True love sweeps into a person’s life like a volatile weather system, bringing with it an exhilarating sense of hope and possibility. A glance might invite the first raindrop of excitement, but devotion leads to the overwhelming monsoon of extreme feelings that follow. Yet sometimes, even the truest love can’t sustain the crippling fissures of doubt, a temporal beast wearing you down one forlorn moment at a time. Derek Cianfrance’s Blue Valentine constructs such an unsettling emotional biosphere, charting the ebbs and flows of the relationship between a blue-collar hunk named Dean (Ryan Gosling) and a fledgling university student named Cindy (Michelle Williams). Life’s joys and agonies, beginnings and ends, constantly overlap for these two, and so does the disjointed narrative timeline of Blue Valentine. Cianfrance calibrates this time shifting structure to reveal the small joys of meeting someone new, but also the horrible verbal weaponry used to permanently kill a relationship on the ropes. Juxtaposing the couple’s first meeting and their final battle, it’s clear that love and hate, hope and defeat are always standing side by side.
That Blue Valentine begins with Dean and Cindy already married and raising a child makes the flashbacks to their hopeful early years together even more devastating. In the opening sequence, Cianfrance seeps the viewer into the already tainted familial stew, the routine of compromise rooted in the very fabric of their existence. Dean is wasting his artistic talent working as a house painter and Cindy, once poised to become a doctor, now wallows as a nurse at a small medical office. The early death of the family dog foreshadows the extreme frustration each feels with his or her role as a protector, but also the disillusionment both experience toward the possibility of happy endings. As Dean and Cindy attempt to rekindle their marriage through a short vacation at a sleazy theme motel, Cianfrance slices through the surface angst and flashes back to happier times. Working as a mover, Dean helps an old man personalize his new room at a convalescent home, while Cindy cares for her aged grandma at the same institution. Their meeting is accidental, but the development of the emotional spark takes understanding, dedication, and circumstance. These polar opposite representations of time and space are linked by the film’s gritty camerawork and grainy images, and by the diagetic music connecting memories with regrets. In the film’s most beautiful moment, Dean strums his banjo and sings while Cindy tap dances to the tune, a collective unity of two lost souls looking for a way out. But we can’t help but see the torment in between the notes.
As a display of physical and emotional performance, Blue Valentine is without equal in 2010. Gosling’s contorted presence and brooding demeanor is offset by a brilliant charm and improvisation for life’s minor joys, a construction of a dutiful but haunted modern man. Williams is equally brilliant, her Cindy a vulnerable, hopeful young woman pressed into motherhood by a selfish ex-boyfriend and conflicted by a tough family life. Together, these two dissect the screen in elongated dialogue-driven set pieces, the most devastating of which takes place in their retro “Future Room” hotel suite. The slow burn of their disappointment, the crushing struggle to define the last remaining fragments of emotion echoes off the sleek artificial façade. Blue Valentine becomes a full-blown horror film during this suffocating interior battle, and the terrible subtext seems to drip off the walls. It’s here, amid the shadows and clean lines that the damning attributes of this relationship are exposed in full figurative spotlight.
Ultimately, Blue Valentine acts as a barometer for levels of anguish: functioning pain, then draining heartache, and finally numbing indifference. This three-act structure of fluctuating tones is not unduly pessimistic, just unbelievably sensitive to the realities of falling knee deep in love and not knowing how to keep your head above water. Once the cross-cutting aesthetic finalizes on the couple’s brutal piece de resistance of resentment and tears, Blue Valentine holds a bit too long on the inevitable downfall. Still, the film is a revelation of the subtleties and nuances most couples ignore, and suffer mightily for it. Flanked by children at play and exploding fireworks, Gosling’s final long walk into the sunset is the epitome of American tragedy. Sometimes good men and good women aren’t good together, and that crucial reality stings long after the credits roll.
AFI Fest 2010 ran from November 4 – 11. For more information, click here.