Monday, January 10, 2011

Realist Cinema: Blue Valentine

Blue Valentine by Derek Cianfrance, 2010

After months of waiting, it finally came. After months of working through the acknowledged, acclaimed, and critics-groups-awarded films of October, November and December, Derek Cianfrance’s Blue Valentine has reached the cinemas of Toronto. After months of only having a charming ukulele dance scene to view on Youtube, I was able to sit down and watch one of my most anticipated films of 2010.

Blue Valentine stars Michelle Williams and Ryan Gosling as couple Cindy and Dean, and follows the evolvement of their relationship over time in a fractured narrative style. We are first introduced to their characters at a particular stage where Cindy and Dean are in their early thirties, married and with a child named Frankie. Dean drinks beer in his undershirt and jokes and tickles his daughter, a cigarette hanging on his lips. Cindy appears to play the adult role in the family, preparing their daughter’s breakfast while Dean and Frankie make a mess of it. Petty arguments ensue. There are obvious strains in their marriage.

Cut to years back. Cindy and Dean have not yet met. The world is a sunny place, fuller of hope and possibilities. Dean is hired as a mover, while Cindy is studying medicine. When Dean sees Cindy for the first time during a move, it is love at first sight.

The film is edited to great effect in this past and present style. Arguments in the present about specific subjects become clear when the past is revisited, while the juxtaposition of the two makes the central romance and its decay that much more meaningful. What was once something bright has become dull and painful and the attempts made to renew that love fail in comparison to the ease at which it began. The cinematography also aids in the juxtaposition, with the past shot in a carefree, handheld documentary style, and the present more controlled, with icy blue overtones evident in the picture.

Although the various reasons behind the central relationship's deterioration are never fully realized, Blue Valentine is a work of honesty because there are no simple answers and no one person is at fault. A documentary-style, observational drama, Cianfrance's approach smartly makes the film realistic and relatable. Certain events may be uncomfortable to watch, but are never that out of the ordinary, and although one may feel the film lacks cinematically because of its lack of narrative extremities, I think it is better for it. When the film does move in that direction, such as a particularly explosive scene at Cindy's work, it tries too hard to be more interesting, and instead pulls away from what was already interesting enough - the dialogue, and lack thereof, between the central characters.

Williams' and Gosling's performances are spectacular, their chemistry filling the frame. While I feel the character of Cindy is a bit too cold in what is considered the present, with her constant angry demeanor threatening to comprise her other layers, Michelle Williams is wonderful at subtlety and body language. Watch her neck tense as Gosling's character attempts a rendezvous in the shower. Similarly, Dean's character in the present may at times verge on being a white-trash cliche, but Ryan Gosling creates a likable and complicated man. Dean's mood swings and his charm vary in an instant. He is wonderful to watch.

Derek Cianfrance has created a complicated modern age relationship drama about a generation that is more often than not portrayed in silly, sexualized comedies. It is refreshing because of its seriousness and realism, and Cianfrance should be commended for the risks he takes here. If a cinema verite-styled ukulele scene is one of the most touching scenes I have witnessed this year, he must be doing something right.

4 out of 5


  1. Superlative, passionate review here Dave! I knew your would be rallying behind this one! The film wound up #2 on my year-end Ten Best list, and I look forward to seeing it a second time later this week. Blue Valentine’s amazing authenticity is negotiated by Cianfrance’s cinematic language, where the flashback sequences were shot utilizing hand-held cameras and a single lens to connote some fond memories by way of hazier textures. There’s a sharper, more unforgiving quality in the present-day scenes, apparently shot with digital cameras with long lenses that are meant to convey the aforementioned improvisational quality that allows the daily events and character interactions to come off with accentuated spontaneity. Cianfrance’s cinematographer, Andrij Parekh, effectively saturates the color for the the real-time sequences to at least allow for that fine line of visual discernment. As you rightly note, Gosling and Williams deliver fearless performances. Long after the curtain goes down, you are still pondering who is to blame for this segue from bliss to depression.

  2. Thanks for the comment Sam! I really appreciate you swinging by here every week and taking a look. That's really interesting regarding the different cinematography techniques the DP employed. I really did notice a more free-feeling, unrestricted quality in the scenes from the past, and steely, more rigid attributes in the present.

    This week I will make it my mission to see Another Year. Can't wait!

  3. keep posting like this it’s really very good idea, you are awesome!