Thursday, February 10, 2011

Blue Valentine (2010)

Blue Valentine could not have been more aptly titled. Hollywood and the audiences movies are made for (i.e., you and me) love a good romance, a film in which star-crossed lovers meet and discover their happily ever after. The unfortunate truth is that in reality, these relationships just don't last. This is the story that Blue Valentine tells, and though its hardly the first film to show a crumbling marriage, it is one of the most emotionally raw films to appear in cinemas this past year.

Dean (Ryan Gosling) and Cindy (Michelle Williams) are the couple in question. The film begins with the couple having been married for several years; judging by their young daughter, I would guess four or five at least. Dean's  a child in a man's body, leaving Cindy to be the main provider for the family. Its obvious from the beginning that their relationship is strained, but after the family dog disappears, deeply upsetting Frankie (newcomer Faith Wladyka), they decide (reluctantly) to spend the night in a "love motel," which evolves into a last-ditch effort to save their relationship. Throughout the film we see flashbacks to how the two met, when Cindy was in college and Dean worked for a moving company.

Make no mistake, this movie will not have a happy ending. At times, the emotional pain on screen is almost unbearable to watch. One of the things that makes that punch so effective is director/co-writer Derek Cianfrance's decision to include flashbacks to the beginnings of the relationship, allowing us to see the development of the characters over time. Or, in Dean's case, the lack of development. He's a dreamer, a romantic in the classical sense, with no ambition for his life other than to just live. And as time goes on, becoming a husband and a father, he never really grows up: years later he's still the same goofy man-child that he was in the beginning, working meager jobs that involve him drinking a beer at 10 in the morning just to get through the day. Gosling is nothing short of magnificent and magnetic in this performance, never shying away from Dean's demons and bringing a heartbreakingly real person to life in the process. Cindy, too, has her particular problems: the product of a hostile home, she's brings her own baggage to the relationship, quick to lose her temper with Dean and an attraction to men who don't treat her right. Williams is astonishing in this role, just another piece of evidence that she is one of the most talented actresses in Hollywood today. She richly deserved her Oscar nomination; I can't forgive the Academy, though, for overlooking Gosling (who's definitely better than most of the actual nominees).

Here's what makes Blue Valentine particularly heartbreaking: in every part of the movie, no matter how wrong for each other they obviously are, you can't help but want them to be together. The film does a terrific job at investing you in these characters, dropping enough character details throughout the film to make you feel like you know these two people. Just watch their first date, in which Dean is carrying around a ukelele. At one point Dean asks if she can dance, and when she says he can, he plays a sublimely silly version of "You Always Hurt the Ones You Love," and Cindy does an equally silly tap dance. Its hard not to fall in love with these characters, and its obvious what they see in each other. But the film doesn't shy away from the fact that, even in the end, they do genuinely love each other; unfortunately, love doesn't always conquer all. And the collapse of their relationship is devestating. From the cheesy "future room" at the motel (decked out with spaceship wallpaper and a rotating bed) to Dean's debacle at the doctor's office, there's very little to suggest that this relationship is going to last. One of the most grueling moments comes in that motel, when the couple engage in some depressing lovemaking that proves that, though love may still be there, the romantic spark has long since been extinguished. Its a raw, powerful moment, one that thankfully didn't get excised as a result of the MPAA's original NC-17 rating for the film (I'm guessing they thought audiences couldn't handle the fact that sex can be depressing).


Blue Valentine is not the kind of film you'd want to take your significant other to see this Valentine's Day. But it is an honest look at the unfortunate truth that you can't just make love happen; if two people just aren't right for each other, either because of personality differences or some other reason, it won't matter how much love they have or how real their love is. Like the fireworks that play over the end credits, those kinds of relationships eventually explode.

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