Blue Valentine: This Uncomfortable Valentine Cuts Deep

There are moments of Derek Cianfrance’s Blue Valentine that are perfect. The film is clearly personal, a portrait of how marriages with good intentions can fall apart and people who love each other know how to hurt each other the deepest. The half of the film where they fall in love works well, capturing the fun and highlighting the potential dangers of moving swiftly into marriage. The half of the film where they fall out of love balances between subtlety and melodrama, and while Ryan Gosling and Michelle Williams give great natural performances, they can’t help the fact that they make the quieter moments more heartbreaking than the bombastic scenes of heavy drama that we expect in this genre. The movie as a whole doesn’t have the heavy impact that it might have had if it had stayed less melodramatic and focused on the smaller heartbreaks which lead to the explosion rather than the explosion itself.

We follow two parts of the lives of Dean (Ryan Gosling) and Cindy (Michelle Williams). In the past, we watch them meet. He’s a charming fellow, a romantic, looking for the right one as he leads his life of working as a moving man. She’s a student, dating Bobby (Mike Vogel) and dealing with the baggage that comes with having parents who hate each other. She vows she’ll never get like them. Dean meets Cindy and persistently romances her, and she dumps Bobby after he finishes inside of her during unprotected sex in favor of seeing Dean. Flash forward a few years to the present: Dean is a painter with a receding hairline who still acts like the charming boy from when they met. Cindy has a medical career, working as a nurse and trying to be upwardly mobile with her career. They have a kid, who Dean tries to be friends with and Cindy tries to raise responsibly. Cindy clearly has resentment that Dean hasn’t matured or tried to move forward as people during their marriage, and Dean has resentment that Cindy doesn’t appreciate his commitment– he believes the wedding vows are sacred, and he has no problem with making Cindy and their daughter his only priority.

I’ve heard ludicrous claims that this film is misogynist, because Cindy has focused more on her career than her marriage. The exact opposite is true: Dean isn’t focused on his career enough. The whole point of a committed relationship is to move forward together, and Dean is content existing where he is. Cindy is ambitious, but she remains fully committed to the marriage– but when Dean undercuts her position of power as a parent at every turn and he drinks all day long because his job allows him to, then how can she stay attracted to and in love with this man? As I sat and watched the movie, my utmost sympathy was with Cindy from the beginning and throughout. Dean makes a noble gesture when they’re first getting together which certainly puts you on his side, but Cindy is whose behavior is the most understandable. Only those audience members who allow themselves to be swept away by Ryan Gosling’s charm could possibly side with him in this plight.

And Gosling’s charm is considerable. He succeeds in making the character’s bummy nature be part of his appeal– he has the bad boy lifestyle with the romantic demeanor that draws you immediately to him. It’s completely understandable why Cindy would fall for Dean. Then, he does an even better job with 30-year-old Dean, who has caught that destructive virus called complacency. He knows things are bad, but he believes being married is being married, and nothing will break it up. Meanwhile, Cindy has seen what happens when two people who don’t love each other are married forever, and she refuses to put her daughter through it. Though Gosling has the flashier and more charming role, Williams does a tremendous job showing how one falls out of love with little glances and pauses. What actress nowadays can show so much emotion with so little expression? In perhaps the most uncomfortable scene in the film, Cindy goes in to get an abortion. We watch her be interviewed about her sexual history and then begin the procedure– Williams is so raw and open during these scenes, without a trace of artifice.

Truthfully, I think that everyone who has had a relationship go south will see a scene they recognize here. The little scenes are the most real and thus were the most heartbreaking to me. A scene in which they eat breakfast and Dean mildly undercuts Cindy symbolizes their descent well, as does a conversation after Cindy bumps into a man from her past and how both her and Dean respond when she tells him this. When they listen to “their song,” they do a slow melancholy dance to themselves– the end result is moving. These smaller moments show how a relationship sinks away and had more impact… yet when the movie spills over into the bigger moments with shouting and weeping, it becomes a more conventional melodrama, albeit a well-acted one. Much has been made of the uncomfortable sex scene, and though it tells us a lot about how the relationship has soured, I found the morning after scene to be far more effective than dragging us through the sex scene with all its yelling and slamming of doors. Do relationships result in melodramatic moments? Sure, but these feel like familiar territory, like a director desiring to show us how “into it” his actors can be. It doesn’t help that the writing in the quieter scenes is more delicate and original, underlining the obviousness of the dialogue during the confrontations. Cianfrance provides some terrific moments– I know in past relationships I’ve been on the Dean side of eerily similar conversations– but the piece never gels completely. It’s like looking at a series of portraits; the most interesting bits aren’t what’s actually in the pictures, but the way the pictures delicately suggest the changes over time.

~ by russellhainline on January 12, 2011.

2 Responses to “Blue Valentine: This Uncomfortable Valentine Cuts Deep”

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