Wednesday, January 12, 2011

Blue Valentine: Love lies bleeding

Blue Valentine (2010) • View trailer for Blue Valentine
Four stars (out of five). Rating: R, for profanity, nudity, strong sexual content, dramatic intensity and brief violence
By Derrick Bang

This isn’t a vicarious slice of entertainment; it feels more like the worst social event you ever attended, when some couple – maybe even good friends – unexpectedly lit into each other, each abusive comment getting louder and nastier.

If you’re unlucky enough to have endured such a ghastly spectacle, you know the uncomfortable feelings: embarrassment, pity, perhaps concern – depending on how vicious things get – but mostly an overwhelming desire to step onto a Star Trek transporter pad and beam somewhere else ... anywhere else. Just to get away.
Their first "date" having been a not entirely accidental meeting on a bus, Dean
(Ryan Gosling) and Cindy (Michelle Williams) take a late-night stroll through
the city, neither wanting the moment to end, but each uncertain what to do or
say next. Happily, Dean is about to break the ice by encouraging an impromptu
song and dance.

Blue Valentine is that raw, that intimate, that unsettling. I suppose flight still remains an option, but most folks have an investment with a movie: We paid for the ticket, we’ll gut it out.

The reward for such perseverance is an atypically powerful study of a relationship gone sour, fueled by two powerful performances and a director – Derek Cianfrance, who also shaped the script – who pushed his stars to their limit, and beyond, and isn’t afraid to let the loose, messy results speak for themselves.

This is indie drama at its most compelling: a sharp reminder that real people rarely possess the glib instincts and split-second timing for the snappy comebacks in light-hearted fluff such as, say, How Do You Know, nor are they as attractive and composed as Paul Rudd and Reese Witherspoon. Real people are disheveled, disorganized and frequently disconnected: often unaware of how to start each day.

Imagine what it would be like, if a camera crew caught you first thing in the morning: before breakfast, before coffee, before the application of a toothbrush. Cianfrance moves into and beyond that level of privacy; the result is heartbreaking, almost from the first frame.

This isn’t filmmaking in the coventional sense, nor did Cianfrance “write” this story in the usual way. The project involved a lengthy collaboration with Ryan Gosling and Michelle Williams, who went “method acting” one better by co-creating their characters and actually living their lives for a time, improvising scenes and dialogue, trusting Cianfrance to retain what helped and felt right, while excising anything that didn’t fit.

The results feel very much like director Jonathan Demme’s Rachel Getting Married, with its similarly painful performance from Anne Hathaway. If you couldn’t admire the dramatic heft of that 2008 drama – if it was more endurance test than character enlightenment – then I suspect Blue Valentine will be even tougher sledding.

We meet Dean (Gosling) and Cindy (Williams) on the morning of a typical day, although it begins with a crisis; their young daughter Frankie (the sublimely adorable Faith Wladyka) has discovered that their beloved dog is missing, the gate to its outdoor run hanging open. Dean and Cindy don’t know it yet, but this is to be the straw that breaks the back of their already deeply strained relationship; the story’s primary events take place on this day and the next, at the end of which ... well, it’s not hard to guess.

But Cianfrance isn’t welded to linear narrative, and the first jump back into the past is likely to be disorienting, coming – like all subsequent flashbacks – without warning. We get a visual cue, with Dean’s receding hairline (in the present), but Cianfrance also offers a subtler warning: The quietly melodic underscore, rarely obvious, rises as the time period is about to shift.

This style of cross-cutting certainly isn’t new; director Stanley Donen employed it all the way back in 1967, in Two for the Road, to similarly chart the dissolution of Albert Finney and Audrey Hepburn’s marriage. As with Blue Valentine, the arc is similar: young love, full of hope and promise, gradually weathers away and is replaced by regret and a grim determination to hang on, until finally even that can’t be maintained.

Dean’s younger self is a high school drop-out with limited options, who nonetheless begins a steady and respectable blue-collar job with a moving company. One of his first assignments involves transporting an elderly man from his house and into the single room of a care facility: a heartbreaking chore that reveals Dean’s unexpectedly sensitive side, as he struggles to set up and display the old man’s possessions in a way that will be comforting.

Gosling’s hesitant smiles and assurances are incredibly, persuasively tender; we realize that Dean, despite his intellectual limitations and lack of ambition, is by no means useless white trash.

Cindy’s introduction is a bit messier. Although we witness a touching devotion to her fragile grandmother (Jen Jones), a dinner scene with her parents becomes jarringly brutal when her father (John Doman) flies into a rage for no apparent reason. His nasty behavior calls later (present day) events into question; why would a devoted parent – as Cindy certainly is – ever trust her young daughter with such an unpleasant man? Surely she would have cultivated other options.

At any rate, Cindy’s grandmother resides at the same care facility, and that’s how the young woman meets Dean. Their ensuing courtship, as it gradually unfolds, includes some giddily charming interludes: none better than a late-evening stroll when the obviously smitten Dean asks Cindy to dance in the recessed entryway of a closed store, while he sings a song. Cianfrance captures this entire sequence in one long, extended take, and it has the spontaneous impact of this nascent relationship itself; it’s as if we’re genuinely watching these two young people fall in love. The scene is that compelling.

On the other hand, Cianfrance occasionally indulges in rather obvious symbolism; the song Dean performs, as Cindy dances, is “You Always Hurt the Ones You Love.” Indeed.

The coming-together isn’t without incident; Cindy has trouble shaking a rather possessive ex-boyfriend with anger-management issues. We actually first meet this jerk in the present day, when Cindy bumps into him while shopping; the tension between them remains unexplained until we get answers during subsequent flashbacks.

Cianfrance’s film has a beginning and a conclusion, but no middle act; we’re therefore left to wonder precisely what went wrong, and when. We can speculate on the basis of available evidence: Cindy is much smarter than Dean, with aspirations toward medical studies. Unless the partner is strongly self-confident – which Dean clearly isn’t – that’s a recipe for likely disaster. Then, too, the relationship begins to require too much high-proof lubrication; Cindy seems able to control her intake, while Dean slides toward full-blown alcoholism. But these may be symptoms, rather than root causes; more likely, they just aren’t sufficiently compatible in the first place.

Sometimes love isn't enough, and all the tears, despair and good intentions can’t change that.

Both Gosling and Williams bare their souls and bodies during the course of this story, although Williams shows a lot more skin; their sexual encounters are as messy, spontaneous and earthy as the rest of their characterizations. In the flashbacks, their lovemaking is playful, erotic, charged with anticipation; we feel like giddy voyeurs. In the present, the coupling becomes grim, desperate and unhappy; we feel dirty for having borne witness to such pain.

The acting is superlative throughout. Neither Gosling nor Williams has been prominent enough in the “Hollywood scene” for their off-camera personalities to overshadow the characters they so fully inhabit here. Williams’ stand-out moment – if I had to select just one – comes when Cindy resolutely enters a clinic in order to terminate a pregnancy that she knows resulted from the former boyfriend. The setting and step-by-step preparation for this procedure is harrowing enough; Williams’ naked anguish makes it even more gripping.

Gosling’s prize moments are the early ones, as Dean finds that Cindy encourages him to be a better version of himself. In the flashbacks, he willingly embraces this challenge; in the present day, he resents such overtures. Because the older Dean too often has the lethargic lack of focus of the seasoned drinker – which Gosling also conveys quite believably – he’s not as interesting to watch as his younger self. Back in the day, we continue to imagine that the younger Dean has promise ... despite the fact that, with every return to the present moment, we see it never happened.

Blue Valentine is more likely to be admired than enjoyed; the narrative cuts very close to the bone, and it’s probably a poor choice for those worried about the stability of their own relationships. That said, this film delivers what we expect from great art: haunting, memorable moments that challenge our assumptions about ourselves and other people. The process may be painful, but it’s certainly revealing; Cianfrance, Gosling and Williams are to be applauded for the brutal intimacy of this shattering portrait.

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