Blue Valentine (2010): Romantic Melodrama Starring Ryan Gosling and Michelle Williams

By Patrick Z. McGavin

Cannes Film FestĀ 2010–The second narrative feature of the gifted young filmmaker Derek Cianfrance, “Blue Valentine” is a piercing, emotionally devastating story of love and loss that is alternately beautiful and heartbreaking. The filmmaking is as enthralling as the story is uncomfortably precise and observational.

This is a serious work, brilliantly made, concerned with explicitly adult ideas and themes of damaged masculinity, class grievance, private humiliations and sexual dissatisfaction that is treated honestly, imaginatively, and in a way that honors the intelligence of the participants at the same time it mourns the loss of something distinct, personal and important.

Cianfrance cuts through time and space to document the unmaking of a relationship, intertwining the past and present elliptically by novelistically breaking up the bleak forward narrative trajectory with asides and flashbacks that reveal a far more optimistic and loose limbed past. At its best, it plays like a synthesis of John Cassavetes’ “Faces” and Ingmar Bergman’s “Scenes from a Marriage,” given a particular heft and tactile immediacy in the fearless, bravura performances of Michelle Williams and Ryan Gosling as the couple.

Dean (Gosling) and Cindy (Williams) live in Eastern Pennsylvania with their precocious young daughter Frankie (Faith Wladyka). The movie opens with a plaintive cry, the voice of the child yelling for her missing dog that becomes the first indication of the movie’s unsettled, angry surface. He appears constantly on edge; his face is a scowling mask with a cigarette precariously arranged in his mouth and his lanky hair unkempt. Both project a compelling love for their daughter; around each other they circle and pirouette around each other warily, constantly for space and personal freedom.

An unfortunate conclusion to the dog’s disappearance unleashes deeper fissures and trouble spots between the two. Attempting to get some release from the bad news, Dean browbeats Cynthia to join him at a funky, erotically themed down-rent “adult hotel,” a couple of hours’ drive away to re-ignite the sexual energy. After leaving the daughter with her father (John Doman), they begin the drive. When she reveals to her husband of a chance encounter with her vindictive former lover (Mike Vogel), Dean’s explosive, angry response further illuminates the emotional separation of the two.

Visually, the contemporary footage is marked almost entirely by visual signs of entrapment with the enforced physical proximity between the two only magnifying the tension.

Here Cianfrance interrupts the proper story with the first of the film’s dynamically conceived flashbacks. The interpolated sequences provide important expositional detail and observational study of character. Just as important Cianfrance subtly points out social distinctions and class differences that taken together help clarify the unsuitability of the two. The back-grounded material enables Cianfrance to work in a much warmer emotional register, even though dark threads are seemingly never very long absent. In charting the exciting, tremulous initial meeting of the two emerging lovers, the filmmaking is open, loose and highly textured.

In these tender, private and exciting emotional exchange of passion and intensity of feeling marked by a necessary humor (like their banter with a cab driver who disapproves of their aggressive displays of affection), “Blue Valentine” achieves a fluency and grace in the storytelling that posits a very realistic and intensely credible emotional portrait of their mutual attraction. A young man of limited means or educational training, Dean is brash, “good at everything,” Cindy points out, and is possessed of a certain charm and loquaciousness that is quite touching.

Cindy is not just beautiful, but she’s alert and open to feeling and experience; she’s desperate to have her own life, and the beautiful and beguiling moments between her and her grandmother testify to her need for companionship and direct emotional interaction. It’s also clear that her parents’ own deeply unhappy marriage has scared her, and she’s unfortunately fallen into a pattern of falling for possessive, jealous men, of which her college lover is the most recent and boorish example.

The emotional heart and devastating center of the movie is the extended sequence set in the gaudy interior of a space-themed private hotel the two have repaired to salvage something emotionally, sexually, from their relationship. Cianfrance and his superb cinematographer Andrij Parekh, shooting the contemporary footage with the limber, mobile RED digital cameras, work almost entirely in close up and restricted space. Streaked in a blue light that’s alternately ravishing and severe, the hotel sequences marks not a renewal but a fatal rupture.

It is a haunting, sharply played moment worthy of the stunning final movement in Cassavetes’ “Faces.” In “Blue Valentine,” the camera stays closer to their bodies, and the act of extreme opposite feelings, of his need for sexual conquest and hers for space, becomes a wholly contested battleground in which the two meet, grapple and try without much success to find a healthy middle ground. The acting here is sensational, raw and graphically alive, intensified because both are in various states of undress and impaired by alcohol that only intensifies the reprisals and humiliations the two wage against each other. “I wish you think about what you’re saying rather than always say what you’re thinking,” she demands.

As typically is the case, it is the loss of their sexual compatibility that signals the final disruption and deterioration. The obvious end of their marriage is momentarily delayed, but when it does happen, at the worst possibly place, at the private clinic where Cindy works as a nurse, the full unleashing of her anger and his violent response leaves you shaken and full of despair.

The superimposition of the past over the present, basically parallel up until the end, is now intercut from scene to scene. These two great actors are now pitched at their most nakedly vulnerable, and the anguish, seething anger and cries of pain are palpable.

Despite the intensity of the material, “Blue Valentine” rarely feels assaultive or overly tidy or predetermined. The story structure leaves you occasionally stymied by seemingly contradictory details, but the style and storytelling immerse you in the narrative threads. It is rarely comfortable or even enlightening, but it is electrifying and impossible to shake off.

A young director comes of age, and two great actors show they are as good as it gets.