A story of love found and love lost, told in past and present moments in time. Flooded with romantic memories of their courtship, Dean (Ryan Gosling) and Cindy (Michelle Williams) use one night to try and save their failing marriage.
There’s a certain kind of cinema that produces an effect in the viewer that’s close to embarrassment. Not because its shoddy, boring or stupid (though I have to admit that can happen too) but because it seems so true to our waking existence. The experience I’m talking about is a bit like watching someone through a window; a stranger perhaps, and by chance we catch something intimate and personal, something we should not see or hear.
Over the past few generations there have been quite a few filmmakers who’ve worked in their own personal and idiosyncratic way and have produced films with this kind of effect. I hesitate to call this sort of thing 'voyeurism’ exactly, since that implies something essentially cruel and self-regarding. Where the point, often, in the movies I’m thinking of, is compassion and generosity – for people and their demons.
In the 60s and 70s John Cassavetes worked in this kind of territory, in pictures like Faces, A Woman Under the Influence and Husbands. The actors didn’t seem to be acting and the lives the characters led were messy and unpredictable and they had a very hard time working things out (unlike say most movie characters). There are some very famous movies that achieve the kind of effect I’m thinking of; there’s a couple of scenes in P.T. Anderson’s Boogie Nights and Magnolia that achieve a raw honesty. And certainly Scorsese has worked in this sort of mood; while watching Raging Bull, Steven Spielberg said he was like "an intruder." That film’s emotional immediacy was so true that he felt that Scorsese’s cast of tortured and embattled souls were entitled to a little privacy. Of course the down side to this kind of film is that it can seem like the filmmaker is wallowing in pain (and indulging the actors).
All this is just a way to frame up Blue Valentine, to try and get its mystique into a perspective that’s generous but in no way misleading. Or, to put it another way, this is one sad movie and watching it for some folks is going to be like torture. It’s no surprise that there’s a clique of filmmakers and viewers who like to dub this kind of picture – austere in terms of plot, consciously rough-hewn in visual style, and one dependent on performers prepared to appear weak, ugly, fierce and unpleasant – as 'actor-porn'. But the point here is, director Derek Cianfrance seems to know this style (and understand the pitfalls) and his movie plays honest and authentic, rather than glibly pseudo-gritty.
Perhaps this is because the film’s dramatic scope is so carefully focused. The script by Cianfrance, Joey Curtis and Cami Delavigne deals with a marriage on the point of implosion – the film begins at the end"¦and then takes it to the very end (and that’s no spoiler, you have to see the film to understand that last sentence). Dean (Ryan Gosling) and Cindy (Michelle Williams), the adult children of working class parents, have a little girl Frankie (Faith Wladyka) they adore but there seems to be no spark left between them. Their relationship crisis is brilliantly sketched at the start; it’s morning, early, and Frankie and Dean are in a playful mood, but Cindy, sleepy, baggy-eyed and grumpy wants no part of it. There’s something in the way she moves that tells us this isn’t just a downward mood swing; Cindy’s funk is deep and desperate.
We learn that Dean drinks and Cindy’s bad moods are a habit. Dean proposes an over nighter in a 'honeymoon’ hotel. Cindy reluctantly agrees. As the romantic get-away turns into a psychodrama of disappointed expectations the film moves into the past. We learn how Cindy and Dean met; how they saw so much hope in the other.
This parallel structure ingeniously captures both the ambience of a dream and the way memories can, in a way, corrupt us because they are so easier to romanticise. Can we ever rely on what we experience as an accurate index of our true feelings? Or do we modify the concept of the past – bright or bleak, wonderful and strong – just to rationalise the decisions we make in the present? These are the questions and conflicts, we understand, that Cindy and Dean wrestle with (though at no point do they put these feelings into words – pointedly neither character trusts words).
Clearly Cianfrance values Williams and Gosling; their performances are deep and complex and very demanding (the film had censorship problems in the US allegedly for its sexual content but I suspect it may have been more to do with an abortion sub-plot).
Shot digitally on the Red camera and Super 16mm (for the 'before’ episodes) Cianfrance shoots in a way that suggests he’s capturing action as it happens rather than staging action. Still for all its qualities of immediacy this is a very precisely tooled construct; even the sourced lighting is carefully tuned to evoke a mood and underscore an emotion.
Inevitably this is the kind of film that will drive some viewers to exasperation; one of its key-stones seems to be that the things that tear us apart cannot always be explained. But there’s something very hopeful about this film; it seems significant that one of the major conflicts in Blue Valentine is between the urge to give up when things get heavy and hard, and the will to fight on, and try to make things work out, even if we can’t see any future. Here hope and the possibility of forgiveness that comes with it, is a powerful life force.