Normally when writing a review, I have the Napalm guidelines niggling at the back of my mind; the format, the structure, the word count. I’m grateful for this film to be writing totally independently, as Blue Valentine is a film that invites much more intimacy from the viewer.
I’m going to kick off with a quick note about the direction and the creative team behind the film as Blue Valentine is a piece of perfectly constructed on-screen theatre. It was directed by Derek Cianfrance and it’s his first feature film in over a decade, and only his second ever. His thoughtful style of direction gives a lot of credibility to the film’s subjects, and his handling of the more carnal scenes in particular stands out as honest rather than racy or erotic. Special kudos should also go to the fantastic costume designers and make-up artists. The changes in era, both through fashion and emotionally are very clear. Gosling’s diminished/ receding hairline is somewhat distracting, but only because I kept asking myself how they’d succeeded in changing him so drastically scene to scene. Following the brawl he has with Michelle’s ex (and the father of his child), one could swear that his nose is actually out of joint!
Anyway, I digress. Blue Valentine is about a married couple who are struggling to sustain their relationship. More specifically, they are failing to sustain their relationship, and there’s a sad inevitability to the depressing outcome. It’s not abundantly clear exactly why their relationship is suffering but that’s largely irrelevant, and instead the focus flits between their history (their beautiful love story), and their present unhappiness.
Many movies expect you to suspend your disbelief to some degree (if not entirely), but Blue Valentine doesn’t require the same. On the contrary, it is the reality of the circumstances within the film that make it so poignant. In fact, it would be safe to say the only suspension of disbelief required is to take for granted that Ryan Gosling could be so forward almost to the point of being sinister, and yet remain utterly charming. (A feat he has achieved for the second time here, the first being in another heartbreaker, The Notebook).
Speaking of The Notebook, there are definite comparisons to be made between the two films. Gosling’s character in both is forthcoming, confident and intensely passionate. In both films his characters almost force their love upon their counterparts through persistence and straight up challenge. For instance, in The Notebook Noah hangs by one arm from a ferris wheel, saying he’ll let go unless Allie (Rachel McAdams) concedes to a date with him. In Blue Valentine, upon intuitively sensing that Cindy is concealing something from him, Dean threatens to jump off a bridge unless she is honest and open with him. Both films play with the idea of actual madness as a result of love, that to be ‘crazy’ in love is to the untrained eye still just crazy. Both Noah and Dean definitely have their ‘unhinged’ moments and share the passion that is polluting their sanity.
The controversy in America over the NC-17 rating Blue Valentine was initially cursed with was over the sexual content of the film. It was eventually overruled, and the certificate reduced to an R, but it’s an interesting issue, because it struck me that the sex scenes aren’t sex scenes in the conventional sense, they’re love scenes, which is perhaps exactly why the MPAA found cause for alarm. People are uncomfortable watching emotionally charged, lifelike love scenes, particularly when they’re not shot with soppy lovestruck smiles on the characters’ faces. As Gosling himself said in interview:
“I just think that 10 people that live in the valley, representing parents across America is… how is that possible? They just make these decisions and they decide for these parents what’s acceptable and what’s not acceptable. So, their tolerance of violence is so different to their tolerance of sexuality, and if there’s violence involved in the sexuality, it’s somehow perceived as entertainment, but if there’s love involved with sexuality it’s seen as pornographic, and therefore not acceptable.”
It’s a curious paradox, but I think he’s right.
Throughout the film it is hard not to sympathise with Gosling’s character Dean, as it is very much Cindy who has fallen out of love with him. The efforts he goes to to maintain and then reignite their flare are desperate, but clearly romantic, and he is evidently very much in love with her despite the uncomfortable rough patch they find themselves in. Cleverly, both characters are likeable in their own way, which leaves the viewer in somewhat of a quandary as to whose side to take. Gosling seems rational; his arguments are sound, his logic irrefutable, but there is no overcoming raw feelings, and Cindy is unhappy, which kind of takes precedent over other considerations, of which there are many. Take for example their child, Frankie (Faith Wladyka – a perfect piece of casting), where does their relationship leave her? On the one hand it would be unpleasant and unfair to raise her between two parents who are sick of one another, and on the other hand it is also questionable whether an all out separation would be equally damaging. These are real dilemmas facing real people day in and day out, and one of the reasons Blue Valentine is such an effective film. It relates to you directly.
Personally I did find the film distressing, with many parallels to my own relationship (which is thankfully still in it’s youthful and love smitten days – long may they live), but Gosling’s wife shares a similar name to my girlfriend, a similar ambition (both desire(d) to be doctors), and I would parallel myself with Dean in some ways too, unfortunately in some negative lights: arrogant, pedantic, occasionally self-righteous, but on the flipside, romantic and deeply caring. It’s easy for a film as convincingly portrayed as this one to get under your skin and I don’t think it’s unhealthy to seriously think about the troubling issues it raises.
It would be dangerous to say much more about Blue Valentine without ruining it through spoilers, or in the very least over analysing it (as an excellent English teacher once described to me – “cutting a canary’s throat to see what makes it sing”).
It is evident that both lead actors have tremendous talent. Michelle Williams was essentially unknown to me prior to this film. Sure, I’d seen Brokeback Mountain, but it didn’t make much of an impression (that’s another story for another time), whereas I’ll definitely remember her face after this one. Gosling, of course, one of my favourite actors, can apparently do no wrong, and here he brings another very human character to life with incredible conviction. While there are talents like these on display, I look forward to the future of film.
Speaking of which, Ryan Gosling has been confirmed to star in a remake of Logan’s Run and will also be hitting screens again soon in Crazy, Stupid, Love. and Drive, both due later this year, following which he’ll appear in George Clooney’s The Ides of March alongside George Clooney, Marisa Tomei, Paul Giamatti and Philip Seymour Hoffman. Clearly a man moving up in the world. I’m more than happy to watch him climb.