Human relationships are lived, or played out in fragments: blips of experience, moments and memories that flicker and dance around in time. We remember past and present relationships in this same non-linear way. Derek Cianfrance’s drama “Blue Valentine” plays precisely so: as lively storyboards of out-of-sequence episodes between married couple Dean and Cindy. We don’t know all the true cause(s) of the consternation between them, but we know that once upon a time Dean and Cindy loved each other, and that sometime later they don’t. (“Blue Valentine” opened today at the Century 9 and the Sundance Kabuki Cinemas.)
Set in New York and Pennsylvania, “Blue Valentine” is an unsentimental look at the anatomy of the relationship between Dean and Cindy, and at situations before and during their togetherness. Mr. Cianfrance draws a philosophical bent from one character on relationships and fate, but doesn’t indict or judge either, making the film a refreshingly open-ended experience. There’s little gimmickry except that which the actors supply themselves. For Dean and Cindy, there’s no happily ever after, only a finite ending after the promise of an always.
Mr. Cianfrance gets great performances from Ryan Gosling and Michelle Williams as Dean and Cindy. Ms. Williams’ work feels more natural and less restrained than Mr. Gosling’s, and also more complex and mercurial. We never really know what Cindy’s thinking. She has a lot going on within, and the film teases it out of her. By contrast, we always seem to know what’s on Dean’s mind. He’s an impulsive type. Mr. Gosling has a more showy role, but he doesn’t play it that way. Sometimes he is mechanical in approach, other times Mr. Gosling is less brittle and doctrinaire as he allows Dean to be bold in one potentially hair-raising scene. Dean and Cindy are authentic characters from two different classes. He: a mover, she: a doctor-in-training. These myriad contrasts form as much a dynamic of curious attraction and repulsion as anything else.
In “Blue Valentine” there aren’t good guys or bad girls; just human beings looking for stability and understanding, though they’re over-analyzed or pulled from context. The director doesn’t romanticize Dean’s and Cindy’s plight; the film’s only weakness is one bit of melodrama, even if within the realistic scope of a couple’s strife. The interaction between Dean and Cindy feels like something John Cassavetes might have drawn up.
“Blue Valentine” has its intimate close-ups, occasionally with distinct shots of physicality evoking a scene in John Schlesinger’s “Midnight Cowboy”, although more languid. That said, the second shot of “Blue Valentine” makes your heart plunge: a long, crude stretch of road that looks like a fault line foreshadowing a chasm. It’s like an ugly, angry fork parting a green wilderness of innocence, perfect symbolism for Mr. Cianfrance’s film, which has its few moments of mirth. The film also has its share of music but what you hear doesn’t manipulate you into feeling something, since it serves as an anthem for Dean’s and Cindy’s feelings for (and fond memories of) each other.
Though occasionally somber and stark, “Blue Valentine” has more energy and movement than say, Ingmar Bergman’s biting, claustrophobic epic “Scenes From A Marriage”, but like that film it explores emotions and relationships in a brutally honest and literal manner.
“Blue Valentine” isn’t a film that pines for your sympathy, though that the film was initially rated NC-17 by the MPAA is enough of a travesty to feel sympathy for its director and The Weinstein Company, who released the newly R-rated film. Note to the MPAA: please stop treating America as if it’s three months old. This is a 234-year-old country. We are adults. We’ve seen oral sex scenes before. And we know what oral sex is. A whole lot of us have experienced it too. (One wonders whether the MPAA has, especially in the context of a nuanced adult story.)
At the end of the day we care about Dean and Cindy, not in a “movie” way, but in a sincere, heartfelt human way. We want them to make it right. We hope they get it right. We attempt to understand what went wrong. We are informed by our own personal experiences, yet we wonder: what really makes these two charismatic individuals fall out of love? Is it time? Circumstances? Suspicion? The inevitability of life and growing older, or apart? Or all? The predicaments of Dean and Cindy, who also have a young daughter, are easy to identify with and relate to. Though some of their tribulations may feel rote or banal, Dean and Cindy are characters worth investing in for nearly two hours.
Naturally, because it is so intimate and authentic, “Blue Valentine” makes us think about the fickle nature of human beings. Inevitably we are left to examine our own relationships as the onscreen dance flickers vividly. (Watch those closing credits!) Mr. Cianfrance’s effort, some 13 years in the making, and a hit at Sundance last year, is not the most uplifting film, but it’s one of the most personal, pure-hearted romantic chronicles of young people that you will ever see.
— At the Century 9 and the Sundance Kabuki Cinemas.
With: Faith Wladaya, John Doman, Mike Vogel, Marshall Johnson, Jen Jones, Maryann Plunkett.
“Blue Valentine” is rated R by the Motion Picture Association Of America for strong graphic sexual content, language, and a beating. The film’s running time is one hour and 54 minutes.
For more of Omar’s film stories, movie reviews and interviews visit his Popcorn Reel website and watch his unscripted film reviews on YouTube. Follow him on Twitter. For a list of Omar’s glowbass.com stories and film reviews, click here. He is also a far flung correspondent for the preeminent film critic Roger Ebert and a member of the San Francisco Film Critics Circle.
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