Hallmark gone bad
Blue Valentine? Indeed. Dean and Cindy’s love story is tinged with magic but things have turned very wrong. If this is a celebration of love, it’s tinged with deep sadness. The film expresses the bittersweet quality of such relationships, of the honeymoon that goes wrong when the child is six and the partners aren’t in sync anymore, by telling both stories, of the early meetings and the serious decline, simultaneously. And as Dean and Cindy, Ryan Gosling and Michelle Williams put on a virtual tour de force show of naturalistic, improvisational acting that’s awesome, if rather exhausting, to experience because such openness is on display, such raw emotion, such a lack of reserve. Tight camerawork often reinforces this effect by making things too close for comfort. And there is a lot to deal with here too. There is enough material in the two-hour running time for three movies. Cianfrance and his co-screenwriters Joey Curtis and Cami Delavigne have a host of precise observations, gestures, turns of phrase.
No wonder Blue Valentine has been nominated for four Gothan Awards and the Suindnce Grand Jury Prize. And yet, this strong and original film is also seriously flawed. As acting, it’s hard to fault. But as storytelling that would make sense of events and of the emotions on display, it leaves much to be desired. This is simply a matter of structure. The binary narrative goes astray almost from the beginning. It’s awkward and confusing, and finally ham-handed.
Williams has never seemed more authentic, present, and vulnerable, and Gosling gives a miraculously spontaneous impression of a young working class man whose lumpen lack of ambition rarely gets in the way of his enthusiasm for life. Gosling in The Believer was remarkable. But it almost just seemed he took a terrific concept — a good Jewish boy who turns into a violent Nazi skinhead — and ran with it totally. He’s obviously always been an actor willing to go all-out, and to take chances. But Dean is no gimmick. He’s a high school dropout estranged from his parents and works for a moving company. A drinker, a guy with no ambition, caught unawares by becoming a husband and father, he’s the epitome of the “homme moyen sensuel,” the average unintellectual man, with ordinary tastes and appetites. But there’s no condescension, caricature, or gimmickry in Gosling’s performance as Dean. In his other recent film, All Good Things, saddled with a mysterious cipher of a man, Gosling never found his character or his rhythm. Here he’s got them the minute he comes on screen, so perfectly that you don’t even think, “That’s Ryan Gosling,” not for a quarter of an hour anyway, by which time he’s got you fascinated. This performance shows what a gift the actor has. Williams is harder to judge, recessive. But she gradually blooms, and the contrasts she goes through between the increasingly joyous early stages and the increasingly disenchanted and fed up later ones in the alternating scenes of the relationship are stark, but in every case real and unforced.
The trouble is with the cutting back and forth. The viewer is over-strained in trying to make sense of the two chronological periods. And beside that, there aren’t just two, because the early stage covers a considerable, but indeterminate, period. In the end it becomes hopelessly confusing. In the constant effort to contrast, parallel, or interset sequences from alternate periods (which are never exactly specified), certain details, such as Cindy’s job, are under-presented. Worst of all, the disintegration of the relationship is not delineated well. There is a forced weekend at a tacky lovers’ motel that goes wrong. But what leads up to Cindy’s withdrawal into her cocoon before that? The whole film focuses too much on emotion and not enough on the day to day events that give rise to changes of feeling. There’s an implication that Cindy blames Dean for what goes wrong, but no indication that she is any more thoughtful, well-planned, or mature than he is, to justify her position. Finally, as a narrative, despite all its materials, the film begins to seem a complete shambles, haphazardly edited and not fully thought out.
Which seems an enormous shame, because there are amazing scenes here. This is a movie that you remember even though it never seems quite right. Derek Cianfrance is great with actors and clearly has talent beyond the ordinary. But he and his co-writers need to make some more clearer decisions about where their film is going next time. Blue Valentine gives us the pieces and expects us to put them together into something coherent on our own. We can’t.
Blue Valentine is out in UK cinemas 14th January 2011.
DIRECTOR: DEREK CIANFRANCE
WRITER: CIANFRANCE, JOEY CURTIS
CAST: RYAN GOSLING, MICHELLE WILLIAMS, JOHN DOMAN
RUNTIME: 120 MINS