The mark of a truly great romantic drama is one which inspires its viewers to re-evaluate their life. Yep, it’s a somewhat unreasonably high bar for films to reach, but it’s what separates the masterpieces (Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind) from the fluff (The Break-Up). That is what I look for in films claiming to capture the trials and tribulations of “love”. I demand they instigate an epidemic of proposals of marriage and proposals of separation; I look in the audience to see which couples are drawn in for closer cuddles, and which ones are sitting sternly and staring ahead. Call me naïve if you wish (it’d be a nice change from the cries of “cynic!”), but I truly believe films can be that powerful. A filmmaker shouldn’t just flirt with such an incendiary topic as love; they need to commit to the brutality and beauty, ultimately shattering its viewers. And that is precisely what Derek Cianfrance’s Blue Valentine does.
Cianfrance is a relatively green director who has primarily worked in music documentaries, but in his second feature film he reveals an astute understanding of how to capture humanity (awful, naked humanity) on screen. Blue Valentine stars Ryan Gosling and Michelle Williams as Dean and Cindy, a doomed married couple whose relationship disintegrates in front of our eyes. The experience is made all the more grueling by the fact it is juxtaposed with their formative days; back when they were filled with joy, hope and affection. Watching Blue Valentine is like flipping through the photo album of two strangers (an intensely personal photo album), and learning the intricacies and subtleties of their relationship in the process.
I’d say that Gosling and Williams are “revelatory”, but this young duo (both aged 30) have well and truly proven themselves as sublime actors in their previous films. This is instead the teaming-up of two of the finest performers of their generation. Gosling’s unambitious Dean is disarmingly funny, but armed with a fiercely suspicious temper; he fears every man in Cindy’s life, as if they confirm his own failings as a man. Williams’ Cindy is wide-eyed at first, slowly worn down by a life she had never wanted; we are not only witness to the anguish of a bored mother and wife, but also the silent screams of a trapped woman with an entire life in her still left to lead. Gosling and Williams’ unflinchingly embrace the emotional horror of their characters’ existence (ugly sex, uglier fights and an unspoken understanding to hide their dissolution from their daughter) as well as the warmer, funnier, tragic-in-context earlier days of Dean and Cindy’s lives.
For all of Gosling and William’s pitch-perfect nuance and moments of well-earned intensity, there are a number of supporting performances and side-characters that seek to undermine them. Almost every scene featuring a co-star (except of course the darling Faith Wladyka as their impish child Frankie) is overplayed; Cindy’s short-tempered father (John Doman), her flirty colleague (Ben Shenkman) and masculine former boyfriend (Mike Vogel) are each expected to convey entire arcs with only moments of screen-time, and they (over)act accordingly.
So it’s good news then that not even the supporting cast can undo that which is achieved by Gosling and Williams (both ably complimented by embedded DOP Andrij Parekh, and Brooklyn band Grizzly Bear, who provide an adequately melancholy soundtrack.) Although working from a script by Cianfrance, Cami Delavigne and Joey Curtis, the two lead actors make every moment feel organic and improvised. No, not improvised. That implies invention on the spot. The whole point of Blue Valentine is that the actions of these characters are written in the stars; they are damned to their fates from the day they meet (or rather, the day their unhappy parents or their unsatisfied grandparents met, repeating the cycle over and over again). Blue Valentine does not romanticise romance; it treats its central relationship much in the same way it treats old age – like an inevitable march to irrelevance, and ultimately death. Blue Valentine does the impossible, and captures the uncapturable: to watch this film is to watch two people fall in, and eventually out of, love. Few films have ever done it so well.
Blue Valentine arrives in Australian cinemas December 26, 2010.