The mark of a truly great film not only comes from an immediate visceral reaction but also the profound contemplation which comes after. Much like any other piece of art, an exceptional film inspires the viewer to re-evaluate their understanding of cinema as well as life itself.
This is an extremely rare feeling and it’s even more uncommon in the romantic drama genre. Filmmakers flirt with the idea of love but hardly question the very nature of the word. This is not the case with Blue Valentine, where director Derek Cianfrance has committed to the brutality and beauty of love, what makes it work and why it falls apart.
Dean (Ryan Gosling) and Cindy (Michelle Williams) have reached a delicate stage of their marriage. Both are unhappy and now only have their young daughter, Frankie (Faith Wladyka), in common. Trying to reignite their marriage, Dean takes Cindy away for a night in a themed hotel. The film juxtaposes Dean’s clumsy attempts with memories of when their younger selves met and fell in love six years before, full of affection and hope. The night lays out the bare truths of the relationship, where neither is satisfied with the growing rift between them.
The contrast between the grey toned present-day scenes and the brightly coloured, loosely photographed flashback sequences is made even more startling by the differences in the characters over the six year period. This is certainly an actors’ piece and Gosling and Williams embrace the emotional landscape of their characters. They are not acting here but have instead immersed themselves into the roles – they are these people.
So what has gone wrong in the six year gap between these two periods of time? Blue Valentine is never interested in showing the middle of this relationship but instead gives insight by comparing and contrasting the extremes of this damaged relationship. Through this, we also see the extremes of each character. Dean is disarmingly funny but armed with a fierce temper fuelled by jealousy. Cindy is wide-eyed at first but has been worn down over time by a life she never expected.
The glorious achievement of Blue Valentine, besides its performances, is the way the audience gains meaning. Cianfrance is deftly subtle with his feeding of information to the viewer and it comes through two very particular concepts: expectations and context. As an audience we expect to gain meaning from the film’s adherence to or breaking of genre conventions yet instead receive it through the characters’ expectations. Cindy’s ambitions are clear from the first scene at her job as a nurse when she is confronted with a new career opportunity. This is further explained in the flashback sequences when we understand that she was pursuing a medical career before she met Dean. Already, cracks begin appearing.
The problems lie not only in Cindy’s frustration about the medical career she’ll never have and the anguish of being a bored mother and wife but also because of the expectations she had of her husband. While Dean’s carefree nature was part of the reason she fell in love with him, his lack of ambition to be anything more than a loving husband and father infuriates her. So a major fault of the relationship is not only in Cindy’s failed expectations of herself but also of her husband.
Dean must share some blame for not meeting the expectations of his wife and of his younger self. Filled will a various number of talents, he wastes away his potential by becoming a house painter who smokes and drinks a little too much beer. Yet it is Dean’s violent nature that causes the greatest rift in the relationship. Initially viewed as unwarranted, the audience becomes informed about his suspicious nature through the employment of context.
Dean’s anger at Cindy’s revelation of a chance meeting with her ex-boyfriend (Mike Vogel) seems over-the-top. As Cianfrance reveals more of the couple’s backstory, however, we uncover the reason for Dean’s jealousy and the beginning of his temper. Due to previous experiences, Dean fears every man in Cindy’s life, including her colleague (Ben Shenkman), as if they confirm his own failings as a man.
Both characters receive equal time and sympathy. Cianfrance emphasises that no one is to blame but that the faults lie in the fallible nature of being human. Perhaps this is why it is such a difficult film to sit through. It is a grim and depressing narrative, yet it cuts through to what we are like as lovers, and as people. You truly care for these people and their child, thanks to the brave performances. There are moments of intense, personal intimacy that are incredibly affecting. The scenes of wooing become even more heartbreaking than the latter day scenes, punctuated with natural discussion and reactions. Music is symbolic as well, as the employment of the tracks “You and Me” and “You Always Hurt the One You Love” is emblematic of the emotional devotion and inevitable disintegration of this relationship.
As emotionally draining as it is beautiful, Blue Valentine is an impressive experience that leaves you contemplating what love – and life – should be. This is profound cinema; with such courageous performances and direction, Blue Valentine is something to be celebrated.