Anchor Bay // 2010 // 112 Minutes // Rated R
Reviewed by Judge Clark Douglas // May 5th, 2011
A love story.
"I feel like men are more romantic than women. When we get married we marry, like, one girl, 'cause we're resistant the whole way until we meet one girl and we think I'd be an idiot if I didn't marry this girl she's so great. But it seems like girls get to a place where they just kinda pick the best option...'Oh he's got a good job.' I mean they spend their whole life looking for Prince Charming and then they marry the guy who's got a good job and is gonna stick around."
Years ago, Dean (Ryan Gosling, Fracture) and Cindy (Michelle Williams, Wendy and Lucy) were madly in love. Now, their marriage is falling apart. Blue Valentine offers a detailed observation of the most intensely joyous and despondent moments of Dean and Cindy's relationship.
The basic structural idea that fuels Blue Valentine is so simple and obvious that one is almost hesitant to recognize its brilliance. With grace and expert timing, the film whisks back and forth between the smiling, flirty days of when Dean and Cindy first met and the unflinching realities of their strained relationship in the present. Each side adds weight, heartache and resonance to the other, as our knowledge of what was and what is brings soul-crushing perspective to our feelings on the relationship. This is a difficult film to watch but an expertly-constructed one; it announces director/co-writer Derek Cianfrance as a filmmaker worth paying attention to.
We've seen so many films in which a couple works their way to a happily ever after; overcoming a series of obstacles and complications until they wind up in each other's arms making vows of eternal love to one another. Half of Blue Valentine follows the same format, as we watch these two charming, attractive young people engage in a Meet Cute, go on a whimsical date (he plays a ukulele and sings while she tap-dances!) and begin to mutually agree that True Love has been found. There's even the obligatory hurdle where it seems like things might have gone bad just before they get back together with a renewed sense of passionate purpose.
This material is compelling enough to fuel a nice little indie-film love story, but our tale continues long after the Happily Ever After warm fuzzies have faded and the banalities of reality begin to sink in. The physical beauty seems to be fading at an alarming rate. In just a few years he's grown a gut and has begun to look like Stanley Tucci in The Lovely Bones; she seems to be perpetually in need of a long nap and some new batteries for her soul. She no longer finds his playful antics amusing and has begun to resent him for his lack of ambition. Meanwhile, his caring thoughtfulness too frequently transforms into overbearing aggressiveness, and he too frequently doesn't pay any heed to her concerns or requests.
If the film sounds like a cruel experiment, be assured that it is anything but. What Cianfrance delivers could never be described as clinical; even when he intentionally engages in romantic comedy clichés he does so with an immense deal of earnest straightforwardness. It is absolutely essential that both sides of the film manage to impact us on roughly an equal level, otherwise the film would lack any significant staying power. It takes us a while to see the outlines of the journey Cianfrance is taking us on, but it culminates in a string of scenes towards the end which offer one emotional knockout after another. Things hit something of a fever pitch in the closing moments, as the film veers with raw abandon between two extremities and creates (literally and otherwise) a series of cinematic fireworks.
I won't spoil anything for you, but permit me to tell you that the film is remarkably subtle in the way it draws painful parallels between the past and the present. The scene that just about floored me came late in the film, as Dean plays a CD for Cindy. It's a simple moment, but as you watch it your memories of an earlier moment are suddenly flooded with gut-wrenching context. I can't help but marvel at how successfully the film manages to avoid becoming cutesy with all of its structural gimmickry; it's such a subtly organic experience.
Of course, much of the emotional impact is generated by the performances of Gosling and Williams, two actors who haven demonstrated time and time again that they are willing to commit themselves to a role with relentless vigor. Gosling's performance is the louder and more prominent of the two; there are shades of early Robert De Niro in his aggressively method-y take on the role. Consider the way Gosling makes miniscule tweaks which transform his persona from impishly charming to ceaselessly irritating. Meanwhile, Williams offers a more inverted performance and conveys a great deal through her reactions to Dean's behavior. Her defeated, resentful expression in the present is made all the more crushing when we glimpse her boundless radiance in the past.
Note: In the months leading up to the film's release, there was a great deal of controversy surrounding the film's rating. The MPAA initially slapped Blue Valentine with an NC-17 before downgrading it to an R after an appeal was made. After seeing the film myself, I must concur that the NC-17 rating simply wasn't merited. This is definitely a film for adults, but there are countless R-rated film which offer content even more graphic than what Blue Valentine delivers.
Blue Valentine arrives on Blu-ray boasting a 1080/1.66:1 (no, really!) transfer which remains true to the filmmakers' original intentions. The present day scenes are sharp, clear and offer pristine detail (facial detail is particularly strong), and also boast smooth digital photography. Meanwhile, the scenes set in the past were shot on a very shaky hand-held Super 16. As you might expect, these scenes are loaded with excessive grain and sometimes even generate the feel of a slightly polished home video. It's an effective approach and the cinematography does offer a handful of rather striking ideas over the course of the film. The audio is very low-key for the most part, as Gosling and Williams often tend to mumble a bit during their conversations (none of the other characters are given very much screen time). Pieces of music occasionally offer a bit of punch (particularly in the final reel), but this is an understated track. Supplements include a commentary with Cianfrance and cinematographer Jim Helton, an EPK-style making-of featurette (13 minutes), some deleted scenes and a little home movie called "Frankie and the Unicorn" (featuring Gosling, Williams and young Faith Wladkya).
You won't find any easy answers in Blue Valentine; there are no obvious single elements that lead Dean and Cindy's marriage into troubled territory. These things can often be extremely difficult to pinpoint, and Cianfrance does a masterful job of roughly outlining the truth without going so far as to spell things out for us. The viewing experience is taxing but never boring. This is a superbly nuanced drama which demands to be seen.
Review content copyright © 2011 Clark Douglas; Site layout and review format copyright © 1998 - 2015 HipClick Designs LLC
Scales of Justice
Studio: Anchor Bay
* 1.66:1 Non-Anamorphic (1080p)
* DTS HD 5.1 Master Audio (English)
* English (SDH)
Running Time: 112 Minutes
Release Year: 2010
MPAA Rating: Rated R
* Deleted Scenes
* Home Movie