10 January 2011

Cianfrance’s ‘Blue Valentine’

Ryan Gosling and Michelle Williams as Dean and Cindy:
The song they’re singing is “You Always Hurt the One You Love.”

I’ll come out and say it: Blue Valentine is not a date movie. A some­times-harrowing study of a young married couple, the film seems deter­mined to cause tremendous discomfort between any people who are, have been, or might be lovers. That said, it’s probably not a good idea to see Blue Valentine by yourself, as I did. I recommend the movie whole­heart­ed­ly, but I’m not sure whom you should see it with: you may have to experiment, and report the results to me.

To say much about the movie is to give away the plot. Directed by Derek Cianfrance, Blue Valentine is hyperrealistic, almost a documentary, during the making of which the principal cast members lived together as their characters do. Hand-held cameras, extreme close-ups, and im­pro­vised dialogue intensify the sensation that we’re witnessing — even spying on — real people. Just to be sure we know we’re watching a fiction, Cianfrance mixes up the plot, alternating between flashback scenes of the couple’s meeting, early challenges, and wedding day, and “present-day” scenes of their marriage in crisis.

None of this need be momentous: most of the scenes are impressive in their very ordinariness. And yet when we finally see the moment when the lovers meet, it’s wonderfully sweet and satisfying — and yes, important. “Do you believe in love at first sight?” Dean asks one of his co-work­ers (Marshall Johnson), and once you see this scene, you’ll answer in the affirmative.

Cindy and Dean are portrayed by Michelle Williams and Ryan Gosling. Gosling in particular is handsome in a way that real people are, and movie stars are not; Williams, although not as drab as she was in Brokeback Mountain, nevertheless incarnates credibly a small-town beauty, a working mom who’s usually too busy to brush her hair. Their performances ring true, and the actors hardly need to indulge in the coyness they display in interviews when the inevitable question (are they really a couple?) arises. Their work is so thoroughly natural and credible, so deglamourized and detached from Hollywood hype, that any audience would find their performances convincing, even if they answered reporters with a resounding “No, we’re not!”*

The question is provoked in part by the sex scenes, which are more explicit than what one normally sees in a mainstream movie. Far from gratuitous, those scenes reveal a great deal about character — par­tic­u­lar­ly Dean’s, and that reveals quite a lot about the strategy that went into his portrayal, often at Cindy’s expense.

Working-class, from a broken home, hard-drinking, lacking a high-school diploma, Dean is, as he observes good-naturedly at one point, “not good enough” for Cindy, an ambitious pre-med student when they meet. But he’s a long way from the stereotypical lout: he is in some regards more sensitive, more nurturing than Cindy, and we get glimpses of that in his sexual behavior. Dean is admirably attentive to his wife’s pleasure, and when she asks for something rougher, he can’t do it — and starts to cry. Even after years of married life, he’s the antithesis of her college boyfriend, Bobby (Mike Vogel), an inconsiderate, hunky jock, whom we see in a radically contrasting sex scene with Cindy, a flashback with enduring consequences.

Over the course of the movie, we see that Dean is more interested in day-to-day domesticity than his wife is, more tender with their daughter (Faith Wladyka, marvelous), and far more romantic. We eavesdrop on a number of his conversations with Marshall, in which Dean reveals far greater sensitivity than we may expect; in another sequence, he’s almost impossibly caring toward the frail old man whose furniture he’s moving into a nursing home. Dean doesn’t just unpack, he decorates, trans­form­ing an anonymous room into a real home.

In fight scenes, Dean never hits Cindy, though she wallops him re­peat­ed­ly. (In fights with other characters, Dean is liberal with the punches.) What we first think is simple jealousy toward Bobby turns out to be some­thing else altogether. And it’s probably telling that, of Dean’s sev­er­al tattoos, the one we see most clearly is a picture from Shel Silver­stein’s The Giving Tree; it’s visible especially when he’s wearing what’s known as a “wife-beater.” Which, I underscore, Dean himself is not. And if he’s unambitious, it’s because, as he explains, his menial job per­mits him to spend time with his wife and child. They are his ambi­tion.

Moreover, Dean gets all the funny lines in the picture; he’s at once the dramatic lead and the comic relief. It’s as if the filmmakers were so worried about making Dean unsympathetic that they inadvertently tilted the balance too far in his favor. Not much, just a bit — but that’s enough to make a difference. Especially because of those long conversations about life and love between Dean and Marshall, the audience gets more of Dean’s perspective than of Cindy’s. She’s so afraid of saying some­thing wrong that she hardly says anything; much of the time, we have to guess at her feelings, as Dean does, and she’s somewhat less sym­pa­thet­ic as a result.

Williams’ remarkable transparency does mitigate matters. However, before meeting Cindy, Dean wonders whether women “talk about Prince Charming, then settle for what they can get,” and we’re left with the uneasy suspicion that that’s exactly what Cindy has done.

Neither character is the bad guy, per se, and the movie isn’t as un­bal­anced as a Hollywood rom-com, but it’s more skewed than I expected it to be. Ultimately, that’s not entirely a problem: I left the theater with plenty of questions to mull over, matters of art but also of love and relationships. And those two extraordinarily beautiful per­for­mances will stay with me a long time.

*NOTE: That said, the onscreen chemistry between Williams and Gosling is so appealing that an audience can be forgiven for kinda-sorta hoping they are a real-life couple.

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