By Eric Plaag
(Originally published at Ineffable Light on January 25, 2011.)
Albert Camus once wrote that “Life is a sum of all your choices,” and while I’ve never been much of a Camus fan, Blue Valentine kept making me think about the inexorable forces put into motion at the instant when we begin to love someone. There is a great responsibility in that moment, one that requires us to choose again and again whether we will keep loving that someone. This is what we are taught, anyway, but Blue Valentine also reminded me that we too often dwell on this responsibility we have to the other, rather than on the responsibility we have to the “us” or even to ourselves.
Director Derek Cianfrance, whose past work has consisted primarily of documentaries and short films, throws Michelle Williams (Brokeback Mountain and Shutter Island) and Ryan Gosling (Half Nelson and Lars and the Real Girl) into a situation that has chosen Cindy and Dean far more than the other way around. Love—at least the kind that most of us live, rather than the kind Hollywood typically likes to peddle us—is usually like that. Cindy is a nurse who desperately wants to be a doctor, even though her job and her family and her baggage seem always to be in the way. Dean is a high school dropout who flits from one job to another with a carefree demeanor that masks his malaise and his need to drink before he shows up on the job. At first glance, one might not think to put these two disparate people together, and yet it is the first glance that does exactly that. For Dean, she is the “nutty-cuckoo crazy” pretty girl he swears he has known before, even though they have never met. For Cindy, he is an escape from disaster and profound unhappiness, and perhaps the only man who has ever really cared about her for her own sake.
I don’t mean to suggest here that you should look to their faults to determine who bears responsibility for what their lives become. Perhaps that’s the mastery of this story and these characters—there are no good guys and no bad guys in this relationship, just people who don’t know how they got here from there, with a daughter named Frankie trapped between them, in spite of their best and most noble intentions. It’s a rare accomplishment in movies like this to allow the audience to still love them both, even as the people around them appear to choose sides. “’Don’t let him brainwash you’?” Dean asks incredulously after a coworker warns Cindy, and the moment is as devastating to Cindy and the viewer as it is to Dean. We know with a visceral agony what each thinks in that instant, but we also know that they cannot possibly understand each other just then.
As subtle as it is immersed in the raw beauty of hand-held jaggedness, Blue Valentine moves us effortlessly between Cindy and Dean’s life together now and the moments after they met six years earlier, all without ever giving us title cards or awkward scene fades to let us know that we are changing places and times. Smart movies do this, of course, but the effect here is something like stepping into the drunken fever dream of the characters, who endure the disorientation of standing outside themselves and watching helplessly as their lives unravel, even as they replay the past, searching for the wrong turn. Cianfrance has been quoted as saying that even he does not know what went awry between them, and there is no better example of this confusion than two embraces—one in a moment of great trial near the beginning of their relationship, the other as they ponder in the film’s last moments what to do next. Dean comforts Cindy in exactly the same manner both times, and she responds physically and emotionally to him in precisely the same way, and yet something is inexplicably different. That these actors can capture so exquisitely what their director cannot explain is even greater testament to their craft. Williams’s ever-shifting facial expressions in Cindy and Dean’s first real conversation on a city bus—from timidity to anger to relief and back to guardedness, all in the space of a few seconds—are Oscar-worthy all their own.
This kind of care with the camera and the actors screams volumes about Cianfrance’s vision. Borrowing a page from Kieslowski, Blue Valentine is infused throughout with symbolic color even as its washed-out tones make Scranton look even more bleak than the real Scranton. Likewise, the film’s score—which features music by Grizzly Bear and Ryan Gosling himself—is at its best when it mimics the terrible sounds we hear in our own heads as things spin out of control. One roaring, ringing tone in particular so pervades our senses that even our vision seems impeded by its presence, and yet not for an instant is that tone obtrusive or otherwise distracting from what unfolds on the screen. Who needs 3D effects or overtly ominous soundtracks when a director can give us this and cut us to the core in the process?
To call Cianfrance’s film a love story, as the trailers all seem to imply, does it a gross disservice. When his story finishes with you without actually ending, you may find yourself questioning every small, careless moment of your own present relationship, pondering the damage you have done and hoping it’s not as grave as you fear. No, you should not expect happy endings here, because this film is not about the outcome of Cindy and Dean’s relationship but rather about the subtleties of small moments, actions, words, and even the margins between those words. “Don’t say it!” Dean screams at one point. “Don’t say something you can’t take back!” But the devastation of that scene lies not in what Cindy says but rather in what she does not say, or at least will not reveal. Much like Cindy’s reticence cripples Dean, Blue Valentine will haunt you with implication and press you to promise, as Dean does repeatedly, to be better.
5 stars out of 5