Director: Derek Cianfrance
So often in cinema, we are told that true love knows no boundaries, that it transcends most any difficulty to endure and to grow. Alas, the real demands of commitment, marriage and parenthood are more pressing than most screenwriters seem to realize. Blue Valentine knows the truth; impulses are wonderful and dangerous simultaneously. Love requires work on both sides, and it may not always succeed. A date movie this is not.
To depict both sides in a crumbling marriage, director Derek Cianfrance needed two hungry young actors with down-to-earth good looks and talent to match. Their attraction needs to be clear, as does their frustration. In the roles of Dean and Cindy, Ryan Gosling and Michelle Williams are near perfect. His stubbly good looks and her beautiful smile and earthy laugh are impossible to resist. Blue Valentine cuts back and forth between the harshness of their impending break-up and their courtship years before. One moment, Dean goofily yet confidently chats Cindy up whilst she beams with hopeful enthusiasm. The next, his balding older self awkwardly mumbles apologies and wants to her, her face swollen with tears. Both Gosling and Williams are Academy-Award nominees, but their performances in Blue Valentine are their best to date. As their youthful flirting and fun is quickly thrown a few curveballs, they do what they can but emotional fragility and their relative immaturity is never too far away. A scene towards the end shows their registry office wedding; tears of happiness stream down Cindy’s face as she recites her vows. Having already seen her shed tears of bitter despair makes their wedding all the more poignant. Cutting back and forth in time provides both a bitter contrast between the couple’s happy past and bitter present, as well as some relief from the sometimes overbearing glumness. A surprising line of black humour runs through Blue Valentine, and is much needed.
Cianfrance is a documentarian by trade, though his handheld camerawork actually diminishes any sense of intimacy instead of heightening it. Sex scenes become as mundane as preparing breakfast or going to work. When Dean and Cindy check into a stylized hotel with a futuristic theme to inject a little spark into their marriage, the harsh blue lighting and metal panels reflect the dispassion that has overtaken the promising start of their early days. Blue Valentine is a sobering watch, but never descends into melodrama. Gosling and Williams are too talented and intelligent to ever permit their performances, or the film around them, to be overly cynical or dishonest.