Romance in cinema is usually confined to two distinct categories: Either two people learn to love each other (consummated by a kiss or marriage) or they learn to leave each other for someone else. Other than the uneasy ending to The Graduate, there are few films willing to follow a couple beyond their climactic decision to get together/leave. Blue Valentine plays with each romantic format, but its uncomfortable window into a marriage imploding will make you want to call the cops for the couple’s mutual safety.
Cicadas rattle in the Pennsylvania morning as young Frankie tries to find her escaped dog. She goes inside and pounces on her dozing father Dean, an unkempt man capped with a receding hairline and a smoking habit. He wakes up and tries to find the dog before sitting down to have a breakfast prepared by mommy Cindy. When Frankie turns her nose at the hard oatmeal, Dean echoes the critiques of Cindy, and encourages his daughter to at least eat the raisins straight from the table. “Let’s eat like leopards,” he suggests as the two slurp up the dried fruit, much to Cindy’s chagrin. Frankie calls out to Dean as Cindy scoops her up, “Daddy you got me in trouble!”
From this small scene we understand we are bearing witness to a couple at odds, and it only gets worse as the film goes along: from Dean (Ryan Gosling) telling his wife, “I told you to keep the fucking gate shut,” after the dog’s escape, to Cindy’s (Michelle Williams) frequent denials of affection. They’re slinging arrows at each other and they couldn’t care less where they land.
All of which is intercut with how the couple first met, juxtaposing the love that has since slipped away. Director Derek Cianfrance brilliantly blends these realities with clever match cuts, showcasing how the pair unknowingly falls in love just as easily as they can fall out of it. Cianfrance’s obsessive adherence to close-ups during the Present sequences stylistically underscores the stifling nature of the relationship compared to the wider, more open air of shots in the lovely Past.*
Ryan Gosling and Michelle Williams are at their most vulnerable, appearing emotionally and physically naked in the performance of their lives. Cindy’s face is the foggy window into her soul and whether falling for Dean in the past or loathing him in the present, Williams’ delicate gestures scream what’s lurking beneath her mask. Gosling too is especially powerful as he alternates between bastard and charmer, yet the love for his family (especially Frankie) undoubtable. The result is one of the most genuinely heart wrenching films in the last ten years.
It’s difficult for filmmakers to tap into the sincere dysfunction of parents on the rocks without poeticizing the debacle; though there are poetic elements to the shots and visual look provided by cinematographer Andrij Parekh, at the forefront of the film is the storm of the century for this couple. Cindy passively acquiescing to Dean’s sexual advances is one of the saddest moments in cinema history (and becomes all the more nuanced when Dean stops, realizing what she’s doing) and when Dean fights to hold on to his family you’ll be hard pressed not to be crying along with him.
Despite my praise, the film is not perfect. It is billed as a relationship on the wane, but due to issues of perspective it seems more a film about Dean falling in love with a girl and then realizing she’s done with him. What’s left is an uncomfortable gender politics in which Cindy is left holding the bag for the crumbling relationship (essay here).
Blue Valentine might better known for its scandal involving the MPAA’s initial rating (NC-17)**, but there’s so much more to the film and it’s not pretty. Much like anything by Darren Aronofsky, however, the pain is worth bearing for the overwhelming intensity of its truth.
*Past sequences were also shot on film (bringing warmer, romantic textures) in single takes (no do-overs), while the Present was shot in sterile digital and with up to 50 takes to bring out the combative frustration from the two. You can find more about the film’s production here.
**There’s nothing to merit such a rating, which is why the film won an appeal for its current R rating.