I’m delighted by the fact that this Valentine’s Day couples will go out and see Blue Valentine, thinking it’s a sweet little romance. If only they knew. No other film out this year is as emotionally traumatizing and devastating as Blue Valentine. Here is a film about what happens after the magic dies, the honeymoon is over and real life begins.
Dean (Ryan Gosling) and Cindy (Michelle Williams) are at the lowest point in their relationship. Stress stemming from Cindy’s career coupled with Dean’s playful immaturity makes the act of parenting their daughter, Frankie (Faith Wladyka), a constant struggle of sensibilities. As the couple deal with their everyday monotony and begin to feel the relationship strain to the breaking point, they ruminate on how they met.
The constant flashbacks to their playful moments that led up to the two meeting and the early days of their relationship give a reprieve from the pure dreariness of their current relationship status. The sweet mixes with the sad as the sequences blend into each other, a whirlwind of thoughts, emotions and feeling that slowly roll to a boil.
As the audience is given glimpses of the past, it becomes clear that these two character’s unlikely love story was unlikely for a good reason. Their diametric upbringings, values and views manifest themselves fully in their adult life. Dean is artistic and talented, but content to do menial jobs to make ends meet while Cindy is book-smart and pursues an ambitious career in the medical field.
And yet, they’ve come together. In the best damn scene of the year, Dean plays and sings “You Always Hurt the One You Love” while Cindy dances in the crevice of a storefront. It’s a sweet, fun scene that captures their carefree tone, but the lyrics and music foreshadow the inevitable trauma they will cause each other in the coming years.
The main reason it works is because of the fantastic performances. Ryan Gosling sweet tenderness allows him that sells the song perfectly and Michelle Williams reserved, yet quirky nature makes her believable as she opens up. It’s the shift that makes their performances work well. We see Williams completely lapse back into the shell; constantly shielding herself from letting Gosling in and we can Gosling’s playfulness give way to selfish irreverence.
And yet the complexity of the relationship will likely not be what audiences talk about when walking out of the film, but all the sex. Perhaps it ended up getting toned down, but I’m not sure why the MPAA was worried about this film. The main thing is that the sex scenes often end up being dark or perverse, with the threat of violence often looming, but without any truly disturbing behavior. It’s raw, ugly sex, not the usual slicked up lovemaking of your average Hollywood film.
Blue Valentine is a frank, brutal film that pulls few punches. The sheer emotional trauma of the film will likely make it a film which many will come out of feeling far emptier than they did going into the film. And maybe we need that. Much like (500) Days of Summer, Blue Valentine shows the dark side of relationships, the side that doesn’t sell movie tickets, swoon hearts and win men brownie points. Sometimes, the truth is a bitch.
© 2011 James Blake Ewing