Michelle Williams and Ryan Gosling in "Blue Valentine"
Playwright Arthur Miller once had a fictional surrogate say for him: "I am bewildered by the death of love. And my responsibility for it." With his debut film, "Blue Valentine," Derek Cianfrance dives into the bewilderment about the shared responsibility of a broken relationship.
The unflinching, unerringly truthful results of this divorce-era dissection of love and marriage compose a rare and most welcome grown-up romantic drama. Ironically, "Blue Valentine" is itself a labor of love, birthed from a 12-year development process on the part of Cianfrance and oversized commitment from stars Michelle Williams and Ryan Gosling, who respectively stuck with the project for six and four years.
The commitment extended to "Method"-style preparation, with the couple and their screen child living together (by day) for a month to populate an empty house with the appropriate physical and emotional clutter. Though the expression "It's all there on the screen" usually refers to film budgets north of $100 million, "Blue Valentine" earns the remark with but a sliver of that number.
At the film's present-day outset, we find youngish couple Dean (Gosling) and Cindy (Williams), along with kindergarten-age daughter Frankie (Faith Wladyka), living in that house in rural Pennsylvania. The early scenes show a functional family with everyday tensions, little fissures that eventually erupt. Dad's attentive but a little too buoyant; Mom's wearily responsible but nearly humorless. The point is pressed when the family dog goes missing, with an emotional fallout that sends Frankie to the grandparents for a spell and forces Dean and Cindy to deal with each other.
In a clumsy bid for romance, Brooklyn-bred Dean insists: "We have to get out of this house. Let's go get drunk and make love." So the couple repairs to a honeymoon hotel and encamps in the cheesily decorated (and pointedly chosen) "Future Room."
"We're going to the future!" Dean enthuses, but the film has already begun making trips into the couple's past. As structured by Cianfrance and co-writers Cami Delavigne and Joey Curtis, the story unfolds in two timelines: the present day and six years earlier, when the couple meet, court and marry.
The structure isn't an innovation, but it's handled with exceptional gracefulness and poignancy, with scenes from each timeline informing and deepening scenes from the other. In this way, "Blue Valentine" artfully evokes life rhythms and the seasons of a relationship. Doing heroic, miraculous work, Gosling and Williams use every weapon in the actor's arsenal. Though their greater skill is in their contrapuntal emotional depth, external appearances and gestures add to the effect: Gosling added pounds and thinned his hair for present-day scenes, and Williams' body language speaks volumes about Cindy's sense of self across the years. In one particularly thoughtful choice, her younger Cindy likes to run her fingers through Dean's hair.
Andrij Parekh shoots skillfully on the fly, using soft, natural light and finding visual poetry in the mundane (at one point, the marrieds literally find themselves in the weeds). But it's the consistently revealing characters that make "Blue Valentine" so special, a postmodern tragedy of two people at odds who are both right and both wrong in their argument, sharing responsibility for the birth and death of love.
Rated R on appeal for strong graphic sexual content, language and a beating. 1 hour, 52 minutes.
- Peter Canavese