tear, that for every good deed we are not always able to keep things from coming apart. Heavy and personal, uncomfortable and engaging, nicety and not so nice are all just words when it comes to two people moving in opposition. The sharpest pain of all is the sudden realization that it can’t go on even when a little part of you can’t bare the thought – no matter how much you need to. Blue Valentine is a whisper, a question that asks: have you ever wondered what it was like to have something you took for granted lost, or wanted to make difference count for something beyond saying the words? Blue Valentine isn’t for everyone but neither are relationships and love if you’re a stranger to them, or having no experience with what it is like to feel arms around you give a little in another direction not of your choosing.