“Blue Valentine” is a story about a couple told in two different parts: how they come together and ultimately how they fall apart. Like the yin and the yang, they complement each other to create a picture of broken marriage with vivid and heartbreaking color. Writer and director Derek Cianfrance uses the broken narrative to provide the story with a harrowing sense of perspective as we observe what once sparked attraction between the two fuels repulsion six years later.
The movie opens on a scene of Dean (Ryan Gosling) and Cindy (Michelle Williams) six years into their marriage, and no screaming match or fight is necessary to show that their relationship is crumbling. With the demands of their daughter, the hassle of a lost pet, and the tension between their disparate jobs, the strain in their love is perfectly illustrated by their body language towards each other.
Cold, cruel, and distant they have grown – and Cianfrance doesn’t indulge us by telling where and when it all went south. Is what we observe with the dog simply the straw that broke the camel’s back? Was it having a child? Or did their love gently erode over time? “Blue Valentine” doesn’t offer us an easy answer, leaving it up to the audience to discuss in the theater lobby and the parking lot.
However, the question I asked wasn’t what caused them to fall out of love; I wondered if they were ever in love in the first place. Strategically interspersed among their separation are flashbacks of Dean’s courtship of Cindy, which came as she was losing a dear relative and trying to shed an abusive father and boyfriend. Perhaps it was just a perfect storm of circumstances that brought them together, not love. And again, there’s no easy answer to that, which makes the heavy “Blue Valentine” land a little softer.
By heavy, I mean that this is a movie that pulls no punches. Cianfrance makes the drama of the collapse so gritty and so real through just about every channel possible. The searing veracity bleeds through every frame of the movie thanks to the rough shooting style, and it’s especially prevalent in the flashback scenes, shot on Super 8 film for a grainier look. Through his script, there is no sentimentalizing or romanticizing the situation.
All is presented in the rawest manner possible, which often makes for an uncomfortable viewing experience. But Cianfrance isn’t interested in our comfort; he wants to make the pain of a divorce, which he knew firsthand growing up, reverberate through the theater. There’s not a second of the movie that feels inauthentic, and it makes for one difficult sit with very little emotional payout at the end. That’s not necessarily a bad thing, but the drain sure can make you feel empty.
“Blue Valentine” simply wouldn’t work without the two towering performances of Ryan Gosling and Michelle Williams, who we constantly fall in and out of love with. They bring the movie to a very dark and gloomy life with their acting prowess, every ounce of which is on display here. There’s such a raw intensity present in both of their work in the movie that isn’t scenery-chewing or over the top, but it sure is effective.
Cianfrance had the two actors live in close quarters for a month before shooting the collapse scenes, and the result is a breaking relationship that feels scarily genuine. Williams is the better of the two, perhaps because she is more external with her emotions while Gosling is more subtle, but both astound with ferocious power. Their performances don’t exactly make the movie enjoyable, yet their might makes a somber pill worth swallowing. B+ /