Brutal Realism

'Blue Valentine' depicts a charming relationship—and its horrific deterioration

Blue Valentine is essentially two excellent films in one: It's a sweet, passionate romance, and it's a blisteringly nasty breakup story.

In one part of writer-director Derek Cianfrance's remarkably honest examination of a marriage blown apart, we see Dean and Cindy (Ryan Gosling and Michelle Williams) magically falling in love and moving toward marriage. This portion is shot with a beautiful romantic grace, and is full of promise.

In the other part, we see Dean and Cindy a few years down the road, married and raising a child. Each of them possesses only slight hints of the joy and happiness depicted in the earlier years; the scenes are appropriately shot with a grainy, gritty realism.

Rather than showing them chronologically, Cianfrance interweaves the two periods—the past trades scenes with the future—and the effect is heartbreaking.

When Dean and Cindy meet, he works for a moving company. He doesn't have much in the way of future prospects, but he's ultra-charming and looks like Ryan Gosling, so he's got that going for him. Cindy is a med student in a relationship in which she is less than impressed. The two meet up by chance, and sparks fly.

Cut to a few years later, and Dean has graduated to painting houses and drinking all day, while Cindy is a nurse at a practice where the doctor might have nefarious intentions. Life isn't going according to plan; Dean's hairline is beginning to show the signs of stress, and Cindy has lost patience.

In one of the more memorable moments, Dean warbles a tune and strums a ukulele while Cindy tap-dances during their first date. The movie then cuts to a drunken Cindy interrogating Dean about his lack of creative and vocational success. The ukulele dance is one of the more joyful and romantic scenes I've seen on film within the last decade, while the drunken interrogation that immediately follows is one of the more brutally potent examples of a rotten human relationship ever put on film.

In some ways, Cianfrance accomplishes something similar to what Sam Mendes did with his powerful Revolutionary Road, another movie that traded scenes of a decaying marriage with a blooming romance. But Cianfrance makes some of the nasty stuff in Revolutionary Road look like a pool party.

Blue Valentine was initially branded with the dreaded NC-17 rating for its sexual content, and that doesn't surprise me. The sex scenes are explicit, emotionally and physically. The sex depicted during the happy phase is shocking in its enthusiasm and energy, while the bad phase depicts hateful, emotionally violent content. (The film managed to get the NC-17 overturned without any cuts or re-edits.)

The realism doesn't stop with the sex scenes. During an argument on a bridge walk in Manhattan, Gosling's Dean—in an apparently unscripted move—climbs a barrier fence and threatens to go into the river while Williams frantically pleads for him to come down. There are also drunken moments that must've been the result of true alcohol consumption.

Gosling is an actor unafraid to take chances, and his Dean is the epitome of a full characterization, a sad man with a big heart. He's equally charming and pathetic. It struck me how younger Dean always gets laughs out of Cindy, and tantalizes her with his sexual prowess. However, older Dean's jokes fall flat, as do his attempts at bedroom heroics. Gosling captures all of the bliss and pain that goes with the victories and failings. He's never been better.

Williams' Cindy is a well-meaning woman who has made more than a few mistakes. The role requires Williams to go all-in, physically and psychologically. It's the sort of raw performance most actresses aren't willing to undertake.

As I learned during a random viewing of Live! With Regis and Kelly (don't hate ... the show is adorable!), Williams and Gosling actually lived together (during the day) for a month while prepping for the movie. Cianfrance had them adhering to a daily budget, and taking the young girl who plays their daughter (Faith Wladyka) for "family nights." This tactic works beautifully for the film; it definitely feels as if the people involved have spent some serious time together.

The movie often feels like a documentary, and in ways, it is. When we see Dean and Cindy getting to know each other, Gosling and Williams are actually getting to know each other. When we see them fed up, Gosling and Williams probably were getting on each other's nerves due to excessive time spent together. Obviously, this sort of experiment could be a boring disaster, but the parties involved were up to the challenge.

Cianfrance's film is the ultimate depiction of how some relationships deteriorate from unabashed joy into arguments about petty things (like how oatmeal is cooked). You could conclude that Dean and Cindy need to look to the pleasures of their past to work through the hardships of their present. Or you could see it as a depiction of a toxic couple who had no business ever getting together.

For the end credits, beautiful stills of Dean and Cindy in happier days play over fireworks and "Alligator" by Grizzly Bear. It's like a memorial video for a once-beautiful couple that has spiritually died.

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