Sometimes the simplest of stories make the best of movies. Boy meets girl. Boy falls in love with girl. Boy marries girl. Girl breaks up with boy. The story of Blue Valentine, an independent production filmed on a meagre budget of $3.5 million which boasts milestone performances by Ryan Gosling and Michelle Williams, who, supported by a sensitive and ferocious screenplay, elevate this movie to the status of modern romantic drama masterpiece.
The movie chronicles the weekend that leads up to the dissolution of Dean and Cindy’s marriage, intertwined with flashbacks showing them falling in love a few years before. The question running through the movie is, what leads these two to break up? Complex matters don’t have the luxury of simple answers and this movie moves like an existential mystery inviting the viewer to intuit, through the unravelling of the couple’s lives, the clues that explain the end of their love.
The movie works in series of contrasts. The rose-tainted seduction and dating scenes from the past, which depict the growing intimacy between Dean and Cindy, collide against the harrowing scenes in the present, which show a loveless, routine marriage. The opening sequence is exemplary: Cindy prepares breakfast but their daughter, Frankie (Faith Wladyka), doesn’t want her oat meals. Cindy upbraids her but Dean, instead of setting an example, starts playing with his food too. Cindy, the paragon of responsibility; Dean, the eternal child.
Are Dean and Cindy two different to live together? Let’s consider. When they meet Cindy is studying to become a doctor. In the present she’s a nurse. Did the burden of marriage crush her dreams? Is she unfulfilled? Although there was love once, love wasn’t what got the two together. Perhaps the most important decision in Cindy’s life is having Dean’s baby. The result of an unplanned night of sex, Frankie defines their lives. Dean is now a house painter. When she meets him he’s working for a moving company. In the present she complains that Dean has too much potential to just settle for a crappy job. Cindy works a lot. Dean has a lot of free time. Frankie gets along better with him than with Cindy. He has more time to be with her.
Cindy comes from a broken home. The child of a turbulent marriage in which fights at dinner time were common. She has trouble believing in love. We learn she started having sexual relationships at thirteen and that by the time she met Dean, at the age of twenty or so, she had had 20 to 25 partners. She’s promiscuous, she can’t have steady relationships. Dean, on the other hand, the moment he sees her is instantly struck by love. He argues that men are more romantic than women. Are they?
If love is blind, marriage is oblivious. Dean’s love has given way to the routine of being taken care of by his wife. Their relationship has become as sensitive as a fresh wound. At the start of the movie their dog disappears. Cindy finds him dead by the roadside. Dean’s first reaction is to blame her for not keeping the gate locked. To spare Frankie of the tragedy they send her to her grandfather (John Doman) while Dean insists in having a night together at a cheap motel to have fun and rekindle the old spark. In the motel he ironically chooses the Future Room.
Williams and Gosling are excellent in their roles. Each undergoes subtle physical changes to distinguish their present selves from their younger counterparts. They put on some weight and Gosling even sports a receding hairline plus glasses to complete his metamorphosis into a self-satisfied domestic slob. We only have to look at them to see the physical stress marriage has had on them.
More impressive is their emotional range. In the past Dean acts like a person full of life and good spirits. Dean is unpredictable and romantic then. You can believe that a no-nonsense medical student could fall for him or that she could ruin her life dreams for him. Williams portrays her younger self as a shy and non-talkative person. She’s the opposite of Gosling’s chatterbox. The scene when Cindy, for instance, nearly undergoes an abortion is a testament to Williams’ ability to transmits all the doubts and despair of her character with just subtle facial expressions.
In the present their emotions are changed again, they’re burned out, numb. Repulsion replaces love. Consider the disgust in Cindy’s face when she tries to have sex in the Future Room – Williams shows so much discomfort that instead of being Dean’s planned rebirth of intimacy between the two it becomes the most unpleasant sex scene in cinema in a long time. This scene is emblematic of their relationship – the inability to connect physically and emotionally leaves Dean without arguments to maintain their marriage other than resorting to begging and blackmail like not wanting Frankie to grow up in a broken home. What starts as love turns into a callous match where innocent bystanders are used as pawns.
It took Derek Cianfrance twelve years to make Blue Valentine: the result is a humane, intimate movie about the possibility that true love may not exist. Some romantic dramas exist to make us feel good. But once in a while comes a movie that reminds us how complicated and relentless human relationships are.
Director: Derek Cianfrance
Screenplay: Derk Cianfrance, Cami Delavigne, Joey Curtis
Cast: Ryan Gosling, Michelle Williams, Faith Wladyka, John Doman
Runtime: 112 min