Jan 23, 2011

Blue Valentine

According to Richard Brody from The New Yorker:
Blue Valentine is a blend of a TV commercial and an acting class; it's a portentous and monotonous slog through deterministically scripted plot points, overcalculated performances, and artificial poignancy — an utter non-experience.

Funny, because Brody usually waxes poetic about the most pretentious, portentous and monotonous films himself. He gives ecstatic reviews to obscure, irrelevant oddities. So why the nastiness towards a good, honest movie like Blue Valentine? This is as ineffable as his pedantic taste. Read Anthony Lane's review instead (after you are finished with this one, of course). He nails it.

There is nothing in Blue Valentine that is remotely similar to a TV commercial (we wish) and yes, it is an acting class, but in the best sense of the word: with two brave actors (Michelle Williams and Ryan Gosling) who put themselves on the line in order to create absolutely believable, endlessly complicated, flesh and blood characters. The depth of character and painful intimacy of Blue Valentine you rarely see in American movies. The one influence that comes to mind is John Cassavettes.
This film by Derek Cianfrance is a very well written, beautifully crafted story of a real romance: a couple meets, falls in love, tries to build a life together and fails miserably.
It is as life: bittersweet, predictable yet full of surprises, sad, tough, complicated and lovely.  Except perhaps for one harrowing family dinner scene that seems a bit of a cliché, you will not find in Blue Valentine the usual stereotypes, not those of Hollywood nor of American independent films. Every aspect of character that could be one dimensional is offset by real shading and complexity, so instead of types (artsy hipster guy meets hardworking small town girl) you have real characters.
As played by Ryan Gosling, Dean is an eccentric with a charming but immature romantic streak who is content with doing odd jobs and being an oddball. A potential creative type with zero ambition, he is a good dad and a loving husband but he is also a pill -- a man who deploys charm as a deadly weapon until he wears people down, with whom it is impossible, as Cindy points out, to have an adult conversation. There is a very sharp edge beneath his sweet nature. At first one thinks Cindy is a plain, relatively shy, no nonsense woman, but as you get to know her you find deep undercurrents of toughness and a sadomasochistic streak. She is as emotionally repressed and passive as he is defensive. Good luck trying to make this work out.
As we see the story unfold from a marriage that is not working anymore, to courtship, to before the courtship, to the beginning of the relationship, we learn who they are and why they act the way they do. There is perhaps one sentence of exposition in the entire film, and it is so well deployed towards the end of the film, that it deepens our understanding of Dean's actions and the entire arc of his character, though it happens at the beginning of their courtship. Because of the time structure, there are many rich layers of meaning to be mined from this movie. A conversation about a former boyfriend between Cindy and Dean gains a whole different meaning once the movie goes back in time. The structure goes back and forth, but it is always clear where the relationship is. This movie should get the Oscar for best original screenplay.
The one false time note is that Dean loses his hair and starts wearing glasses, looking 20 years older, and so one thinks that the movie spans a longer period and then you realize that it's only been 4 or 5 years since they met. Perhaps Cianfrance and Gosling wanted to show the toll of a life of diminishing returns and steady drinking, but it's the only thing in the movie that seems arbitrary and artificial. Williams' physical transformation is much more successful. Just by putting her hair up in a bun and giving it the remnants of a bad dye job, gaining a little weight, and shooting her from less flattering angles, she goes from being a sprightly, beautiful girl to a harried, exhausted working mom (put anybody in a nurse's uniform and watch them age instantly). Williams is both sexy gorgeous and plain-looking and although her role is not as flashy as Gosling's, I think it is the tougher part, for she is much more of a mystery and a loose cannon, albeit one who bottles everything up. Williams has a harder time making Cindy into a psychologically consistent character. But perhaps the point of Cindy is that she isn't. Dean definitely is. He marches to the beat of his own drummer but it is always perfectly clear what that is. Both of them are outstanding.
Had the story been told chronologically, the movie could have slid into tawdry melodrama, but because it jumps around in time, it allows the audience to discover the characters instead of obsessing with what is going to happen. It's like when you meet someone new, a friend, colleague or partner.  Many times your first impression (you think you nailed them) is going to disappear under the force of their real personality as it emerges through time, until you barely recognize whatever it is you saw in them at the beginning.
A film that allows the audience to get to know its characters so deeply and intimately is nothing short of miraculous. What this clear eyed, deeply poignant but unsentimental movie breaks to the audience, not too gently, is that love is going to take a thorough thrashing at the hands of real life. So grow a pair because if you love, you are going to need one.

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