Thursday, December 23, 2010

Blue Valentine (****)

Written and Directed by Derek Cianfrance


If you can play "You Always Hurt The Ones You Love" on the ukulele, you might as well use it to your advantage in your romantic ventures. It's the kind of talent that is humble and endearing, showcasing your unique ability while still holding a modest grip on its simplicity. In Blue Valentine, we see a man who is able to perform this act during a date with a young woman, and he gets the girl. Go figure. But the film from first-time feature filmmaker Derek Cianfrance is not about the finding and wooing of the young woman. It's about the finding, the wooing, the consuming, the marrying, the loving, the conceiving, the discovering, the hating, the forgiving, the loss of forgiving, before finally leading to the divorcing and the eventual destroying. It's a long, drawn-out process that could have become bloated and cold if put into to the hands of less capable actors and a much more pointed writer-director.

Dean (Ryan Gosling) is a high school dropout, who's a charming young man and has the ability to give an abundance of love to anyone who is willing to accept it. He cares about people, and enjoys doing so. He begins working at a moving company, and he has to help an old man move into his new home at an assisted living center. There, he meets Cindy (Michelle Williams), who is there to visit her sickly grandmother. She is a student studying medicine, and has a boorish jock for a boyfriend, named Bobby (Mike Vogel). She lives in an emotionally abusive home, with a father that's abrasive and a mother that's defeated and who has had all the emotion beaten out of her after decades of it all. But when Dean and Cindy first catch glances with each other, they make each other smile, and every thing else seems to fade into the background. They begin spending more time together, and Cindy leaves Bobby for Dean. There's one thing they know for sure: they are madly in love with each other.

Years later, they're married. Dean is still working as a laborer, but now he paints houses. Cindy has found work as a nurse, but she doesn't have a degree (we never learn what actually did happen with that). They have a daughter named Frankie (Faith Wladyka), for who Dean may or not be the father. They are bitter, going nowhere. Dean resents Cindy's career-minded behavior, and Cindy can't stand Dean's inability to rise above basic labor work. Dean has to practically beg Cindy to make love, and when they do, it's sterile and uneventful. Cindy leaves the gate open and their dog, Megan, gets away. Dean never stops drinking. It doesn't help that Frankie shows much preference for Dean's laid-back attitude, as opposed to Cindy's strict disciplinary measures. On the few occasions that they do catch glances of one another, all they see are old memories and dreams that they aborted for this family. They know one thing for sure: they are no longer in love with each other.

The film goes back and forth between these two times in their relationship: their meeting and eventual marriage, and their disintegration and eventual divorce. It's up close and personal, shot with handheld immediacy. The film cares very little about following a strict plot structure, and would instead rather spend two hours following Dean and Cindy as they waver in and out of love with each other. The "break-up romance" is a sub-genre of the romance film genre - which was invented by Woody Allen's masterpiece, Annie Hall, in 1977. The comparisons to Annie Hall are bound to be made by many because of it's non-linear storyline that goes back-and-forth between the good and the bad. But Blue Valentine is not a romantic comedy, even though it does have a plentiful amount lighter moments. It's filmed in a bleak, Cinéma vérité style that makes their romantic implosion that much more real and more heartbreaking. But despite the abrasive visual style, Cianfrance is careful and delicate in the way he portrays the content, making sure we understand the people and their actions.

By allowing most of the backstory to be inferred, Blue Valentine is able to cut out useless exposition and get straight into the story. We learn enough about Dean and Cindy by seeing their actions, how they act around certain people, and Cianfrance's screenplay does a superb job really forming the two of them with small details and telling lines of dialogue. When we see Dean sit down for a job interview at the moving company, we know within two minutes that he is a free-spirited, blue collar guy. When we see how Cindy cares for her grandmother, especially in the more personal matters, we can tell that she's a caring, dedicated individual. It's a spectacular balancing act that Cianfrance pulls off, but Gosling and Williams are talented enough to really make it work. Their performances are raw and arresting, some of the best screen acting of the year (and they didn't even get noticed among their own brethren for SAG nominations - what a shame), and if neither of them walk away with Oscar nominations, it would be terribly disappointing.

Blue Valentine is brilliant in its simplicity. My only worry is that its modest stature amongst the other gargantuan Fall movie releases will lead to it being unseen. It's never great when your main source of publicity is an NC-17 rating controversy (it was re-adjusted to an 'R' after Harvey Weinstein personally showed up and lectured the MPAA appeals board about how not explicit the film is). The film's stark sexuality is one its highest achievements, as it is able to accurately both display sex of passion and sex of routine. Truth be told, there is nothing actually explicit in Blue Valentine, but there are few films that show sex in such a realistic way. I can see how it could scare the MPAA, because they like to think that sex in movies is done on tables and counters (and nobody's hair ever gets messy). But Blue Valentine is about all the messy parts of love, and it doesn't leave the sex out of that equation.

Love stories come and go in cinema, but seldom do we get something as honest as Blue Valentine, with such wondrous performances and inspired directing. Often, films like this are dismissed as "having no plot". I don't believe this is a fair criticism, because it does have a very real plot, it just decides not to structure the entire film around it. Instead, the characters are behind the wheel here, and when you get such beautiful work from your two lead actors, you tend to flirt with perfection. There are a lot bigger films coming out toward the end of 2010. Films that will dwarf Blur Valentine in terms of attention and box office receipts. But Derek Cianfrance's film doesn't strike me as the one that will only strive if people go out to see it. It's a humble masterpiece.

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