Much of the promotional material for Blue Valentine – a trailer featuring Ryan Gosling serenading Michelle Williams with a ukulele, posters of the couple locked in a tender embrace – recommends it as a sweet romantic drama that carries a faint whiff of twee. It’s interesting just how wide of the mark this is: Blue Valentine is powerful, affecting and intense – but as for being charmed by its whimsy, you’re more likely to end up feeling chronically depressed.
Gosling and Williams put in flawless performances as Dean and Cindy, a couple whose marriage, tentatively held together by their young daughter, is on the brink of collapse. Over the course of two days – which includes, as a last-ditch attempt to revive their flagging relationship, a stay in a “cheesy sex motel” – they enter a stage of total self-destruction. A series of intermittent flashbacks, recalling the earliest days of their romance, shows the staggering gap between Then and Now: the ukulele, the tender embrace and the whiff of twee are replaced by misery, violence and borderline alcoholism.
As a cinematic device, the flashback is pretty old hat – but Derek Cianfrance is an innovative director, using it to draw exactly the response he wants from his audience. Having seen ambitious, gentle student Cindy and sweet, kindhearted grafter Dean fall hopelessly in love, we are horrified by the seemingly sudden transformation of both into raging, bitter antagonists.
There’s little reprieve from the film’s dark, downbeat tone. Even the beginning of their relationship, full of kissing and cunnilingus, is marked by Cindy’s exposure to violence between her own parents as well as an unwanted pregnancy that takes her to an abortionist. That Cindy decides to halt this procedure may suggest the film to be tediously in line with the notoriously conservative American market: few films have been courageous enough to depict a termination that spells a happy, or even simply relieved, ending for the heroine. Yet this is surely nothing other than a pro-choice film in disguise, portraying as it does the reverse truth: a pregnancy, brought to term, that spells an unhappy ending not only for its heroine but for the hero too.
There are a few attempts at humour, mainly driven by the (admittedly hefty) comic potential of the “Future Room” at the sex motel (Dean: “We’re inside a robot’s vagina!”). But it’s a tack that’s dropped fairly quickly: Blue Valentine just isn’t that kind of film, and in fact the motel scenes – during which the couple veer between cold hostility and violent sexual aggression – are amongst the most disturbing of the lot.
That such a pessimistic film manages to be quite so compelling is a testament to Cianfrance’s superb direction, as well as the sterling work of the two leads. There’s no doubting that it’s a tough watch, but it’s an essential one too: everything the film says about romance, relationships, marriage and adulthood is at once both recognisably true and incredibly bold. That said, it’s probably best avoided on a first date.
The highlight of the DVD extras is a witty, engaging commentary with Cianfrance and his editor Jim Helton. It’s a strong mix of personal anecdote (Cianfrance talks about, among other things, how his parents’ divorce led him to make Blue Valentine) and eye-opening technical details. It also reveals just how much work Cianfrance and his cast put into the movie: Gosling and Williams, we are told, were effectively hired as method actors, with Cianfrance taking pains to capture their genuine reactions to sets, situations and each other as much as possible (the two even lived together for a month before filming). Least surprising revelation in the commentary is Cianfrance’s remark: “I have an allergy to cuteness.”
In addition, there’s a somewhat chaotic Q&A featuring cast and principal crew (notable mostly for demonstrating the genuine affection between the two leads) and a short but rather more polished “making of” featurette. Both are interesting and watchable, but contain nothing that you wouldn’t get from the commentary. Elsewhere are a batch of deleted scenes, all of which are from the pre-marriage sections of the story – entertaining enough, but they don’t really add anything to your understanding of the film – and a couple of sweet, funny home movies, shot by Gosling and Williams during their pre-shoot cohabitation.
Blue Valentine is out on DVD 9th May 2011.