From afar, Blue Valentine looks like a perfect date movie. Two entwined lovers exploring their emotions? Sounds like Class A romantic fodder. Consider yourselves warned. This film has the power to crush your soul and blast apart the fizzy bliss of a new romance.
As draining as Blue Valentine can be, it’s impossible look away. The drama is too human and real to be anything but engrossing. That’s thanks in no small part to the absurd lengths cast and crew went to to impart as much fidelity into their performances as possible.
The film simultaneously depicts a couple coming together and falling apart, in the past and the present. After filming the teenage portion of the movie, Michelle Williams (Cindy) and Ryan Gosling (Dean) spent a month living in a real house together, parenting their pretend daughter, Frankie (Faith Wladyka), and buying groceries on a budget. It’s a commitment to character which goes beyond even method acting. Both performers were attached to the film for years and spent countless hours building up an intricate emotional lattice.
All the while, the faux family were under the direction of director Derek Cianfrance. This film has been more than a labour of love for the indie director. It’s an experience which defined his character. It took him twelve years to go from original script to finished product, and the lavish detail with which he imagined every inch of the film shows on screen.
That’s not say that Blue Valentine is overly staged or directed. Cianfrance arrived on set with an extremely sharp understanding of context. When it came time to shout “Action!”, all involved knew Dean and Cindy like close friends. That allowed Cianfrance to take a hands-off approach, directing the actors to improvise and react. With such a heavily grounded sense of character, anything Gosling and Williams put on screen becomes natural behaviour.
It’s this sense of realism which makes the emotional drama all the more affecting. The film flicks back and forth between the past and the present. In the before time, as the couple experience the first flushes of new love, the visuals are warm and bright. Contrasting harshly is the current day married couple, visually starker and emotionally bleaker.
It was a smart decision to run the two stories together. Thinking back, I remember them chronologically. That’s a testament to how real they felt, and although I don’t recall it that way, having them intercut had a tangible effect. Each moment of past bliss throws the modern-day relationship into horrible relief, enhancing the resonance of each section.
If it wasn’t already obvious, I thought the two lead performances were great. If we were having a straight competition, Michelle Williams, perhaps, shades it. The distinction mostly comes down to choices made when defining their characters.
Dean is up front and honest and Cindy keeps her problems bottled up. That’s a gutsy decision for Williams, because it forces her to express disquiet in subtler ways than Gosling. From the moment the older couple begin to interact, you can feel discomfort flowing from the screen in waves, all without Cindy ever saying anything direct. Williams may have the edge, but it’s pretty unfair to compare the two parts of this duet. Their union is much more than the sum of its parts.
Blue Valentine is a film without a message and without pretension beyond a commitment to emotional verité. It’s raw and polished, heart mending and heart breaking. Critics often slate a film for being shallow and forgettable, saying the experience won’t live with you beyond the closing credits. I don’t feel like I really learnt anything from Blue Valentine, but I’ll remember it for a very long time.
It turns out that director, Derek Cianfrance, is an extremely lucid speaker, which makes the unexpected bounty of added features on this disc well worth wading through. In both a Q&A and film commentary, Cianfrance takes centre stage. I can’t remember hearing a director speak so clearly on both the technical and philosophical methods behind a film.
Once you’ve listened to him chatter, the fake ‘home movies’ become far more interesting. Living in their pretend house for a month, Gosling, Williams, and Wladyka recorded some fake shorts on an old video camera. They’re a fascinating artefact of a staggering commitment to character.
Finally, there are some deleted scenes, which are of decent quality, but all seem like very sensible cuts.
Blue Valentine is out now and available from the Den Of Geek Store.