Feb 17, 2011|
(USA) Directed by Derek Cianfrance. Starring Ryan Gosling, Michelle Williams. Category III.
Every relationship has its ups and downs. For the young couple in “Blue Valentine”—as the title points out—it’s mostly the latter. In writer-director Derek Cianfrance’s poignant drama set in Pennsylvania, Ryan Gosling and Michelle Williams play a blue-collar worker and a nurse whose disintegrating six-year-long marriage is stripped down to its very beginning and very end, and observed through close-ups and in depth. Intensely and yet subtly acted by two of the broodiest and (dare I say) finest young actors of our time, this naturalistic piece (astoundingly reminiscent of John Cassavetes’ cinema-vérité groundbreaker, “Faces”), with a sophisticated narrative juxtaposing past and present, is a thought-provoking indie gem of emotional truth.
Waking up one morning in their rural Pennsylvania house, Dean (Gosling), Cindy (Williams) and their five-year-old daughter Frankie discover their dog is missing. A depressive domestic atmosphere that pervades breakfast indicates the couple is not in a happy place. The husband is loving and light-hearted, while the overworked wife is disillusioned and sullen, obviously suffocated by marital life. Trying to rekindle the long-forgotten spark in their relationship, Dean decides to take Cindy to a cheap “romantic hotel” for a one-night stay. She’s extremely reluctant, but agrees to go. And the room they get is ironically named “Future Room,” cheesily and funnily decorated with a sci-fi theme and a rotating bed.
But things weren’t always like this. Cianfrance’s screenplay—co-written with Joey Curtis and Cami Delavigne over the course of 12 years—flashes back to when Cindy and Dean first meet at a nursing home. Cindy’s dysfunctional family has shaped her reserve, but she finds it hard to resist this handsome, warm and goofily charming man. He serenades her on the street—Gosling strums the ukulele and sings “You Always Hurt the One You Love” while Williams dances—in a beautiful scene that’s almost unbearably heartbreaking to watch because we know that these two people, once so ecstatically in love, eventually end up hurting each other, something they never wanted but don’t know how to stop.
The back-and-forth cuts between the two tenses, purposely neglecting the middle chunk of this relationship, suggest that their love is fated for doom. We learn that Frankie is an accident. Cindy has ambitions to be a doctor instead of a nurse, and is dissatisfied that Dean is wasting his potential just to be a devoted husband and father. Back in the hotel room, they drink and have sex. But unlike the erotic love-making that characterized their early days, these scenes are loaded with such hostility and agony that they’re the saddest to witness. Other interactions are equally destructive; every conversation ends with an argument, and it finally leads to a major blow-up.
Cianfrance requested that the two leads live together for a month in the characters’ on-set house before the shooting, and the payoff is huge. Gosling and Williams each deliver a nuanced portrayal of individuals that audiences can easily relate to; but together, they create a compelling and believable joint performance that simply goes above and beyond. Though the emotions become overwhelming at times, Cianfrance’s direction is rather constrained and focused as the on-screen relationship melts down. With stunningly textured cinematography, “Blue Valentine” is a rational narrative about an irrational relationship that hits a dead end. We love and hate the two suffering characters, wondering if they can find salvation; and most importantly, we reflect on our own relationships as we’re taken along this wrenching journey. Tough, but worthwhile.