Wednesday, December 29, 2010

New Release Review: Blue Valentine (Derek Cianfrance, 2010)

Derek Cianfrance's Blue Valentine is a devastating tale of a marriage falling apart. The film is set predominantly within the period of a couple of days as the couple's marriage reaches an emotionally trying peak and begins to breakdown. The plot also features flashbacks to the origins of the relationship that now spans six years. It documents the couple meeting each other, finding happiness and falling in love, and how that all eventually dissolved into a nightmare. Blue Valentine premiered at the 2010 Sundance Film Festival to universal acclaim. It features two astonishing Oscar-worthy performances from Ryan Gosling (a nominee in 2006 for Half Nelson) and Michelle Williams (nominated in 2005 for Brokeback Mountain) and is a painfully honest portrayal of the sad failure of true love.

Cindy (Williams) and Dean (Gosling) are an unhappily married young couple, who decided to marry after Cindy falls pregnant. Cindy has shift work as a nurse, finding herself consistently tired and frustrated by the role of taking care of her daughter, Frankie, and her childish, chain-smoking, heavy-drinking and domestically irresponsible husband Dean, who has been bumped around mid level jobs after failing to finish high school. Dean has become content to center his life around the care of his wife and child, choosing to reject pursuit of his more natural talents, like music and art. Cindy, who attended college for years with the ambition of finding a profession in medicine, wishes to rise in her career, but is being held back by the familial lifestyle.

The family dynamic and the tension within the walls of the house is apparent in the opening sequences. Dean, who obviously loves his daughter, is somewhat negligent as a parent, much to the frustration of Cindy. The family dog has also escaped and is missing, to make things worse. Cindy drops their daughter off at school, and continues to work. On the way to a concert recital later in the day, Cindy finds their dog hit by the side of the road. He dies of his injuries, to the devastation of both her and Dean. Dean recognizes that they haven't been as close recently and that there are problems plaguing their marriage, and proposes that the two of them book a hotel room for the night, have some drinks and make love to rekindle their passion. They drop their daughter at Cindy's parents' place, stop at the liquor store and set out. What should be a chance to find the love that is now absent from their marriage is plagued with incidents; painful memories from the past, confused and disrespectful communication between the two and a clear disinterest from Cindy, much to Dean's disappointment as he desperately tries to connect with her through sex. Heavily intoxicated within the smarmy, ridiculously themed hotel room, they argue aggressively and pass out.

Interlocked into these sequences are flashbacks to a time before they met; with Cindy at college, and Dean coming to town and finding work with a moving company. Dean is free-spirited, uninhibited, charming and looking for love, while Cindy is smart and committed, but naive and irresponsible. We see her engaging in unemotional, unprotected sex with her boyfriend at the time, and deduce that she has made some poor relationship choices in her life. By chance, the pair meet at an aged-care facility as Dean is helping an elderly man move into his room, and Cindy is visiting her grandmother in the room across the hall. The attraction seems immediate, as they make cute small talk, with Dean asking her to call and ask for him. Cindy chooses not to call Dean, but by chance they meet again on the bus and she is ultimately won over by his confident forwardness and humor.

The most beautiful sequence is on their first date where the pair play around in the street in front of a store. They discuss their hidden talents, and Dean begins strumming his little guitar and singing, encouraging Cindy to tap dance. The whole moment is sweet and silly, but a perfect encapsulation of the young couple falling in love. This is much unlike other romantic dramas, where this is often associated with a passionate, illuminated sex scene. The sex scenes in Blue Valentine are extremely explicit (they almost warranted an NC-17 rating in the U.S, but this was later rescinded) but are different depending on the stage of the relationship.

Cianfrance, who specializes in documentary filmmaking, takes an incredibly realistic and intimate approach to the relationship dynamic, examining it in all of its pure forms, and beautifully capturing the moments that defined Dean and Cindy. The quietly observing camera often frames the characters in a close up or medium shot allowing us access to their personal space, where we learn so much about them from their reactions, expressions and subtle gestures.

The performances from Gosling and Williams are brave, personal and full of gut-wrenching emotional exchanges. They are both truly astonishing and anything less than Oscar nominations will be a great shame. Gosling should receive a nomination solely for his drunken rage in the hospital during the devastating climax. As the final frame of the film leaves us, we think back on what we have witnessed, on how far they had come together, on how incredible their connection was, and how devastating this tale really is.

Human interaction is complex and inconsistent, and relationships can be gritty and volatile at times. In many cases they are not beautiful and glossy, despite the initial connection projecting otherwise. True love can overcome even the most disastrous hurdles in a relationship, but in Blue Valentine, the emotions and feelings generated have become irreversible, and their natural connection is all but abolished.

This is a bold script from Cianfrance, who co-wrote it with Joey Curtis and Cami Delavigne. His direction is perfect and the crosscutting of the past with present provides us with subtle reveals, notably the effect of their song, which was a signifier of romance for Cindy's first listen, but had almost no effect whatsoever when Dean plays it years later at the hotel. The score is also beautifully composed by Brooklyn alternative band, Grizzly Bear. But it's the performances, as I have mentioned, that command your attention from the opening moments and make Blue Valentine one of the best films of the year.

My Rating: 4 1/2 Stars

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