Wednesday, February 9, 2011

Blue Valentine

"For Better or For Worse (and this is me at my worse)"
"...With a Hasty Word You Can't Recall."

When Derek Cianfrance's Blue Valentine comes out on DVD in the Spring, I wouldn't be surprised if a few June weddings got cancelled.  Not because it's such a depressing movie about marriage (it is!), but because it is so annoyingly accurate in depicting its scenes from a broken marriage.  Not broken, really, and not sinking...but definitely floundering—one of Woody Allen's "dead sharks."

It depicts 24 hours in a marriage, complete with flash-backs of the puppyish love of the participants (Ryan Gosling and Michelle Williams, both brave performances and both equally deserving of Oscar recognition—like love and marriage, you couldn't have one without the other*) and devoted actions that led to it.  Because that is what is so painful about watching Blue Valentine—you see both the sour and sweet of the marriage without the glacial wearing down of feelings into numb reaction that occurred in between.  The contrast between the two periods is stark, and the film jumps between them with the speed of a single edit.

He's a house painter with Peter Pan syndrome, she's a nurse who can't cure itThey have a child who adores them both, and doesn't notice the tension in the words between the two adults.  They're not bad people and married with the best of intentions.  But, at some point, the growing between them stopped, and the euphemism for marriage—"settling down"—has a chilling ring of complacency to it.

Love is hard work, and marriage is even harder (that is, if you do it right—says Mr. Divorcee).  One cannot take the initial spark that prompted it and forget it, like a pilot light (a metaphor that Blue Valentine exploits at its ending).  It must be tended and cared for and nurtured and not taken for granted.  And that is one thing the romantic comedies of today's cinema rarely get right—they stop right at the beginning, making them a bit of a cheat and giving them all the validity of a Hallmark card.  You look at a film like Blue Valentine, so brave in its depiction of the tough love a relationship or marriage requires, and the final shot of a typical rom-com like James L. Brooks' How Do You Know—the held framing of a now abandoned bus stop indicating that the couple are now together—looks a little hollow, like a null set (as opposed to Brooks' Spanglish, which is a bit more mature in its depcition of dedication in the face of desirable and easier choices. 

One of the aspects of the film, which has hung with me for days and haunts me, is its use of delayed pay-offs.  Most films these days hammer image and soundtrack together in an obvious manner to reinforce a point in case the audience doesn't get it.  A bit insulting, actually.  Cianfrance and his writers and actors have far more faith and build a skein of rock-solid "call-backs" that, given the perspective of the whole film—The Big Picture—creates a rich tapestry of a film.  Blue Valentine, in its appropriately fractured structure, leaves things hanging, that in retrospect—a major theme of the film—connect to other incidents that shore up the situation: the song "Smoke Gets in Your Eyes" snaps to the end-shot; Cindy's casual mentioning of a chance encounter in a liquor store that inexplicably sets Dean off is revealed to be an insensitive and cruel topic; and—my favorite—an odd protracted shot of Dean looking directly at the camera in a hospice corridor.

So, yes, it might discourage a couple of Darwin Award-winning marriages, but Blue Valentine is a raw, rewarding, intelligent film about maybe-not-so-intelligent choices, however right they may feel.  It might be the pomegrannette in the box of chocolates, but during this Valentine month, full of hearts and flowers and fluff on the cinema screens, it's a brave thing to say that the course of true love never runs smooth, but the path to Hell...even the one down a paved with good intentions.

Blue Valentine is a Full-Price Ticket.

* Gosling was shut out of the Oscar race, which is a shame.  His performance is so seeringly on the money, taking full advantage of Gosling's callow strengths as an actor, that it makes his myopic man-child of a young husband painful to watch, while not making him entirely unsympathetic.  Tough trick to pull off, but Gosling makes it look easy.  Sometimes, Ryan Gosling is not so good.  Here, he's brilliant.

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