Appellate Judge Jennifer Malkowski would accept a blue valentine, but only if it had extra glitter and stickers.
Our review of Blue Valentine (Blu-Ray), published May 5th, 2011, is also available.
"I just got a feeling about her. You know when a song comes on and you just gotta dance?"—Dean
Boy meets girl and he's "just gotta dance." This feeling of crazy, dizzy-making pure and true and forever luuuuuv is the first component of Blue Valentine—perhaps the cutesy image on the front of a valentine. However, if you open this particular card up, there's a much darker message inside: something along the lines of "I will always love you…or at least for a few years."
Love blooming and withering are the processes devastatingly paired in director and co-writer Derek Cianfrance's drama, a film that combines superb acting with a tight and deliberate control of time and information. Blue Valentine offers a cinematic experience that is, sadly, all too rare: a simple story told exceedingly well.
Facts of the Case
Cindy (Michelle Williams, Brokeback Mountain) and Dean (Ryan Gosling, Half Nelson) are maintaining a rocky marriage, working ordinary jobs, and raising a young daughter in small-town Pennsylvania. As Blue Valentine takes us through two summer days in their rather depressing lives, it also flashes us back periodically to the not-so-distant past when they first met and fell in love.
A narrative intermingling of past and present (or sometimes past and more-recent past) is nothing new to cinema—nor even to big-screen love stories. Classics such as Annie Hall (1977, Woody Allen) and contemporary fare such as (500) Days of Summer have put the good old days of sweet love together with the depressing new days of stale love before. However, I haven't ever seen a film that makes both periods as immersive as Blue Valentine does, rendering the shifts from present to past and back again absolutely heart-wrenching.
Case in point: on the night that Cindy and Dean get to know each other, they frolic aimlessly along a street of little stores and stop in front of a bridal shop. There, Dean strums a little song on his ukelele and Cindy tap dances as he plays and sings. In this moment, the two are utterly charmed by each other, and we by them. It's young love at its finest: private, idiosyncratic, saturated by irrepressible grins. We can almost feel the butterflies in their stomachs.
As soon as his ukelele number ends, though, we are ripped from this perfect moment and plopped down again into a decidedly imperfect one. The warm reds, yellows, and browns of the previous shot are forgotten in a wash of blue—the film's title color—as we see an older (and, in one of their cases, balder) Cindy and Dean. The blue is part of the story, since the couple has escaped from their untidy little house to a hokey hotel with erotic theme rooms, theirs being "The Future Room." The future, appropriately, is cold, metallic, and cramped, illuminated by a wretched blue light. The two are bickering over dinner, with champagne and roses as weak crutches in creating the kind of romance that was so effortless years ago outside the bridal shop—and mere seconds ago in the film's progression.
Cianfrance and his crew build this contrast into the very bones of the film, too. The past is shot on Super 16mm with effective handheld cinematography; these scenes are alive with feeling, warm colors, and the dancing grain of film stock. The present is shot on digital, often with tight close-ups, and feels like a place of stasis, with DV's too-clean look complemented by cold lighting and more tripod shots.
It's not just aesthetic and tonal juxtapositions between past and present that power Blue Valentine, though: it's also the way Cianfrance dispenses information about Cindy and Dean so gradually. When Cindy runs into a guy she used to know in the present and Dean flips out, we can only guess vaguely about why, but later we get the full story, which throws that argument and a whole facet of their relationship into new relief. Similarly, Cindy and Dean dance in the Future Room to a CD he puts on—a the small moment of romance that takes on an incredible sadness only later in the film when we hear that song again, this time in their tender past. Because early scenes in the film are so often reframed in this way by later ones from an earlier point in the relationship, Blue Valentine is a good candidate for multiple viewings.
All the brilliance of style and script would be in vain without top-notch acting, though, since Blue Valentine relentlessly focuses on the psychology and relationship of just these two human beings. Both leads do truly impressive work, and—as you can hear on the commentary track—are asked to do things that actors seldom have to for an über-method feel. Michelle Williams gives her second memorable performance as a put-upon wife and mother (the first in Brokeback Mountain), which is a surprising niche for her at a young age. Here she has to fully play the contrasts, turning a radiant college girl in love into a beaten-down and perpetually stressed working mom. She does so very well, building a certain deadness of spirit into the older Cindy's core and also communicating moments of rising panic with her marital situation convincingly.
Gosling is also playing younger and older, but his challenge is a bit different. While Dean does lose some of his joie de vivre, his problem is actually that he doesn't grow up. He remains rooted in the role of an unambitious twenty-something who drinks and smokes constantly. Having subscribed to a "love at first sight" model of relationship building—one reliant on grand romantic gestures and short-term thinking—that cannot hold in an actual marriage, Dean acts out like a petulant child. Still, as Gosling erodes Dean's charm, he retains enough of the man's vulnerability that we continue to feel for him at key moments, like when he tells Cindy earnestly: "You said for better or worse…this is my worst, but I'm gonna get better. You just gotta give me a chance to get better."
Blue Valentine's DVD release doesn't come with any roses or candy hearts, but it does offer a solid technical presentation and a good slate of extras. The transfer renders the subtle but important contrast between digital and celluloid sections well, though I was bothered by a certain softness and lack of contrast at points. Sound is perfectly fine as the 5.1 track does its best with the sometimes mumbled and overlapping dialogue and plays the soft score by band Grizzly Bear nicely.
Extras add a lot to the film, as they explain the unique production practices that contributed to the winning final product. A 13-minute making-of featurette reveals that Williams and Gosling had both been cast several years before the making of the film—which took a meandering twelve-year journey from idea to screen—and had been crafting their characters in collaboration with Cianfrance during that period. Cianfrance shot the past segments first and then moved Williams, Gosling and young Faith Wladyka (playing their daughter) into a rental house together for a month. There, the actors—who had been playing new love for the past segments—worked to age and sour their relationship, staging arguments and then trying to keep things together in front of their "daughter," Frankie. The 3-minute "Frankie and the Unicorn" video that is included on the disc comes from this period, as the trio made an adorable little home movie as part of their family playtime. It's especially fun in this feature to see big-name Hollywood actors goofing around on cheap consumer-level video.
The commentary track with Cianfrance and editor Jim Helton adds more detail to the immersive production method we hear about in the making-of featurette. We learn, for example, that Cianfrance exhausted Gosling by making him spend hours digging a hole in Dean's backyard for a scene that produces about ten seconds of footage; and the stunt Dean pulls to convince Cindy to tell him a secret in the movie was an act of desperate improvisation by Gosling after Williams refused to tell it for take after take, with Cianfrance's instructions. Most interestingly, Cianfrance talks about extending methods from his career in documentary to Blue Valentine's production, building in lots of room for improvisation. Certain brief interactions in the film—between Dean and a coworker, between Cindy and her grandmother—were culled from long takes of unscripted chats, with Cianfrance providing just topics and then capturing the unfolding conversation. Lastly, 19 minutes of deleted scenes give us much more of Cindy and Dean's early courtship, plus a hilarious chat between older Dean and a guy who works with him (perhaps cut because this fellow really steals the show). One deleted scene went too far into the method acting realm for my taste, as Gosling sticks his finger down his throat and vomits, seemingly for real. Eww.
Since the extras are identical on DVD and Blu-ray and this film doesn't demand a high-def presentation, this might be a good title to save a few bucks on by purchasing the standard DVD treatment.
The Rebuttal Witnesses
Ryan Gosling is a great actor, but he puts Dean's character together in some confusing ways. The problem is that Dean is written as a deeply working class guy who, it seems to me, is supposed to have some tension or insecurity with Cindy because she is better educated and her family has more money than his. Gosling, though, so hopelessly exudes an archetypal hipster aura—the incessantly ironic white boy who wears thrift store clothes and drinks PBR despite having plenty of money—that the shades of class positioning feel muddled. Sitting in his small house in the country, wearing a bald eagle sweatshirt and ugly '80s glasses, and drinking a can of cheap beer, Dean looks like a stereotype of poor men in middle America, but he feels like Ryan Gosling in ultra-irony mode. I'm still not sure which one he's supposed to be.
After a relentless two hours of watching young love broken down over time, the end credits of Blue Valentine return us, with nostalgic yearning and cinematic flair, to the perfection of the past. Aligning with the present's Fourth of July setting, the credits showcase a dazzling, stylized sequence of fireworks. Instead of exploding against the night sky, though, these come to life with photographs of the young Cindy and Dean as the backdrop, suddenly illuminating their smiling faces and then letting them recede back into blackness. The effect is gorgeous on its own, but also provides a closing metaphor for the story we've just seen. Love, of this variety, is a firework: a hot, brilliant burst that seems to re-center and transform the very sky, but fades and disappears all too quickly.
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Scales of Justice
Studio: Anchor Bay
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