Blue Valentine (The Weinstein Company, R)

It’s a novel approach to comic relief in some ways, but more importantly it makes the wallop feel that much harder.
 

 

It is pretty typical Hollywood formula for films about romantic relationships to focus on the cute meet-up if the movie is a comedy, the breakup if the movie is a drama. Some films make an effort to encompass both parts, but they still make sure we see the couple in question happy for the majority of the movie or miserable for the majority of the movie.

In his first feature film, Blue Valentine, Derek Cianfrance tries to give equal time to both sides, like a documentarian trying really hard to be fair to all parties. Meanwhile, he shows nothing in between. We see our two main characters, Dean (Ryan Gosling) and Cindy (Michelle Williams) as they are falling in love and falling out of love—basically only the extremes. Not that the middle period is lost entirely; we never see it, but by the end of the film we feel pretty confident about what went on in the time not shown.

The end result of the film is surprisingly affecting, which can be attributed to a couple of things. First, the film isn’t broken into two clean parts but instead shuffles together the beginning of Dean and Cindy’s relationship with the end of their relationship, so there are always nice feelings to balance out the bad ones, and vice versa. It’s a novel approach to comic relief in some ways, but more importantly it makes the wallop feel that much harder. It’s like the difference between seeing a child growing every day to seeing the same child only once a year; in the latter case, each time you see them you’re flabbergasted by how big they’ve gotten. Meanwhile, the script (written by Cianfrance, Cami Delavigne, and Joey Curtis) rings true; Dean and Cindy feel like people I’ve known.

And that brings me to the other thing that makes Blue Valentine work so well: Gosling and Williams’ performances. Gosling is my favorite male lead of the year, and Williams is my second-favorite female lead (behind Natalie Portman in Black Swan), and of course both are among our most reliable young performers. It’s easy to see that they excel in the courtship period when both actors are allowed to be as young and cute as they actually are. They get to do things like sing songs and tap dance, both of which occur in what is easily the best (and most charming) scene in the movie. But what truly sets this film apart is the range the script allows for them, and which Gosling and Williams fully grab onto. By the end of the relationship Gosling’s hairline looks pretty rough and Williams seems deeply worn out and harried. Both make you feel the emotional sting of the failure of their marriage.

I have resisted the urge to take sides in this review about which character is more at fault for the dissolution of their marriage,  because those I’ve talked to who have seen the film do not at all seem to be in agreement on this question. I think this illustrates another strong point about the film—no one ultimately gets blamed or demonized in a way that is simple or clear-cut. I will also resist the urge to say that Blue Valentine is one of the best romance films to come out in quite some time, because this is also one of the best anti-romance films to come out in some time. | Pete Timmermann

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