Blue Valentine wants to be the ultimate love story that refutes the clichés of most movie romances. The story is the rise and fall of what's supposed to be a typical young working-class relationship, told in two interwoven portions. In the portion set in the past, Dean (Ryan Gosling), an idealistic furniture mover who exhibits mostly the least beneficial qualities of a classic artist's temperament (moodiness, a certain detachment from reality, a drinking problem), meets Cindy (Michelle Williams), a quiet, pretty nursing student clearly wrestling with (mostly unspecified) demons. The two meet realistically cute, and soon embark—in an admittedly wonderful scene—on an improvised first date that soon blooms into the sort of full-on passion that's about equally exhilarating, terrifying, and annoying. The second portion, set in what is roughly the present, reveals that Cindy, now married to Dean, has pretty much given up on her husband; their daughter, Frankie (a haunting Faith Wladyka), the sole reminder of the hope and surprise that informs the first portion.
The filmmaker, Derek Cianfrance, is clearly talented, and for about 30 minutes you think he may have made the film he's clearly aiming for. Cianfrance's crosscutting technique initially works, as we're able to see, with sometimes piercing clarity, how someone's little quirks can become embarrassing and even contemptible to a lover after the initial connection has been squashed by the challenges of living with any human being for a prolonged amount of time. It's clear what Cindy sees in Dean, at first, as there's a playfulness and imagination to him that stands apart as blissful contrast from the self-absorbed jock she's recently left. But Dean is also a stunted dreamer, a “kid,” as Cindy frequently says, who's good at a lot of little things that don't seem to add up to too much. Dean, in a nice touch, is perfectly satisfied with the job he settles into as a house painter; his ignored talents for sketching and playing instruments, among other things, don't bother him, as his love for Cindy and Frankie, give him everything he needs. It's Cindy, often forced into playing the bad-guy disciplinarian for Frankie, who understandably feels adrift and abandoned.
The contrast of the two portions establishes all of this neatly. We see that the seeds of destruction, as they often are, were planted at the very beginning. But the film is too neat. This good/bad, rise/fall, bliss/despair, compare-and-contrast structure, which is—let's face it—a gimmick, leaves out the middle, which is the portion of a relationship that movies often shortchange the most anyway. Cianfrance's structure is basically the indie relationship-movie equivalent of an action film that pummels you into submission with unceasing pyrotechnics. Blue Valentine has been shaped as a very literal-minded contrast picture, but ironically, there isn't any contrast, because every scene is set in a time of either amazing or awful turmoil. Cianfrance conveys no sense of everyday calm, of the little things that alter Dean and Cindy's relationship bit by bit, day by day.
Every scene is scripted to be the most emotionally devastating moment in all of American cinema. And anyone who has ever been in a relationship, even one that lasts one night, knows that there are funny little occurrences that sneak up on you and your lover at the strangest times: little spasms of spontaneity that can still shock you with recollective joy despite the disappointment that may otherwise hang over the rest of the association. The film, excluding maybe the spontaneous ukulele-playing and tap-dancing that characterize the first date, is distressingly humorless; there's no indication that, as heartbreaking as these experiences may be, they happen to everyone who's lucky enough. A great film about relationships—such as the recent Another Year, or the considerably less recent Shoot the Moon—conveys a sense of the casual and the incidental.
Williams does what she can, and she really is one of the best American actors working in movies. Williams is often a minimalist who conveys a wealth of expression with a glare, or with maybe a tossed-off line, and she's often devastating here. There's one moment where Dean is at the height of his vulnerability—pleading for sex—and Cindy laughs him off. This is a dangerous sort of moment for an actor that's easy to overplay, but Williams delivers with a precision that's frankly chilling: You see her own shock at her contempt (she's breaking her own heart, in addition to Dean's). Every sexually active human being, if they're honest with themselves, has had to bear this kind of deflating humiliation, and Cianfrance, to his credit, understands that both lovers are sharing this humiliation.
Gosling is not, to put it lightly, a minimalist, though he probably thinks he is. He's an enormously talented, ambitious actor, and like most enormously talented, ambitious actors, Gosling usually weighs himself—too consciously—against every previous great actor. It's clear, particularly, that Gosling, like Edward Norton a decade before, is very taken with Sean Penn. Understandable, as Penn—despite his own maddening tendencies—is a brilliant actor. So far in his career, Gosling has been adopting Penn's unfortunate ticks, those theoretically great method tendencies that are almost always phony. There isn't a gesture in Gosling's performance here that isn't determinedly natural. You can sense Gosling contemplating just how long Dean should hold a cigarette or just how Dean should sip his beer just so. Gosling is, like Penn, perhaps too forceful a personality to play the little-man roles he fetishizes. It's no surprise, then, that his most striking and enjoyable moments here—and there are admittedly several—mostly play to Dean's brooding artiste tendencies.
Blue Valentine is truthful in a respect that's probably only partially intentional: It does, indeed, capture the self-absorption and the warped perspective of a couple deeply, obsessively in love, but it offers little in the way of perspective. It's a well-meaning romance that's been ratcheted up to ludicrous extremes, but the film does have force. Blue Valentine is a sad, powerful, messy failure, a film that will inspire many conflicting, heated reactions. Like, come to think of it, most relationships.
The film's image would be easy to muck up, as Derek Cianfrance favors the sort of muted, grainy dark colors, occasionally contrasted with loud whites, that could make for a murky, indistinct DVD. This transfer, however, is a nice job, as the images have a pop that honors the lo-fi beauty the director and cinematographer intended. The sound mix is even better. The little audio effects are vividly preserved, and sometimes greatly affect the intimacy of the film's more effective moments (you can hear the rustle of Dean and Cindy's winter coats as they cling and fervently kiss in the rain).
The commentary is appealingly earnest, and it's pretty clear right away that Cianfrance is a passionate guy who based Dean on himself. Unsurprisingly, Cianfrance focuses quite a bit on his efforts to make the film feel real, such as shooting hours of interviews with secondary characters that would barely appear in the final cut, or having Ryan Gosling and Michelle Williams live together in the movie's house for a month in preparation for shooting the modern-day segments. Cianfrance's continued insistence on this quest for reality ultimately grows redundant and exhausting, but it never, to the filmmaker's credit, feels egotistical—though we don't hear much from coeditor Jim Helton. The deleted scenes include the usual snips, though there are a few brief bits with Dean and a co-worker that should have somehow remained, as they paint a humorous, engaging portrait of working-class life that's almost entirely missing from the film proper. The making-of featurette adheres to the classic, complementary talking-heads structure, but it's more informative than usual, while the "Frankie and the Unicorn" home movie provides a revealing, and succinct, glimpse at the elaborate actor improvisation that Cianfrance discusses throughout his commentary. A sincere, engagingly lean collection of extras.
An enormously overheated yet oddly affecting movie gets an appropriately earnest DVD treatment.