Blue Valentine evokes those moments when a disgruntled couple retreats to a private room and proceeds to verbally flesh out their hate for each other. Their voices are muffled but everyone in the other room is inclined to hush up and eavesdrop - except we don’t have to eavesdrop. Even in the film’s opening scene, we are already intruders. We watch this family of three, go about their morning routine. At first, we watch from the outside.
Then as we enter their home, the camera doesn’t just sit like a fly on the wall, but is placed suffocatingly close to these people. The camera never sits still, constantly going to and from each subject, losing and regaining focus, as if imitating an agitated spectator. Of course, agitated is what we’re supposed to feel as we witness the incredibly dark depths this relationship ventures into.
The film was edited to move back and forth between the present and the past. The former was shot in digital video giving it an exhausted and icy look while the past was shot in 16mm, looking like it was rediscovered out of an old family treasure box long forgotten in the basement. The feel is nostalgic but real and organic enough that it doesn’t emanate sappiness. We travel back and forth in time and we witness the romantic birth while being simultaneously shown the relationship’s culmination to its death.
For the present scenes, Cianfrance shoots Williams and Gosling with extreme close-ups and lingering hand-held shots – camera nose to nose with the actors. Shots are composed in such a claustrophobic way that their faces are never fully centre, more left of centre, sometimes he frames the subjects so the focus is solely on either head, shoulders, back or limbs making audiences feel as if they’re watching through a keyhole.
There is no clear explanation as to why the relationship is failing – it just is. In between the past and the present there is an unexplained blank. There is no evidence of infidelity, their only child is well and healthy, and neither one of them is dying or an addict of some sort. From what we can see there should be no reason for them to be unhappy. In a conversation held in a love motel room – the ironically named ‘future room’ - we are offered a glimpse to one possible incompatibility of Cindy and Dean: one’s ambition and the other’s lack of.
I’d like to see you have a job where you
didn’t have to start drinking at 8
o’clock in the morning to go to it.
No, I have a job that I can drink at 8
o’clock in the morning. What a luxury,
you know. I get up for work, I have a
beer, I go to work, I paint somebody’s
house, they’re excited about it. I come
home, I get to be with you. That’s
like... this is the dream!
It doesn’t ever disappoint you?
Why? Why would it disappoint me?
They’re discontent because they’re exhausted, or rather, one of them is and the other is just happy to live idly. The choice of music by Grizzly Bear perfectly matches this conflict. The soundtrack has a certain quality of sleepiness to it – almost as if they’re drunk while playing but is still able to keep a dwindling sense of youthful energy. The effort is there but it’s not – exactly how the Cindy and Dean’s marriage have turned into.
The performances of Michelle Williams and Ryan Gosling are both intense and brilliant but Williams stole the show. With Gosling’s character you can see the role he’s playing and you can see the actor but with Williams’ performance it was purely flesh and blood. There was no evidence of acting or an actor it was just the character on the screen. I think the Filmspotting duo put it more eloquently when they talk about an actor playing at something. Gosling was playing at something (decent but not perfect) and Williams wasn’t playing at all.
While it is difficult to sit through, Blue Valentine offers what many single movie-goers were hungry for - a romantic story that isn’t afraid to show how it can turn rancid. For some people it was too rancid. The film recently created quite a stir in the movie industry when the MPAA (the censorship board of America) gave the film a rating of NC-17 instead of a more suitable R rating, all because of a few too realistic sex scenes. The MPAA found it too uncomfortable to watch, which goes to show the film’s immense power and unrelenting conveyance of truth.
Screenshots taken from Official Trailer and various clips