As someone who is lucky enough to have found love and held on to it, I find myself particularly struck by Blue Valentine. It’s not that a solitary individual will take nothing from the film, but it helps vastly to have some evocative experience with the love and salience of a relationship. At the core of the film is love, but in larger doses reside the blights of distrust and doubt, the arsenic of fear. So much of this experience is visceral that it’s no wonder the film has garnered a reputation as an emotional wrecking ball. While it certainly has its agonies, Blue Valentine is far from a one-note melancholic. There’s a lot of beauty in this film, and it’s delivered with equal sincerity.
Dean (Ryan Gosling) and Cindy (Michelle Williams) are one of a hundred like them, their foundation-building years stolen by a pregnancy and a commitment to one another made hastily in the haze of new love. It’s important to recognize quickly that we are not watching this couple because they are unique, but precisely because of the similarities we might share. With a five-year-old daughter and unfulfilling careers, Dean and Cindy have exhausted themselves making their family work. Now, as the window between them grows more opaque, memories of the beginning come rushing forth. The beautiful simplicity of falling into love lies at a remarkable distance from their current reality, and so, these two romantics do their best to reconcile the glow of love’s onset with the recognition that love may not be enough.
What Blue Valentine attempts to get at is simple enough. There are enumerable “bad things” that can happen to two lovers, but in some ways the worst is to fall out of love. Losing a best friend to illness or accident would be terrible, but you wouldn’t be losing your love for that person, only the person. An awful loss to be sure, but a loss that leaves your heart somewhat intact. Here though we must consider not only the loss of a friend and a security, but the loss of love itself. Here we must look hard at the reality of a partnership, and not simply the glossy bits; so often the only things we’re required to contemplate. It’s an interesting way to turn a love story around, and here it seems the idea is tantamount, as there’s very little interference from Director Derek Cianfrance. Ryan Gosling and Michelle Williams are mostly turned loose on one another with someone (Cianfrance, presumably) yelling “Action!”.
This is tightrope filmmaking because it hinges almost entirely on not only the two lead actors’ performances, but, because the film spends time equally in the past and present, their ability to interact with each other in at least two starkly different ways. Much like in Revolutionary Road, very little happens that’s not directly related to Dean and Cindy and the way they interact. This is a gamble, and one that works for much of the film, leading to some really gorgeous exchanges and wholly true moments. Not to say that even these working moments are all happy, but you come to a point where the tone is secondary to the authenticity. Had Cianfrance spent any more time away from Gosling and Williams in a room together alone, this film simply wouldn’t be worth as much. The easiest way to gauge this is by waiting until you get bored, and then counting how many people are on the screen. In nearly every case there should be more than two.
And the film does move a bit slowly at times. Cianfrance himself seems to be very charmed by Gosling and Williams, and once or twice lets the camera roll a bit longer than it should. This devotion to performance is admirable and exciting, as it suggests a pretty significant lack of ego on the director’s part, but it also allows some scenes to feel a bit sloppy. That said, this (like so many of my thoughts on the film) is mostly subjective. I predict a middle-split in terms of people who love every last second of Blue Valentine and those who spend as much time looking at their watch as the screen. It’s just that kind of film. A character-driven and raw piece that absolutely requires you meet it halfway.
It is too, unfortunately, the kind of film that diminishes in quality as it diminishes from memory. It is momentous, and those moments must be lived in to be fully appreciated. You just can’t take it all home with you. There’s too much happening and the only two people who can completely appreciate it are Ryan Gosling and Michelle Williams. Still, having seen and been moved by and adored Blue Valentine, I’ll certainly do my best to maintain an appreciation to whatever extent I can. I suppose a sliver of that appreciation will come from the knowledge that some of the greatest films and performances of all time were the ones that forced you to leave them in the theater. There’s too much beauty and complexity in the human experience to fit in my little notebook.