On DVD: Blue Valentine

The love story takes many forms in film. Many would argue “Blue Valentine” takes the more “realistic” approach in that it depicts the fracturing of a relationship amidst a sea of flashbacks to more idealistic and happier times. “Blue Valentine” might not have a traditional happy ending, but that doesn’t necessarily make it a depressing love story. Whereas many relationships happily succeed, others fail and others take less concrete and grayer directions. Derek Cianfrance simply paints a deep, complex and not-so-uplifting portrait of one such relationship.

Perhaps “honest” would be more suitable a term than “realistic” in that marriages and relationships can take a variety of courses and the story of Cindy and Dean is one possible trajectory, even if it’s one we wish didn’t occur as often as it does.

The film follows the present time line of Cindy (Michelle Williams) and Dean (Ryan Gosling) attempting to take a one-day vacation together amid an atmosphere of frustrations and some thick tension. They drop their daughter Frankie off with Cindy’s father and travel to a hotel where they end up in an outer space-themed suite that sort of awkwardly sums up that they’re in different places emotionally. Cindy has a lot on her mind and can’t seem to relax, leading her to be sexually unresponsive, and Dean can’t seem to approach her the right way about it, leading to his own frustrations. There seems to be a distinct effort being made to love each other, but there’s an unquestionable hollowness or at least a disconnect.

Peppered throughout but not in an obnoxiously non-linear way are flashbacks to when they first met and fell in love. Gosling’s Dean shows some continuity between these two time lines, whereas earlier Cindy, despite being a bit standoffish consistently throughout, shows a completely different side, which is fitting for her character considering how out of love she really is in present day.

Most impressively, the script creates empathy and sympathy for both characters; no one person is the victim or the enemy throughout. Both make mistakes, even if the scales tip heavily at certain points in the film. Unless you personally find your life to mirror one of these characters based on a past (or current, I suppose) relationship, there’s no taking sides.

The depth of Gosling and Williams’ performances doesn’t allow partiality either. Gosling certainly gives the more external performance with a quick temper yet a deep love that occasionally forces out his fragility. Cindy by nature bottles up her emotions and Williams manages to convey it all beautifully. Cianfrance effectively balances these two powerful acting forces entering their primes and lets you feel their relationship and their story.

Successfully generating empathy proves here to be a valuable filmmaking skill. Cianfrance wields it properly and effectively in a film with just a few key events capable of commanding our attention otherwise. A gripping scene occurs when Cindy makes the determination to have her pregnancy aborted. The doctor (though kindly) describes what he’s doing in vivid detail and you can’t help but enter the mind of Cindy as she wrestles with whether she can go through with the procedure. It’s potent stuff no matter what side of the debate you’re on.

Non-traditional love stories with un-Hollywood endings have a tendency to get preachy in the end, but “Blue Valentine” doesn’t make any grand thematic statements. The inconclusive ending of the film suggests that we must find our own way to make peace with this “honest” outcome. The only obvious thing to take away is that it sucks; it sucks when these things happen and it’s not necessarily any one person’s fault — it’s the relationship.

Yet the film suggests it could be worse. A few other low-profile relationships in the film, such as the one between Cindy’s mother and father, show how relationships often times continue when they shouldn’t. Just because two disagreeing people stick it out together doesn’t mean they did the right thing for their family. But no matter which lens you choose to look at the film through, Cianfrance and this talented group of writers and actors convinces you thoroughly to find that lens and use it.

4/5 Stars

Blue Valentine
Directed by Derek Cianfrance
Written by Derek Cianfrance, Cami Delavigne and Joey Curtis
Starring: Michelle Williams, Ryan Gosling


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