I’m either perfectly suited, or perfectly ill-suited, to review Derek Cianfrance’s 2010 film Blue Valentine. The problem is, I’m not sure which it is. The film is about the creation of, and subsequent disintegration of, a marriage. As a child of divorce myself, I could not decide if I was perfectly placed to judge the movie’s realness, or if I was emotionally compromised by its sincerity. Blue Valentine is like that: sometimes you’ll want to be close to its raw emotion, and seconds later you’ll feel that you’re far too close.
We start with Cynthia (Michelle Williams) and Dean (Ryan Gosling) as a married couple who clearly seem dissatisfied with each other, and then we flash back to their first meeting. The movie cuts back and forth between their deepening separation and their growing relationship, as each works through complications and builds to its climax. The result contains a little comedy, but for the most part it’s just grueling drama, especially when you think about the young daughter who will inevitably be caught in the middle.
For some time I’ve heard certain critics, including the guys at Filmspotting, assert that Michelle Williams is the best actress living. Watching Blue Valentine, it’s easy to see where that comes from. Gosling is also good, but I have the same complaint about him in this movie that I’ve had for awhile: in some scenes it seems like he’s trying a little too hard to make the audience feel his suffering. With Williams, her pain just feels natural, something that happened to her and she doesn’t care if the audience gets it or not. Williams also has the more difficult work to do during the film’s graphic sex scenes, since the camera is almost always on her face or naked body during them.
Good acting is especially important in this film because of the you-are-there position it takes with the material. Cianfrance, who co-wrote the film with Cami Delavigne and Joey Curtis, takes a position of sitting the audience down and saying, “this is a relationship that happened.” In most movies there might be more of an effort taken to explain why the relationship went bad, or to make more of a suggestion that it was doomed from the beginning. Blue Valentine doesn’t go there very often, and the few times when it does are the times when it fell flat for me.
For example, late in the movie we get a surprising revelation about Cynthia. I don’t want to spoil anything, but we basically find out that her teenage years were a lot more tumultuous than we had previously thought. Williams’ performance even suggested to me that there were some dark secrets in her relationship with her father. But the implications of that scene – that Cynthia is a badly damaged person, that any relationship of hers was doomed to dysfunction barring some kind of therapy, and that there was nothing Dean could have done – are glossed over.
There are similar implications made about Dean: that he drinks too much, that he lacks ambition, that he doesn’t become more mature as having a family calls for. All things that might have been obvious from the beginning, and might be used to blame him for the collapse of the marriage. But Cianfrance doesn’t really want to go there either. This is where the movie kind of lost me: Dean seems like a completely different person in the present-day scenes, and we don’t really know why. We find out that he’s a high school dropout, which explains in some part his difficult job situation, but he just seems like a completely different person.
So that was the big flaw with Blue Valentine in my mind: the entire film is made from the attitude that there are no easy causes for the problems that Dean and Cynthia have, which from my experience is true. But, taking that approach undercuts the whole reason the movie has its structure. The best reason to cut back and forth from present to past is to suggest some kind of causality between the two. This is the kind of movie where you fudge a little bit, and you suggest some easy causes even if the real world isn’t actually that way. Otherwise you’re just wallowing in the couple’s pain.
But, don’t take that criticism the wrong way. Blue Valentine is still a fantastic film, full of ambition and maturity that is sorely lacking from mainstream Hollywood films these days. I would not have given it a Best Picture nomination, but I highly recommend it, for the stellar acting if nothing else. It is a brave and challenging film, and deserves accolades for that alone.
Reviewed by Mark Young