Wednesday, 3 August 2011

Blue Valentine

2010. Dir: Derek Cianfrance. Starring: Ryan Gosling, Michelle Williams, Faith Wladyka, John Doman and Mike Vogel. ●●●●○

And so we come to my final catch up review from earlier in the year and I'm really struggling to define how I think about Derek Cianfrance's make-up/break-up drama Blue Valentine. On the one hand I was drawn in by it's insightful and real dissection of a relationship doomed to failure, but on the other hand I couldn't help thinking this was something I've seen before with a whole lot more zing in the past.

The film focusses on the beginning and ending of the central marriage between sensible student/gynaecological nurse Michelle Williams and romantic house mover/painter Ryan Gosling. Whilst the action flips between these two periods we see Gosling pursue the girl he spots across the hall, wooing here with ukulele ballads and nervous energy (note to Mike Mills - kooky can work when forming relationships in films as long as you balance that with the characterisation), then as the toils and strains of married life with a first grader have their effect we see the final death throes, the awful embarrassing attempts to go back to the past, to reignite the passion.

The difference between the stories is marked in a number of ways that really underline the effect of the intervening five years. Primarily we have physical differences, Ryan Gosling in particular shaves part of his hair line back, in the early scenes the camera is more fluid the dialogue more improvisational (the actors stumble over lines adding a sense of naturalism) whereas later everything seems fixed and rehearsed, as if the fights and snarky comments have been whispered at each other dozens of times.

Most importantly is the films depiction of sexual acts. In the beginnings of the relationship sex is caring, mutual and centred around Michelle's pleasure (the much discussed cunnilingus for instance) whereas later it becomes desperate, animalistic and focussed on getting Gosling off. We've seen this progression before (Cronenberg's History of Violence springs to mind) but never has the sex been the focal point of the relationship before.

In the tradition of Greek tragedy it's the inescapable personality flaws (and strengths) that lead to the character's downfalls. Williams' stoicism needs Gosling's lightheartedness in the face of a terrible choice when they first meet, Gosling provides a sense of duty that backfires into a permanent debt. They fall in love so fast and unremittingly that the fire will inevitable burn itself out.

However I still found the movie itself unremarkable. Aside from the performances and the ways of underlining the concept the film-making particulars seemed forgettable. No lines of dialogue have stuck in my head, no shots seemed perfectly formed, no music cue transcended the medium. I suspect that's deliberate, like the formation of memory in our own lives it dwindles from the moment it first happens into a string of phrases and glimpses of the past, but great cinema probably need that.

Of course I'd recommend the movie, I even liked it, but as much as I found it insightful it will dissipate and become forgotten, like the relationship the film presents, it's doomed to fall by the wayside.


TomS said...

What an interesting review! Nicely written. Here again is a film that doesn't program a viewer's responses; and so it is likely to elicit wildly divergent viewpoints, all of them justified by the movie itself. I want to see this again. I re-read my review, and we seem to be on a similar page.
(I had a wild idea about Gosling's character; certain clues in Blue Valentine suggested that he might have been impotent. This made him safe for Williams' character at first, and unbearable to her as the marriage disintegrated.)

Alex in Movieland said...

yes, it's unremarkable in some ways.

I had to see it twice, because of my Best Actress profile, and that wasn't exactly fun.

I respect it a lot, but I don't love it, as it doesn't make for a pleasant experience.

Alex in Movieland said...

Ryan is of course dreamy, and I also found it quite fantastic from a directorial point of view. This Derek guy sure has a good eye.

Runs Like A Gay said...


That's a really interesting take on Gosling's character and one that I hadn't considered. Certainly it contained a rawness and vitality missing from most movies.


In terms of the techniques Cianfrance used to create the story and atmosphere between the actors I agree with you, but other than that I don't think he did much as a director. I do wait to see his Place beyond the Pines follow up though.

Alex in Movieland said...

btw, I didn't catch the impotent vibe. :) at all.

imo, she rejects him because she feels he's not smart enough & ambitios enough. He's just a man wanting to live his simple life, and she, I'm sure, has secret dreams that are far more ambitious.

TomS said...

Just a wild idea, based on a few clues in the film... I'd love to chat with you all about this...

Runs Like A Gay said...

Alex and Tom,

I would really love to have a long chat about this as well.

I think I generally agree with your assessment, Alex, Gosling's lack of ambition is a major issue for the go-getting Williams, however there's certainly an undercurrent of sexual inadequacy from Gosling which could include impotence.