For a number of reasons, one of the most difficult reviews I’ve ever had to write. Originally published on iafrica.com.
Possibly not the feeling the average cinemagoer want to have when leaving the theatre – and so seeing Blue Valentine on a day where you’re feeling a little down is probably not a great idea.
But despite the fact that it’s a melancholic, ultimately exhausting viewing experience, Derek Cianfrance’s Blue Valentine is one of the most hauntingly beautiful films of recent years.
The film traces the disintegrating marriage of Dean and Cindy, a working-class couple with a small daughter. Cindy is a hard-working nurse at a local hospital, Dean is a housepainter who cracks open his first beer at 8am. Within the first few shots of the couple and the way they interact, you’re already wondering what happened. How did they end up together, when it’s obvious that they’re so badly suited?
The film tells their past and present through a series of flashbacks, from their first tender dates to the moment they realise their marriage is over. It’s a slow disintegration from the heady days of an early love – and a rushed marriage – to a bizarre tryst in a seedy sex motel. Ryan Gosling strums along to his “goofy” rendition of You Always Hurt The One You Love, and it’s a tragic reminder of the future you know is coming.
That’s the overwhelming sense of the film – that you know what’s coming, the bitterness, the tiredness – it ultimately feels futile. Yet there’s still a part of the viewer who begs for a happy ending, some sort of cathartic resolution for the pair and their once beautiful love.
Michelle Williams and Ryan Gosling are, in my opinion, two of the most underrated actors in Hollywood. They have wildly differing styles – Williams is sincere, tender and focused where Gosling is flashy, pulling tricks out of his bag at a rapid rate – and they bring their individual strengths into a film with two brutally honest performances.
Cianfrance insisted on capturing each scene in as few takes as possible, contributing to the rough, natural feel of the film. The actors work incredibly together and Cianfrance has managed to bring the best out of both of them through a variety of fascinating techniques.
The actors spent a day wandering around New York and getting to know one another – which forms the beginning of their relationship. Then, before filming the scenes of their dissolving marriage, Gosling and Williams spent a month living together in a rented house, buying groceries on a tight budget and learning to pick fights with each other – essentially, breaking down the friendship they had built up to start with. At one point, Cianfrance told Gosling to try to make love to Williams – which saw him spending the night on the couch. It brings out a completely organic experience, enhancing the power of the performances.
Blue Valentine is beautifully shot – on two different formats. The younger years are shot on soft, forgiving 16 millimetre film, while the older years are filmed on colder, more clinical digital cameras. It’s a difference which lends to the texture of the film in a tangible way – the romance against the sterility is palpable. Set to an exquisite score – with some songs contributed by Gosling – it’s a marvellous, gritty product that thankfully manages to steer clear of being overly “indie”.
One of the most powerful movies in years, it’s not an easy viewing experience. Blue Valentine is completely harrowing and heartbreaking – most of all because it’s an experience almost every single one of us can relate to.