The Review: Love stories have been rich fodder for cinema over its entire history, with many of the most highly regarded films ever made boiling down to the simple story of how two people find love. Trying to pin down love is a little more elusive, however, and the nature and representation of romantic love is somewhat different to what it might have been in previous generations. Consequently, fewer films have trodden the path of what causes love or relationships to break down; Blue Valentine tackles both ends of the relationship spectrum, looking at a couple’s initial coming together and the beginning of the end for their relationship.
The non-linear structure is initially only given away by the visual cues; different film (one digital, the other more old fashioned) used for the different times, but also the appearance of the two leads. Not only do Dean (Ryan Gosling) and Cindy (Michelle Williams) sport different clothes and hair to show up the difference, but their very mannerisms and demeanour serve to contrast the exuberance of their first exchanges and the world-weariness of their marriage after six years together, seemingly going through the motions. It’s almost trivial to say that both are excellent, scattering their respective characters with little details which make them completely believable, albeit more than a little unsympathetic.
Now more than a third of marriages end in divorce, where once that statistic would have been much lower; the film juxtaposes the older characters and their relationships with the failing marriage, although it’s hard to escape the underlying cynicism about both love and marriage, almost as if those couples that stay together do simply because they can’t be honest with themselves, and that there is no such thing as love at all, only circumstance and a set of choices that present themselves over time. There’s certainly mutual attraction at the beginning of this relationship, and the kind of flirting that often happens in indie and low budget films, but the cuts between the beginning and the end are done in such a way as to make the end inevitable and the film becomes almost a modern day tragedy, a parable of our times and a social commentary on generational differences but one still only reflective of the minority. The rampant symbolism in the settings, from doomed love songs to tacky motel rooms, all support the fatalistic attitude that Blue Valentine has towards Dean and Cindy.
Director Derek Gianfrance wants to make us hurt as much as the characters, so pushes us in close with the camera, even when the going gets tough, through both physical pain and the emotional endurance of the characters. There was much controversy over the sex scenes, but they’re all an extension of the mood at that point in the narrative and there’s nothing hugely gratuitous, serving only to ground the whole film firmly in the real world. The direction itself gives full weight to the acting, and there’s a suitably doleful score that flits in and out of proceedings, but what you’re left with is a very one sided argument about the nature of relationships, and the only thing that rewards are the beautifully nuanced performances. The almost complete lack of sympathetic characters means you may appreciate the quality of Blue Valentine while in its presence, and that quality does make it worth your time initially, but if you’re anything but a hardened cynic you may not wish to make a long term commitment to it.
Why see it at the cinema: It’s beautifully shot, extraordinarily well performed and the close in camera means the cinema will give you an absolute intimacy with the characters. If that’s what you want, of course.
The Score: 8/10