Film review: Blue Valentine
Blue Valentine is an unflinching examination of a marital relationship that begins as a fairy-tale but ends in tears. Yes, the story sounds blase — even banal — but it is the uncompromising honesty of the narrative that makes this film so unsettling and the emotional veracity of the actors that makes the experience so exhilarating.
Dean (Ryan Gosling) is an ordinary man of working class. Despite his oafish demeanour and profane ways, he possesses an endearing heart of goodness. He loves his wife, Cindy (Michelle Williams) and dotes on their daughter, Frankie (Faith Wladyka) — she, whom he knows, from the outset, to be not his own.
Cindy works as a medical technician in an obstetrician’s surgery. A working mother struggling to balance work and family commitments, she is more focused on immediate tasks at hand than on nurturing the family’s (or her own) emotional needs. She is often hassled and tetchy and her relationship with Dean slides into inevitable neglect.
Then, the tragic death of the family dog wrecks Cindy with guilt and responsibility. She teeters on the precipice of abject despair. To pull his wife, his family and indeed his own happiness from the brink, Dean forcibly persuades Cindy to spend one night away with him.
This disturbing and austere prologue unfolds against a backdrop shot in grey and dull tones — as if director and co-writer Derek Cianfranco desires to reinforce the unhappy existence with visual atmospherics.
Still rocking perilously on the edge of mental anguish, Cindy runs into a former sweetheart. The fortuitous encounter sparks off waves of memory: six years ago, Cindy was an aspiring medical professional with dreams and ambitions. However, an unplanned pregnancy by this feckless boyfriend and subsequent meeting with and marriage to Dean had all but dimmed out those lustrous prospects.
With subtle distinctions in colour and light, Cianfranco deftly tosses our attention back and forth between the present and the past. The shape of the film vividly emerges as the story contrasts frisson and familiarity, freedom and responsibilities, excitement and discontent.
As Dean grapples (clumsily) with insecurity and paucity of affection from his wife, the couple checks into a seedy hotel room. Here, we see the awkwardness of two people trying to rekindle a forgotten romance and the way it falls inexorably into pieces. We witness broken communication, absence of respect and disconnect in personal needs. Pent-up frustrations erupt into scuffles and recoils from intimate contact induce angry invitations to rape.
The performance by Gosling and Williams is outstanding — never mind the marvellous talent exhibited by young Wladyka. Gosling is impeccably convincing as the young and romantic bogan who ages into a simple lout with simple needs and simple dreams. While iteratively inarticulate and bafflingly unreasonable, he churns with helpless agony as he watches his family slip through his fingers. Williams delivers handsomely as she transitions from a precocious dreamy girl, eager to love and be loved, to a sexless and weary woman disgruntled with life. Both actors stand up remarkably to the camera’s unforgiving close-up gaze.
A bleak film, Blue Valentine is viscerally unsettling and leaves the audience utterly exhausted, as they try to tease out the causes of how a fairy-tale love story can go so wrong and shudder at images that are far from strange.