Academy Award nominee Michelle Williams (Brokeback Mountain) and multi-talented actor Ryan Gosling (The Notebook) deliver two of the best performances you’ll see on screen this year in Blue Valentine. That’s my opinion – and I can’t understand why so many reviewers have written it off as just another cautionary tale about the perils of love when it’s so much more than that.
Director Derek Cianfrance takes the story of Dean and Cindy, an unhappy couple in the dying days of a marriage, and turns it into a brutal examination of love from every angle – up close and personal through a narrative that skips between their early romance and the sad predicament in which they now find themselves.
Dean is a house-painter who used to work for a removals company. His youthful charm has made way for a sour, increasingly alcohol-fuelled apathy towards his job and he’s never realised his full potential despite an obvious creative flair. He knows his relationship with Cindy is in trouble, but seems unable to express or address the root causes of the problem. Gosling puts everything into the character and gives the audience a startling portrait of a man holding onto the rosy memories of the past while trying to navigate his way through a decidedly grey present to a brighter future. It’s a raw and evocative portrayal from an actor who deserves more recognition from Hollywood.
Cindy abandoned her dream of going to medical school after falling pregnant and now works herself to the bone as a nurse at the local clinic. Her career disappointments seem to have coloured every aspect of her life. The little bit of energy she has left at the end of each day goes towards her daughter, Frankie, who nevertheless appears to favour Dean. Cindy’s affection for her husband has faded and she can barely stand to be in the same room with him. Williams conveys her character’s misery, desperation and hopelessness with a restrained, emotionally piercing performance – and it’s often a look or a gesture that’s more telling than her words.
Cianfrance contrasts the vibrant beginning of Dean and Cindy’s love affair with its present decay through flashbacks interlaced with the events of the 48 hours during which the story unfolds. And because of this, viewers need to pay careful attention. Often, important historical clues about the couple are presented before you’ve even thought to ask the right questions. I found myself having many “ah-ha” moments when I pondered the film in the days after seeing it. And the more I rehashed the events of Dean and Cindy’s past, the more their present started to make sense.
Cianfrance has been criticised for his overt use of cinematography to counterpoint the different stages of the relationship. Dean and Cindy’s young love is given wings with hand-held camera shots and a textured colour palette of reds and yellows. At the other end of the scale, their melancholy is made painfully clear through punishing close-ups, dim lighting and pervasive blue tones. Yes, Cianfrance’s technique is unmistakable – but also necessary, I believe, to visually cement the emotional changes the lovers have experienced in their six years together.
So what happened to this couple? How did Dean change from an idealistic young man in search of love and acceptance to a spiritless nobody at odds with his wife? How did Cindy change from a radiant bride to a shadow of a woman on a merry-go-round of despair? There is no simple answer and Cianfrance only gives us the introduction and the denouement of this tale – we are left to imagine the messy middle section of the plot. Maybe it was the little things. Or financial strain. Or the daily grind of their jobs. Or old wounds. Or broken dreams. Or misplaced blame. I think Dean and Cindy were victims of circumstance – two flawed people who found something of what they were searching for in the other and mistakenly (or perhaps naively) believed that a small piece of the dream would be enough for the rest of their lives.
In a key scene, Dean – ukulele in hand – serenades Cindy with the old pop standard You Always Hurt The One You Love (music and lyrics by Doris Fisher and Allan Roberts). It’s a glimpse of what’s to come, a poetic prophecy of the pain that lurks on the horizon. Only they’re not the only ones who are going to get hurt. There’s little Frankie, too. The film is about two people who are destined to part ways, but Cianfrance also offers a glimpse of the other casualty in this failed marriage: the child. It’s no coincidence that the opening scenes feature Frankie calling out for her father. It’s no coincidence that the closing scenes show her crying in Cindy’s arms, reaching for Dean, who is walking away. And it’s no coincidence that the final image in the musical montage during the credits is one of her, alone in a field. It’s a subtle reminder that children often pay a high price for their parents’ failings.
Blue Valentine will haunt you. The relentless examination of this couple feels, at times, like a documentary. Its unerring commitment to the realism of love, sex, marriage and everything in between makes what you’re seeing on screen all too familiar. It’s not escapist cinema – it’s a rare tribute to the light and dark moments of intimacy, lovingly created by Cianfrance and brought to poignant life by the two amazing leads. A blue valentine, indeed.