Thursday, January 13, 2011

Movie Review: Blue Valentine

Blue Valentine ****
Directed by:
Derek Cianfrance
Written By: Derek Cianfrance & Joey Curtis & Cami Delavigne.
Starring: Ryan Gosling (Dean), Michelle Williams (Cindy), Faith Wladyka (Frankie), John Doman (Jerry), Mike Vogel (Bobby), Marshall Johnson (Marshall), Jen Jones (Gramma), Ben Shenkman (Dr. Feinberg).

I think more marriages end when the things about your partner that you found endearing at the beginning of the relationship starts to drive you crazy. Derek Cianfrance’s Blue Valentine is the portrait of a marriage right at the beginning, when everything about your partner seems so wonderful and charming, and right at the end, when even being in the same room with the other person leads to a fight. It is an emotionally devastating movie, anchored by two of the best performances of the year by Ryan Gosling and Michelle Williams. The film cuts back and forth between these two distinct time periods in this couples life - really only about 5 years apart - and we see seeds of what will eventually end their relationship in the beginning - when the two are so blinded by love they do not realize that they should never have been together.

In the scenes of them early in their relationship, Gosling’s Dean is the type of sweet natured guy putting on a bad boy pose that girls seem to be attracted to. He is a high school drop out working as a mover, with no ambition to be anything more than that. He meets Michelle Williams’ Cindy at an old folk’s home where he is moving someone in, and she is visiting her Grandma. She is resistant at first, in part because she already has a boyfriend, but he is so charming and sweet, that she eventually lets her guard down. These scenes have a sweetness about them that is only tainted because we keep switching over the later scenes where we know just how far down this couple is going to go. Whereas the scenes from early are sweet, the scenes from later are tough to watch - and at times verge on cruelty and this couple torments each other. Not in the same way as in something like in Lars Von Trier’s Antichrist, but in another, more subtle, more realistic way. They seem to set the other one up for failure. I suppose you could argue that one partner or the other is responsible for the deterioration of the relationship (and I suspect that more audiences members will blame Gosling than Williams) - but the truth is they are both at fault. They never should have gotten together in the first place.

Cianfrance, who spent a decade working on the screenplay with his co-writers, has obviously thought long and hard about this material. He has used this time to make the dialogue and the characters so real, so defined and specific, that the end result in the film is like watching a couple at their most intimate moments. We want to look away, but we cannot.

The performances by Gosling and Williams are truly remarkable. We like Gosling early in the film, especially in his younger day, but as the movie moves along, we lose sympathy for him. He is an aging man who refuses to grow up - who is trying so hard to hold onto something that he has already lost. He does not even try to give Williams what she wants - he is just confused as to why what she wants has changed in the years they’ve been together. It is the best work Gosling has ever done. Williams is perhaps even better - more subdued and internal yes, but her work here is even more emotionally devastating. She is trying to find a reason, something to hold onto in her relationship with Dean - something to symbolize that she has not made a mistake. But she simply cannot.

A lot has been made about the sex in the film - sex that initially got the film a NC-17 rating, although that was eventually overturned. I cannot believe that it ever did get that rating - the sex is not nearly as graphic as many sex scenes I have seen, and is far from gratuitous - it actually deepens the characters, and helps us see them in a different way. The contrast between the three sex scenes in the movie is striking - and explains much more than words could. And they are perfectly played by the actors as well.

Blue Valentine is a rare film. I cannot think of another film that so devastatingly honest about the end of a relationship. It is a film that is entirely devoid of clich├ęs - or at least it feels that way, because the characters are so well realized that their every action seems real and natural. This is what happens when everything comes together perfectly in a film - and what makes Blue Valentine one of the best films of the year.

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