Sunday, January 30, 2011

Blue Valentine Movie Review: Scenes from a Marriage

Derek Cianfrance’s indie film Blue Valentine is a portrait of a disintegrating relationship. It has scenes of great emotional devastation anchored by two outstanding performances by Michelle Williams (recently Oscar nominated for her role) and Ryan Gosling as Cindy and Dean, a young married couple who have lost a bit of passion, to put it mildly.

The film alternates between two time periods. There is the present day period in which Cindy and Dean have a 5-year-old daughter, Frankie, and Cindy seems to barely tolerate Dean, who appears to be walking a very thin line between antagonizing his wife and simply trying to figure out how to live with a crumbling marriage. The other period is the beginning of their relationship, from their meeting to their wedding (which is hastily arranged and takes place within weeks of their meeting).

Cianfrance, who co-wrote the screenplay with Cami Delavigne and Joey Curtis, comes from a background of documentary work. This is his first feature film and, although I’ve not seen any of his previous work, I wonder if the film’s structure comes from his experience of working in a medium that typically jumps between time periods as a dramatic device.

It’s a structure that works well principally because of Cianfrance’s and his editors’ (Jim Helton and Ron Patane) skill at piecing it together in a way that is both organic and that keeps us intrigued. When we’re in the present, we want to see how the romance progressed early on. When we’re watching the early period, we wonder how the marital problems will resolve themselves.

Consider one of the key scenarios in the story: We know from the first scene that Cindy and Dean have a daughter. In a scene set in the past Cindy and an old boyfriend, Bobby (Mike Vogel) have unprotected sex after which Cindy is upset with him for…well, you know. It is only shortly thereafter that she starts seeing Dean. Why would this scene be included if it didn’t have some bearing on the parentage of Frankie? The structure of the screenplay stretches out the eventual revelation as to how the characters deal with the situation.

Like a large majority of independent films of days long gone, Cianfrance used 16mm film, mostly handheld, for the shoot. It’s a pleasant return to the feeling of cinéma vérité in fiction films often associated with John Cassavetes as well as the early independent work of several indie directors of the 80s and early 90s. When the film reaches its climax during a moment of emotional turmoil fueled by a bit of alcohol and lots of pent up resentment and anger, the camera keeps us right in the middle. It never shies away and the scene never feels too polished.

One complaint I do have, and it’s a pretty big one actually, is that we don’t ever get to see how Cindy and Dean reached a point of no-return. We know from the onset of their relationship that she has aspirations to be a doctor, but in the end she became a nurse. He is a high school dropout working for a moving company in New York. Later he’s a house painter. Cindy’s father (John Doman) is disapproving. This class difference doesn’t really play a big role in their relationship based on what’s presented on screen, but there are some clues. She exhibits resentment about his lifestyle. He doesn’t seem to work as hard as her, he has a beer in the morning before going to work (although the film doesn’t paint him as an alcoholic), he undermines Cindy’s authority with Frankie by playing childish games over breakfast.

While recognizing that presenting the entire life of a relationship on film is virtually impossible, I still felt something was lacking. What brought Cindy to the point that she tells Dean, “I have nothing left for you?” Dean, despite his inability to communicate openly with his wife (she’s not much better, come to think of it), is still terribly in love with her and absolutely agog over Frankie. The real emotional punch for him would be having to be separated from the child he adores. As it stands, the story arc seems to go from their blissful happiness and shotgun wedding to complete ruin without much in between. Then again, maybe that’s part of the point. After all, how easily can most people pinpoint what went wrong in their relationships? Sure you can identify problems and moments of inconsistency, lack of support, etc. But seldom is anyone able to say that the dissolution was caused by two or three particular moments in time. Still, it might have been worthwhile to include flashbacks to the middle part of their marriage showing the wheels starting to come off.

One effect of that absence of background is that it’s difficult to take sides. I found myself more sympathetic toward Dean, in spite of one terrible and almost unforgivable outburst at the medical center where Cindy works, and I suspect that most women will side more with Cindy. Certainly there is no clear cut good guy and bad guy. But for my part, it appeared as though Cindy is the one who long ago abandoned the marriage and allowed things to reach such devastation. Again, I’m sure that’s part of the point of the screenplay functioning as it does. Unfortunately, this meant that I didn’t have as strong an emotional attachment to either of the characters, so that when they reached their conclusion I hardly had any reaction.

At the very least I can say Cianfrance is a gifted film maker whose future work I will look forward to. He’s provided his film raw energy and extracted two of the finest performances in the annals of relationship drama (reaching for the pinnacle examples of Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf and Revolutionary Road). I just wish I’d been more moved by it.

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