Movie Review of the Week : Blue Valentine

  • Director: Derek Cianfrance
  • Cast: Ryan Gosling, Michelle Williams
  • (****) 4/5

Sometimes there is no need for big setups or complex plot-lines, no twist in the tale or Hollywood happy ending. Often the most touching and affecting films are those that draw closely on real life, enabling the audience to relate on a personal level. Easier than it sounds, but the difficulty lies in casting actors with the bravery and raw talent to convey the authenticity of the everyday. Sometimes a straight line can be the hardest to draw. It is more technically and emotionally challenging to inhabit a character rooted in the normal, than say a psychotic ballerina or a stuttering monarch. The themes explored are free to resonate within each actor, allowing them to draw on individual experience to inform the performances.

“Blue Valentine” director Derek Cianfrance had the good fortune to cast two leading actors who are quickly establishing themselves as real and credible talents. Ryan Gosling and Michelle Williams play Dean and Cindy, their developing and diminishing love story viewed in non-linear narrative; focusing on the inception and heartbreaking end of their relationship. They meet at 24, fresh faced and with a willing openness to love. Dean is a goofy romantic, he serenades Cindy with his ukelele while she dances for him in the street. Cindy, an aspiring student with hopes of a career in medicine is initially cautious of Dean, eventually giving in.

The films jumps between past and present, showing us how Dean and Cindy first met, how they fell in love and how Cindy fell pregnant. We flick back and forth between then and now; a present in which Cindy and Dean attempt to reignite the spark of the past. The broken time structure shows nothing of the 6 years in between, allowing us to develop our own understanding of each character. Dean is now slightly overweight, balding and drinks too much, while Cindy is overworked and overtired. They are unable to communicate without fighting, they pick out flaws in each other, imperfections that they probably found endearing at the start. Often they do not even need to speak to articulate the distance that has grown between them. Dean is a some time house painter and Cindy is working as a nurse. The unrealised potential that Dean has frustrates Cindy – who is ambitious and driven. The traditional gender roles are all but reversed, with Dean preferring to stay home and play with their daughter Frankie.

The film lives and breathes through the raw and honest performances of Gosling and Williams. Both characters are damaged and complex, it is the conflict in each of their characters that give them such depth and vulnerability. Dean is drifting into alcoholism and struggles to hold down a job, but he is a good father and loves his wife and child. Cindy can be selfish and cruel, but is also ambitious and smart – she wants the best for her family. Neither of them have done anything ‘wrong’, there are no affairs or violence – no big incident to incite their decline. Their relationship has become sour and bitter, the love that once was has slowly worn away over the years. In a heartbreaking final scene, Dean struggles to understand what went wrong begging “Tell me how I should be. Just tell me. I’ll do it. ” while Cindy repeatedly sobs “I can’t take this anymore”. There is no bad guy, there is no good guy. They are two people caught up in a terrible situation. The passion and romance of the early days replaced with resentment and disdain.

Cianfrance’s intimate direction is full of sharp focus close ups and he makes ordinary backdrops seem strikingly beautiful, soaked in faded colours. His trust in his actors to improvise certain key scenes allowed for a remarkable realism to exist, the couple seem so natural together – whether they are happy or not. The pain conveyed by Gosling and Williams is almost too much to bear, it is an emotionally draining experience. “Blue Valentine” harks back to the blue collar suburban realism of John Cassavetes, Cianfrance crafts a similarly taut examination of family – soundtracked perfectly by Grizzly Bear’s understated melancholy and ornate melodies. We Shouldn’t really care for Dean or Cindy, but the strength of their performance attracts you to their flawed characters. Gosling and Williams have matured into fine actors, capable of tackling characters of astounding depth. “Blue Valentine” is the rarest of films, a grown up tale of unflinching honesty that does not pander to melodrama or cliche. It is not a story of love found and lost, but of love endured; a love that slowly and painfully dies.

2011 : A Film Odyssey is the movie review site of Chris Vaughan.

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