07 January 2011

Review: "Blue Valentine"

Blue Valentine bills itself as a love story, but I was unprepared for the profound emotional intensity of the film. The film was embroiled in controversy after being rated NC-17 in the United States, due to an emotionally intense sex scene, but the film hardly merits that rating. The sex scene between Viggo Mortensen and Maria Bello in A History of Violence (2005) was more graphic, in my opinion. Dean and Cindy, portrayed by Ryan Gosling and Michelle Williams, have been together for six years and have a young daughter. We witness their tumultuous relationship through flashbacks, highlighting that the young couple was once very much in love. Gosling and Williams have never been better than in Blue Valentine. The brilliance in their individual performances is the contrast between the innocence and optimism of their younger selves with the anger and fragility of the present. The film amounts to little more than vignettes of their courtship set against the turbulent disillusionment of their marriage, but the charm and beauty of the budding relationship makes it all the more heartbreaking. It is the second feature film by Derek Cianfrance, who has worked predominantly in television documentaries. The screenplay, co-written by Cianfrance, took twelve years to complete and went through many drafts. The final product is a film as rich in humanity as it is in humility and these two qualities are beautifully exemplified by Gosling and Williams. While Blue Valentine is an emotionally unsettling portrait of the end of a marriage, it is Ryan Gosling and Michelle Williams who deliver hauntingly beautiful performances that make it one of the year's best films.

Dean (Gosling) and Cindy (Williams) live in rural Pennsylvania. The film juxtaposes the present state of their marriage with various scenes of their courtship. Cindy, the obvious breadwinner of the family, works as a nurse, while Dean paints houses for a living. She thinks he has squandered his potential and hates that he drinks all day. It is hard to believe that Cindy and Dean were once in love. Their daughter Frankie (Faith Wladyka) is caught in the middle of the rift in her parents' marriage and spends much of her time with Cindy's father (John Doman), who disapproves of Dean. Through a series of flashbacks we witness how powerful their love once was. Dean went to great lengths to see Cindy after first meeting her by chance at her grandmother's nursing home. He had been living in New York City, working for a moving company, and she lived in Pennsylvania. Cindy even ended a relationship with Bobby (Mike Vogel) to be with Dean. Watching the powerful love blossom between Cindy and Dean makes the film even more heartbreaking.

After seeing Blue Valentine I was left pondering the performances of Ryan Gosling and Michelle Williams, and how they compared to the handful of great performances offered in 2010. While I believe Natalie Portman offers the best performance of the year in Black Swan, the magic of Blue Valentine, as I have mentioned, is the extreme contrast between the young Cindy and the disillusioned Cindy. Having said that, Blue Valentine needs this juxtaposition to function emotionally. The film would not have been as emotionally intense had we witnessed the rise and fall of their relationship in chronological order. I must praise Derek Cianfrance for his ability to present a couple, who are obviously at a crossroads when the film begins, and establish such a rich emotional tone. It is such a beautiful film and, more than a day later, I am still reeling. I am aware that Blue Valentine will not touch all viewers as it has touched me. As the lights in the theatre came on, the man sitting behind me caught my eye and said: "What a complete waste of time!" Blue Valentine, with its succinct pacing and careful editing, is an incredibly moving film anchored by brilliant performances from Ryan Gosling and Michelle Williams.

My rating: 3.5 stars out of 4.

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