Blue Valentine is an unflinching, realistic take on love and relationships. It turns out to be a film heavy on artistic merit and emotional upheaval, but light on actual romance. With the release of Blue Valentine on Blu-Ray this week, audiences have a chance to take a closer look at this bleak love story and the avant-garde filming genius of helmer Derek Cianfrance.
It’s hard to describe the plot of this film in any depth, as the story is almost completely character driven and circles hopelessly around a married couple as they struggle to understand each other. As their relationship falls apart in the present, the film cross-cuts to scenes from their past when they were falling in love. An unspoken question over-arcs the entire film; where does love go and why?
Dean (Ryan Gosling) is a working class husband and father of a young daughter. He still acts like a child himself, starts drinking early in the morning, and seems completely unable to make his wife Cindy happy. Cindy (Michelle Williams) is an educated, professional nurse who is reaching her breaking point as she tries to communicate with Dean. She is emotionally distant, and he is insecure and petulant…and each grow more so as the film reaches its melancholy end.
The Dean and Cindy of yesteryear seem like different people, with hopes and dreams and untapped potential. In a series of flashbacks, we see two younger versions of the worn-out couple yearning to find true love. When Dean first meets Cindy, it’s a love-at-first-sight moment. Cindy is more reserved, and as she has grown up in a home with estranged parents she is wary of love.
Given that the film is basically two stories in one (the birth of love and the death of love), the jumping around in time gives the audience all the character background and development it could hope for. In a particularly foreshadowing conversation, the young Dean talks to his co-worker about love. He says that men are really more romantic than women; men wait to meet the one woman they know they can’t live without, while women talk about romance and love but they end up with the guys who have the good jobs.
This kind of female practicality in love is carried over to young Cindy’s character, as she has a similar conversation about love with her grandmother. Though Cindy’s conversation comes across more cautionary; love does go away, so be careful that you choose someone worthy of it. And, of course, the perceptions behind these two conversations are idealized in present day Cindy and Dean’s dying relationship.
This film plays more like a cinematic funeral dirge than a romance. It’s all about death; the death of love, potential, expectations, and finally marriage. Even the flashbacks and the “romance” of Dean and Cindy have a doomed atmosphere. There’s the realistic conversations about love, and the painful experiences they go through (abortion, physical brutality, abandonment). The metaphor of death is everywhere. The story even begins with the death of the family dog, and that sets the emotional tone for the whole movie. Kudos to Cianfrance for not making a cookie-cutter romance, but low marks on the funereal love story.
This sense of mourning pervades the film, with a few notable exceptions. When young Dean and Cindy are falling in love, there are a few scenes that capture an endearing romantic quality. Like the scene in which Dean plays the ukulele and Cindy dances, and when Dean gives Cindy a CD with their song on it. Unfortunately, these moments are very few, and contrasted with the present state of the relationship they come across poignant and sad.
Though originally rated NC-17 for its explicit sex scenes, The Weinstein Co. appealed the rating on Blue Valentine and the MPAA changed it to R. Part of the reason they changed the rating was Cianfrance’s defense of the sex scenes. In a February interview with us, Cianfrance said he never meant to make a sexually gratuitous film, but that the sex scenes are a necessary dialogue in the relationship. He didn’t want to sensationalize the sex but use it as a key ingredient in the relationship.
While watching the film I didn’t feel that the moments of physical intimacy were gratuitous, though they were explicit. This could be in part to Cianfrance’s directing and camera work, which saved the scenes from gratuity. The close-ups, the odd angles on the sides of their hands or from directly above, and the sparse but telling dialogue turned what could have been awkwardly graphic sexual encounters into just what Cianfrance said they were; important “dialogues” in the relationship. I did notice that most of these scenes came across as oddly listless and emotionally empty. The lacking emotional/romantic spark in Cindy and Dean’s physical intimacy is explainable as their relationship crumbles, but most of the scenes in the flashbacks have the same quality.
Gosling and Williams delivered plenty of raw authenticity. Their performances have been universally lauded, and it is well deserved. They immersed themselves in the roles, giving nuanced portrayals of two flawed people questioning love. The emotional aspects of the story, both the gentleness of the feelings in the flashbacks and the violence of the emotions in the present, were portrayed by both actors with unflinching honesty.
Cianfrance also had a hand in helping to develop the familiarity between Gosling and Williams. In order to help them form the emotional and physical intimacy that felt so powerful on-screen, Cianfrance had the stars spend a few weeks actually living together in the house they were going to be filming in. They even got a financial budget and had to live as a family, doing everyday type things like the grocery shopping and interacting with their on-screen daughter.
Cianfrance used this technique so the actors could develop memories together, so there would be something real between them. He also said they never rehearsed, as he doesn’t believe in rehearsing and feels great natural moments are smoothed out and lost in rehearsals. Many scenes had one take, and caught Williams or Gosling’s actual response to new things. Cianfrance co-wrote and directed the film, but Gosling and Williams helped shaped the story to. Their strong performances no doubt had something to do with the huge amount of time they spent together off-screen. Cianfrance said he and his stars spent hours and hours just talking about the story, and they did have a lot of input on their characters and the relationship.
The use of metaphor in the story (as already mentioned with the specter of death), is also apparent in the settings and scene compositions. When Cindy and Dean go to the sleazy theme hotel and end up in the “future” room, it’s lit with a fake blue light and has no windows. It represents the visual view of their future; a garish trap with a bed that goes around and around…like their arguments.
As a student of the avant-garde, Cianfrance presents a very artistic cinematic experience beneath all the raw emotions and heartbreak. From balancing his dual storylines to visualizing the emotional violence of the story, Cianfrance gives audiences a touch of experimental film. There’s the cross-cutting between past and present story elements, and then there’s the camera work itself. Strange angles, obscured shots, and low lighting make Blue Valentine feel very indie art house.
All the scenes of Cindy and Dean in the past were shot on super 16mm film, while the scenes of them in the present were filmed with a RED camera. This technique makes the difference between the past and the present even more palpable. Other telltale signs of Cianfrance’s background in experiemental film are the shaky hand-cam scenes, the shots of Cindy and Dean through reflective windows or glass, and sunlight shots that play with yellow hazes so thick they almost obscure the scene.
The Blu-Ray visuals suffered from these artistic touches. Though the transfer was good quality and the images had that crisp high def look, the low lighting and use of shadows (as well as the other filming techniques) didn’t do the video any favors. Some scenes came across grainy and too dark, and the scenes shot in the “future” hotel room gleamed electric blue and garish.
The audio quality was great, and the “oldies”-centric soundtrack rung appropriately tinny and raspy at times. Some great environmental surround sounds built atmosphere, especially in the urban scenes. What doesn’t come across well, though it has nothing to do with the Blu-Ray quality, is Gosling’s dialogue. I’m not sure if he’s just naturally soft-spoken, but his words are always a little hard to catch, unless he’s yelling (and even then if he’s slurring I’m not sure what he’s saying).
The Blue Valentine Blu-Ray offers these extras:
- Audio Commentary with Derek Cianfrance and co-editor Jim Helton
- Making of Blue Valentine
- Home Movie: “Frankie and the Unicorn”
- Deleted Scenes
This might not look like a long list of extras, but the extras here are pretty comprehensive. An audio commentary with the director is, I feel, a necessary extra on any Blu-Ray release, and I’m always disappointed when I don’t get one. Luckily Blue Valentine comes complete with a satisfying, in-depth commentary from Cianfrance and Helton. Cianfrance happens to be quite verbose, and I appreciate all the little tidbits of information he throws in as he discusses different aspects of the film, from how Williams and Gosling were handled to develop their natural on-screen intimacy, to why the project took 12 years to complete.
Running at about 13 minutes is a short but interesting “making of” featurette. Williams and Gosling, and other crew members, discuss various aspects of the film, including their performances and what they went through to develop the relationship authenticity that worked so well in the film.
The home movie is just what it sounds like, a fake home video with the “happy” family…and also another poignant piece of wreckage from Dean and Cindy’s failed marriage.
Blue Valentine is, cinematically speaking, an artistic feat. It’s beautiful, poetic and rife with metaphor. But it’s also oppressively bleak and introspective, making it a hard movie to sit down and enjoy. Even those in the mood for some “heavy” drama may find the story hopelessly pointless when all is said and done. To the cinephile, I suggest renting the Blu-Ray because the film is worth watching for its artistic merit. To those not particularly interested in character-driven funereal dramas or artistic films, best avoid this one.
Cinematically speaking, Blue Valentine is an artistic feat. It’s beautiful, poetic and rife with metaphor.