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Breaking free from last year's pack of independent productions was Blue Valentine, a story of an unhappy marriage that benefits from the unusually compelling performances of its lead actors Michelle Williams and Ryan Gosling. Unlike the majority of today's films about young romance, this picture does not follow cute folks working out their little misunderstandings against a background of quirky fun or upscale trimmings. We know we're in for an emotional beating from the very start when we see the devotion of the married couple to their adorable little girl. These imperfect people have loved each other and truly want to stay together, but the husband's insecurities have eroded their relationship. Critics and audiences responded to the film's utterly convincing relationship, a quality that resulted in an Oscar nomination for Best Actress for Michelle Williams.
Director Derek Cianfrance keeps his camera in tight and personal with his actors, generating strong feelings of intimacy. The actors are more than sufficiently attractive to hold our interest even when the film's focus becomes claustrophobic. Some of the scenes chart terrible conversations where we can feel the harm being done to what could be an idyllic relationship. Cianfrance splits the movie into two interwoven time frames: the couple's troubled present is contrasted with their hopeful early days together.
Housepainter Dean (Ryan Gosling) dotes on Frankie, his cute kindergartner (Faith Wladyka). Overworked nurse's aide Cindy (Michelle Williams) resents Dean's drinking and lack of ambition, yet allows Dean to dominate the relationship. She takes the blame when the family dog gets loose and is killed by a car. Ignoring Cindy's protests, Dean decides to take her to a cheap themed motel for what he says will be an overnight of marital bonding. The date goes sour after a bitter argument in the car. Dean drinks too much and the lovemaking turns into a borderline rape. Dean catches up with Cindy at her work the next day, drunk and angry, and causes a scene that causes her to lose her job.
Five years earlier, drifter Dean takes a job with a moving company and meets Cindy at her grandmother's rest home. Affectionate, thoughtful and amusing, Dean soon charms Cindy, who is unhappy with her somewhat promiscuous lifestyle. When she becomes pregnant Dean comes to the rescue, and they commit to raising a family together.
Blue Valentine is an unflinching look at a souring relationship that will surely resonate with a great many American couples. The lovers in question are of modest means from unprivileged backgrounds. Dean's optimism masks a gnawing insecurity. If it wasn't for his devotion to little Frankie -- he comes off as a protective and understanding daddy -- we'd soon lose patience with Dean's petty bullying. Cindy's terrible family background has trained her to be passive in her relationships. The movie becomes unusually honest and uncomfortable when Cindy finds herself incapable of getting into the mood for Dean's boorishly selfish motel date. The drunken semi-rape is enough to convince her that their relationship is over.
The contrast with the glimpses of their earlier relationship is heartbreaking. Dean is a carefree and reasonably sincere guy and Cindy a mixed-up kid delighted by his warmth and affection. Director Cianfrance tracks their midnight stroll down a block of storefronts, where Cindy dances an impromptu tap to Dean's little serenade on a ukelele. At that moment there seems no distinction between acting and reality. Michelle Williams' bright, unguarded look of joy seems absolutely real. The same magic strikes two or three times again in Blue Valentine, achieving the movie equivalent of a page-turner --- no matter how grim things become we feel compelled to keep watching.
Although many of us will recognize a bit of ourselves in Blue Valentine, the movie doesn't attempt a universal statement about love and romance. Dean would appear to be the offending party, emotionally negligent, quick to badger Cindy with his infantile suspicions and a destructive creep when he drinks. We can see the couple staying together, both for Frankie and simply because Cindy hasn't the strength to stand on her own. Some relationships are painful combinations of compromise and inertia. Blue Valentine is a welcome reality break from modern romantic illusions.
Anchor Bay's Blu-ray of Blue Valentine is a fine HD encoding of this curious and compelling drama. The added resolution allows us to detect a stylistic choice explained in the disc's commentary: the "present day" episodes were filmed on the Red One Camera System, and Super 16 film was used for the earlier scenes of the Dean-Cindy courtship.
Co-Editor Jim Helton joins director Cianfrance in the commentary for a dispassionate but detailed discussion of the film's structural mechanics. A making-of featurette lets us see the actors out of character, remarking on their roles. Twenty minutes of deleted scenes give us a good idea of the director's strategy of pushing good actors deep into their work and then seeing what happens when they improvise dialogue around a topic. Finally, the acting 'family' appears in character in a short film meant to look like a home movie. It's more than charming ... the cute Faith Wladyka would motivate any couple to stay together.
On a scale of Excellent, Good, Fair, and Poor,
Blue Valentine Blu-ray rates:
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