Derek Cianfrance's Blue Valentine begins at the end of a marriage, and while we're immediately made anxious by this portrait of dysfunction, at the same time a strange calm comes over the viewer. The events on screen are unsentimental; they're played straight-ahead, with a deeply felt (if brutal) naturalism. The performances are unforced, the photography functional. Slowly, we realize that this was a film made by adults, for adults. If only that weren't such a rarity these days.
It is the story of Dean (Ryan Gosling) and Cindy (Michelle Williams); he is a house painter, she is a nurse, and they have a young daughter, Frankie (Faith Wladyka), who Dean dotes on. But something is clearly missing in the relationship; they snap easily, lose patience constantly, and seem all of out passion. Over the fourth of July weekend, Dean tries to spice things up by having Frankie stay with her grandfather (John Doman) and taking Cindy to a hotel to drink and make love, but that's the kind of forced intimacy that they're long past pulling off.
Meanwhile, in flashbacks, we see how the pair first met, began dating, and fell in love. The structural device is simple, but devastatingly effective; after watching the aged Gosling, a shell with a receding hairline, wander around smoking cigarettes for twenty minutes, we're immediately struck by not only how young he looks, but how vibrant and kind that younger self is. When Dean and Cindy first connect, through a barely-opened door, the spark is palpable--it's so immediate when they meet, and (by comparison) so far gone now.
Cianfrance (and his co-writers Cami Delavigne and Joey Curtis) spent something like a dozen years on the screenplay, yet didn't hesitate to throw it all away for these introductory scenes, allowing the actors to improvise the beginnings of the relationship, capturing Gosling and Williams (who were kept apart before shooting) getting to know each other in character. That sounds like a recipe for undisciplined, self-indulgent filmmaking, but the results are inarguable; look, for example, at the long, lovely scene of the two of them just hanging out, talking and singing and getting to know each other, which is like something out of early Godard.
And that rich, sweet looseness then contrasts sharply with the rigid tightness in the arguments that define their later relationships; when they fight in their car, about an old boyfriend that Cindy has bumped into, the close-ups are so cramped, picking up every misstatement and every escalation, that you feel as trapped as they are. A later conversation, about his "potential," has a prickly candor that feels authentic; Williams is saying so much in that scene, even beyond the mildly aggressive things she's saying out loud. They're even at each other in the scenes where they're not arguing--the passive-aggressive hostility of their overlapping dialogue in the early breakfast scene, the way he barks at her to put on her seat belt, the clunky awkwardness of their sex scene. (It seems revolutionary to see a film where the sex doesn't go so well.)
It seems a glaring omission to say so little about the performances, but in the closely-observed style of the film, they barely feel like performances; Williams and Gosling just seem to have been captured by a present camera, their work is so authentic. The film's construction is nearly flawless; there's something just right about the casual way Cianfrance lets conversations bridge the scenes, lending the picture an easygoing sense of narrative flow, and the cross-cutting gets sharper and more refined at the film's conclusion, culminating in an aching juxtaposition of coming together and falling apart that is absolutely wrecking.
The MPEG-4 AVC transfer is mostly good, though there are some minor flaws. The film was shot on both Super 16mm film (for the scenes of young Dean and Cindy) and with the high-def RED video camera (for the scenes of their older selves). They don't overdo the shift; it's subtle, but certain. In the older scenes, grain is present but not distracting--it contributes to the overall feel, even when particularly heavy in "on the fly" nighttime scenes. The scenes in the present have a naturally colder feel (particularly in the "cheesy sex motel," which has a stark blue lighting scheme), but there's still plenty of warmth in the image, particularly in interior medium shots. However, there are occasional compression artifacts--particularly in the wide opening shots, which look awfully chunky.
For such a quiet, dialogue-heavy film, the DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1 mix is surprisingly robust; surround channels are well-used throughout, immersing us in the woods near their house, the liquor store, the retirement home, and the Brooklyn Bridge (a passing train rattles the speakers). Score cues are also nicely dispersed throughout the soundstage. Dialogue, meanwhile, is consistently clear and audible, even in quieter scenes.
English SDH and Spanish subtitles are also included.
Director Derek Cianfrance and co-editor Jim Helton's Audio Commentary is a touch on the dry side, but is certainly interesting; they exhaustively detail how the project came together, how the different sections were shot, how improvisation was used, how they used real locations whenever possible, and countless other, small details.
Next up are four Deleted Scenes (19:45 total). There's some really great stuff in here (three are extended improvisations between Williams and Gosling)--all of it secondary to the narrative, so the deletions make sense, but they're still well worth checking out. "The Making of Blue Valentine" (13:50) isn't terribly innovative--it's basically a back-and-forth between clips and interviews with Williams, Gosling, and Cianfrance--but it's thorough, as the three collaborators walks through the project from origination to completion. Finally, "Frankie and the Unicorn" (3:04) is a charming faux-home movie with the actors in character, shot during their month-long hiatus between the "young" and "old" sections. One complaint: the film's simple yet perfect theatrical trailer is nowhere to be found.
Make no mistake: Blue Valentine is not an easy film to watch. It is gloomy and upsetting, and deals with some difficult subject matter. But why does every film have to be escapism? Why does a recommendation of a potent, powerful film like this have to wrapped in the language of a visit to the dentist's office? It is not a date film. It is not a "feel-good" film. But it is the closest thing we've had in recent years to the best of John Cassavetes--it has that same relentless drive for emotional truth, no matter how ugly the results might be. It is a cold, hard, unforgiving, brilliant movie.
Jason lives with his wife Rebekah and their two cats in New York and holds an MA in Cultural Reporting and Criticism from NYU. He is film editor for Flavorwire and is a contributor to Salon, the Atlantic, and several other publications. He blogs at Fourth Row Center and is yet another critic with a Twitter feed.