Synopsis: In Blue Valentine, a young couple struggle with their marriage while remembering the romance of how it all began.
Release Date: December 29, 2010 MPAA Rating: PG-13
Blue Valentine is the simple story of a couple, Dean and Cindy (Ryan Gosling and Michelle Williams) falling in, and then out, of love. But the film’s overwhelming emotional power comes not from the story but the way it’s told. Director Derek Cianfrance spent twelve years getting the film made, working with Gosling and Williams on their characters for years before shooting a single frame. The result is a neorealist tragedy of the first order featuring devastating, transformative performances from two of the finest young actors working in American movies today.
The film begins at the end of Dean and Cindy’s marriage. Dean is a house painter, Cindy a nurse. They’re raising an irrepressibly cute little girl and living a normal life in a Philadelphia suburb. Over the course of a single day, the family’s dog dies, provoking long-simmering disputes over parenting techniques and forcing them to re-evaluate the state of their marriage and how they got here. The film flashes back to the couples’ courtship, when Dean worked as a mover and Cindy was in school. The film works on these two parallel tracks–past and present–with seamless integration, each story a worthwhile film in and of itself. Cianfrance’s background in documentary filmmaking captures the tiny details of each characters’ lives, documenting Dean and Cindy’s working class environs, their modest dreams and casual courtship with discipline and restraint. The observational filmmaking allows the audience to become engrossed in their narratives without becoming overwhelmed by material that might otherwise devolve into melodrama.
In the present day story, Dean coerces Cindy into spending a night at a sex motel with cheesy themed suites. His choice, The Future Room, encapsulates the schism in their marriage. He thinks it’s kitschy and fun, she thinks it’s sleazy and unromantic. Dean is trying to move their marriage forward any way he can, while Cindy has virtually shut herself off completely, totally submerged in the mistakes and regrets of the past. Their baggage translates to sexual hang-ups and frustrations, the emotional violence of which earned the film an initial NC-17 rating. But the sex scenes are neither graphic nor in poor taste, instead an extension of real relationship hurdles. Dean and Cindy know how to manipulate each other in horrible ways that are sometimes hard to watch, all the more so because we’ve just seen them falling love. The film’s immediate juxtaposition of passion and disgust, sensuality and loathing, is a tough pill to swallow. Cianfrance, Gosling, and Williams have created a realistic tableau of two characters who fall in and out of love almost accidentally, each unprepared to cope with the regurgitated issues of their childhoods as they raise a child of their own. Blue Valentine is a modern tragic masterpiece whose docurealist purview makes the audience complicit in its heartbreak.
Ryan Gosling plays Dean as a charming ne’er-do-well with a severe cigarette addition whose romantic idealism seems at odds with an inborn self-destructiveness. The product of a broken home, Dean drifts into his job as a mover as easily as he drifts into his relationship with Cindy. He’s obviously looking for the stability he never had and when Cindy gets pregnant, he finally finds something worthy of commitment. But as handsome, good-natured and charming as Dean is, Gosling lends a quick-tempered and restless vulnerability to the part. Gosling is following in the long tradition of Method actors like Marlon Brando whose darkness was tempered with sometimes riotous humor and an impish immaturity. It may seem sacrilegious to invoke Brando’s name, but in this role, Gosling really is that good. Dean (who has more than a little of James Dean in him) is an arrested adolescent unprepared to deal with the very real demands of maintaining a marriage absent the fantasy and idealism of his youth.
Michelle Williams has the less flashy part in Blue Valentine as Cindy, a young woman who has trained herself never to let her emotional guard down. It’s an internalized, frustrating and heartbreaking performance because as much as the audience wants Dean and Cindy to reconcile, it is obvious that Williams’ character is in the right: it has to end. In flash back, we’re given insight into Cindy’s college relationship with a jerky guy who’s an obvious stand-in for her own abusive father. Cindy is a bright young woman in an impossible position who’s so committed to moving forward in her career that she’s neglected to deal with her familial resentment. Most of the character’s motivations are left off the page, forcing Williams to render internal turmoil externally. Her pregnancy forces her to make a decision: marry Dean and hope for happiness or try raising a child and perusing a career as a single parent. She is a woman fighting against her own reluctance towards romance and relationships, and considering Dean’s emotional immaturity, an unhappy ending is inevitable.
It is hard to overstate how good Gosling and Williams are in their roles. The chemistry between them is the linchpin of the film and it never feels false or unauthentic. Their dialogue has the quality of improvisation and each actors’ choices are impeccable, months of internal study crystallized into a few moments of pure truth when it seems like neither performer is acting at all. One scene, in particular, stands out: Dean and Cindy’s first date in Blue Valentine, which begins as a serendipitous meeting on a public bus. The two young people stop for ice cream, talking about their lives, their jobs and families, opening up to each other, and the audience, in ways they never have before. Dean stops in a storefront and begins to play his ukulele on the condition that Cindy dances while he sings. It’s an absurd display that speaks volumes about how much the two already trust each other–enough to make fools of themselves in public. Watching these two people fall in love in front of our eyes is blissful and beautiful, yet lent an undercurrent of bitter disappointment because we know how they end up.
At one point in Blue Valentine, Dean asks Cindy, “You know when a song comes on and you just gotta dance?” It’s the perfect expression of burgeoning love, that instant spark shared between two damaged strangers who find a connection, at least for as long as it takes for the record to play.
Cast and Crew
- Director(s): Derek Cianfrance
- Screenwriters: Derek Cianfrance, Jamie Patricof, Joey Curtiscami Delavigne
- Cast: Ryan Gosling (Dean), Michelle Williams (Cindy)
- Other Crew: Jim Helton, Andrij Parekh, Inbal Weinberg
- Country Of Origin: USA