One would suspect that all a romance needs to do to succeed is give you two characters who are likable, giving the audience a reason to care about them so that, in the end, the audience’s interest lies in seeing them come together and decide they were meant for each other, or something as gushy as all that. Most romances can’t even accomplish this, and, unfortunately, many of the ones that can aren’t capable of taking those characters and moving us from sympathy for them into empathy. This is what truly moves romance beyond good and into the realm of greatness, and this is what Blue Valentine has in anguished, blood-and-dirt-covered spades. Because of this, the two central characters and the problems they face ache with life-blood, and the movie is a powerful, effective and affecting, if profoundly intense to watch, experience.
Blue Valentine shifts back and forth between the beginning and end of an all too human relationship between Dean Pereira (Ryan Gosling) and Cindy Heller (Michelle Williams). It conveys a very honest sense of care and devotion in the scenes depicting the beginning of their relationship, in which the two meet by chance at a home for the elderly where Cindy’s grandmother was staying when Dean happened to be helping an elderly man move in next door. Dean, instantly stricken, returns and finds her again, this time on a bus, and we see that they both share feelings for each other. Complicating matters early on in the relationship are Cindy’s boyfriend and an unplanned pregnancy, but these are hurdles which do not deter the two from getting married – they’re physical hurdles, and the difficult ones are of a deeper and more human variety. Flash forward a few years, and they have a child and a relationship on the rocks. They still care about each other, but they are often frustrated over the trajectory of the relationship, and, in an attempt to rekindle their increasingly diminished flame, Dean decides a visit to a local love motel is in order.
Much of the early material charting the beginning of the relationship is fairly typical for a romance, so self-consciously so that this seems to be the point. Filmed naturalistic-ally to the point of seeming amateurish, it comes off as poorly planned and off-the-cuff, much as the central couple’s marriage is woefully under-planned, effusing a sense of youthful spontaneity that can’t but reflect on the permanence of their future prospects. Director Derek Cianfrance not only shot these scenes in a different format from the later post-marriage scenes, but he filmed them differently. They were done in the manner fitting the narrative progression: amateurishly and quickly, with little re-shooting and planning. Rumor has it the director wanted to film these scenes several years earlier than the rest of the film over a few days with virtually no script and then to wait by literally distancing the actors for several years before their eventual re-meeting to stage the majority of the film with more exacting, strained complexity. He wasn’t able to seal the deal on the “years apart” idea, but the expedient production remained – the actors even improvised most of their dialogue to convey that they were really just, like their characters in the film, making it up on the spot.
The present-day scenes, where anguish serves only to punctuate mundanity and the sense of romance has long left, were filmed accordingly. Cianfrance set the actors up – literally forced them to function as a pair – for months as they filmed. He famously dragged them through the dirt by forcing a sort of hyper-conscious Method acting upon them, having them live on the budget of their on-screen characters, having a family photo done, and having them stage arguments in public (as well as staging some of his own between them by manipulating them to dislike each other). The effect is terrifying in the abstract and even more unnerving on-screen. There’s a real tiredness in their eyes and faces, a sense of thought and slowly-mounting anger we see not only in their words but in the more minute details, like, perhaps, a sense of desperation in their increasingly jagged movements brought on by Cianfrance having them film scenes over and over again just to tire them out. When they look tired, they really were, and we wonder whether they’re essaying their characters or becoming them, whether they are angry at each other or looking away at Cianfrance, scolding him, in their scenes. The film’s attention was almost entirely due to the NC-17 rating and the central two performances (more on that later), but it really seems to be Cianfrance’s commitment to constructing those performances to fit his vision that unlocks the film.
This behind-the-scenes cinematic manipulation to create, ironically, “honesty” births the reality of the characters on-screen. They feel real not only because the script calls for them to be so but because the director demanded it. We want to see them together and renew their passion, but we doubt it and soon come to wonder if they’d just be happier alone. Above all, they aren’t presented as bad people. Individually we come to care for them and see they truly, at one point, did want the relationship to work – but they’re caustic toward each other. There are scenes before they marry which are truly heart-warming (the night-time talent show the two give for each other which serves as the movies trailer) and scenes of genuine suspense (an attempted abortion). Despite the quality of those scenes though, the movie really finds its legs in the scenes representing Dean’s and Cindy’s current relationship, so brutally distressed and torqued by years of living so close to one another. The movie is wise to present the relationship in an unbiased manner, not trying to demonize or make you artificially sympathize with Dean and Cindy, nor does it attempt to exacerbate their relationship with any artificial narrative “events” or extenuating circumstances. Cianfrance winds us up by darting sympathy between characters, almost excruciatingly so, and sometimes in the span of minutes. It’s exhausting, which is why he doesn’t need any grander conflict for the film – the conflict is the relationship itself, the characters’ very humanity, as well as his camera wondering around them, watching them, defining them, and threatening to penetrate into their souls. The film needs nothing more.
The two notable performers, Gosling and Williams, are substantial in their roles, inclined as I am to believe that the director is as essential for these performances as the actors. These are exacting, Method-style performances, and it shows. They accomplish a lot with their facial expressions and bodies in particular – dialogue is there, but it’s less important because these two characters have become too tired to put enough effort into their words. Throughout the film, we are not watching actors; we are watching people.
Make no mistake: this is a demanding, at times torturous film. And there’s no catharsis either – just anguishing stagnancy that lasts and gets under the skin. I know many people who can’t sit through the whole film. (Someone once told me I had an “interesting” taste in film, with a vague hint of confusion, after I told her I liked it). This is a difficult viewing experience, plumbing the depths of human depression and exploring a profound slice-of-life human loneliness. It gives us not loss, as many movies do, but something far more difficult to accept: stagnancy. We don’t get a slow, gradual degradation of the marriage. We get continual attempts to fix it that are half-hearted and the sense that, perhaps even with all their hearts in it, it is perpetually stuck in a state of, not decline, but static loneliness. This is a film that grabs you and shows you life for two hours. It’s honest, real, human. Use whatever word you want, but see Blue Valentine.