Monday, January 10, 2011

Breakdowns: "Blue Valentine"


"What is potential?"

During one of more "relaxed" scenes in Derek Cianfrance's Blue Valentine, Cindy (Michelle Williams) eats dinner with her husband Dean (Ryan Gosling), smiling, drinking, and with genuine sincerity, tells him that he has the potential to do anything he wants besides being a house painter. There's nothing condescending about her insistence that he's better than what he does; she's not talking down to him or scoffing, but letting him know that she still sees his good, even as their marriage is cracking. He counters with the simple question, obviously offended, and continues his cycle of taking any perceived criticism as an attack, and conveniently turning his wife's encouraging words into a potshot at his personality. And thus, one of the many themes and motifs of the film becomes obvious, as if it wasn't visible before: the glimmers of happiness and growth are immediately blown away, leading to silence and/or arguments. And therefore, what one would hope would be a loving breakthrough simply makes a turn into one of the saddening circles in which Dean and Cindy are hopelessly spinning.

Disintegrating relationships are cinematic plots as old as movies themselves, but rarely have they been as realistic and uncomfortable as the one between Dean and Cindy. The film opens with their young daughter, Frankie, standing alone in the backyard, calling after her lost dog. She goes inside to wake Dean up, and he immediately goes into responsible father mode, holding her and reassuring her, even though he's half asleep (and likely hungover) with an unlit cigarette dangling from his lips. There's no doubt that he loves his daughter, but as the scene progresses, it becomes obvious that there's a blurry line between whether Dean is good with Frankie because he's a good parent, or because he's more of a child himself. They go into the bedroom to wake Cindy up for work, claiming to be tigers, and his solution for his daughter not eating her breakfast is to spread it on the kitchen table for them to lap up like leopards. In the background, Cindy watches them both, her eyes and face tired, both physically and emotionally. As she gets Frankie ready for daycare, it becomes obvious that she's the parent, and Dean acts more like Frankie's peer.

Blue Valentine jumps between the past and the present, and one of the early scenes shows a younger Dean getting a job with a moving company. His job interview isn't convincing, but he proves to be a hard worker, and during breaks with his co-workers, he waxes poetic on love and affection, mixed with a dose of realism. After helping an elderly veteran move into a nursing home, Dean touchingly arranges the man's room, setting up his Army uniform and his old wedding picture. Across the hall lies Cindy's grandmother, and the two young people meet under comical circumstances: she peeks into the room as Dean takes his day's pay off the old man's dresser, which his supervisor had left for him earlier. He catches her stare, and insists that he's not stealing from the old man, but has a job and the necessary funds to take her out on a date. She's cautious and reserved, but for all of Dean's soon-to-be exposed faults, he's undeniably handsome and charming.

Back in the present time, Dean impulsively sets up a "romantic" getaway to a motel with themed rooms (they end up getting the "Future Room"), and on the way there, Dean buys gas while Cindy stops in a liquor store, where she meets an old flame, Bobby. Bobby is upfront and blatantly inappropriate, asking if she's faithful to her husband. Resuming the drive, she tells casually tells Dean about the chance encounter, and he immediately becomes angry; we assume this is jealousy, but as the past scenes develop, we realize that he has every right to be upset with the idea of her seeing Bobby. As this realization unfolds, another realization kicks in: the jumps between time periods are not done as flashbacks. Instead, they chart and guide the audience to exactly where Dean and Cindy are at the present time, from young lovers to unhappy adults. We're not seeing "growth," except from an age standpoint. Their personalities--Dean's alcoholism and slacker tendencies, Cindy's unhappiness and problems with men--are constantly present, and while the film is not about finding out who's at fault. It's a realistic look at the fact that people are sometimes adverse to change, and that some relationships can be broken to the point where they are beyond saving.

A lot of attention has been given to the intimacy of Blue Valentine, specifically the sex between Dean and Cindy in their "Future Room," which nearly tagged the film with an (unnecessary) NC-17 rating. They're both drunk, and Dean attempts to make love to Cindy, leading to the hints that she, for possibly unknown reasons (given the context of her previous relationships), wants the sex to be more aggressive. Dean refuses to go along for fear of hurting her, and she's turned off by his amorous remarks about wanting to have another child. Their lovemaking comes to an abrupt halt as Cindy locks herself in the bathroom alone. I'm not about to go into musings about the frivolity of the MPAA ratings system; plenty of people have already done their share of critiquing, and there's already a fine documentary about it anyway. However, the fact that this film was nearly deemed "NC-17" for emotionally dramatic sequences is ridiculous. There were many instances during my screening in which I felt uncomfortable, but in the best of ways, thanks to the terrific writing and acting that is unafraid of depicting scenes that, frankly, happen to many people. Tidy, simplistic resolutions can be done wonderfully in film; however, audiences also need reality at times.

Gosling and Williams have been nominated for Golden Globe awards for their acting, and their performances are those rare ones in which the hype is warranted, almost to the point that there needs to be more attention. Gosling's performance as Dean is gripping, because of both his acting and his slight physical transformations between the character's younger self and older, more haggard state. Much like his performance in Half Nelson, his interpretation of Dean is a flawless blend of both charm and desperation. It can be too easy to say that he "inhabits" the role, but in all reality, he nails every emotional ebb and flow that Dean goes through, from early appeal to the broken realization that his marriage is falling apart. There's never any over-acting or melodrama. The audience never knows where Dean is going emotionally until he gets there, and even when he acts out, it's a fine balance between impulsiveness and utter sympathy.

Williams gave slight hints to her skills at portraying unhappiness in Brokeback Mountain, and here, hands down, she gives the best performance that I've seen this year. Cindy is an emotional wreck, but she gives the occasional laugh and smile in her happier moments, and much like Gosling, it's an emotional shock to see how Williams can alternate between despair and hope. Also, Cindy's nuances and history make her one of the strongest female characters in recent film. She's not lacking for male attention; it's revealed late in the film that she was offered a job promotion because her boss was attracted to her. The scene passes quickly, but Williams makes Cindy strong even in her crushed realization, since she felt that her skills, not her sex appeal, was what warranted her opportunity. She's smart and motivated, but in the end, she realizes that her own happiness is more important than keeping up an unhappy marriage for the sake of her daughter. There are plenty of actresses who have excellent emotional depth, but Williams elevates and explores Cindy better than any other actress. She's perfect at going back and forth between her youthful innocence and unabashed insistence on her own happiness. The final confrontation between Cindy and Dean is painful, but it becomes clear that she has an idea about what she needs to be happy, while Dean is left alone, with no choice but to change himself for the better or keep sinking. The film ends on a beautifully ambiguous note. The outcome is implied, but the fate of Dean and Cindy is really left up to the viewer.

Cianfrance has directed smaller pictures before, and Blue Valentine, while not exactly mainstream, is proving to be his major break. His directing is excellent, but beyond Gosling and Williams, the strength lies in his screenplay (co-written with Cami Delavigne and Joey Curtis), and the juxtaposition of time frames is done without any explanations, but still retains a fluid feel. There is no need for title cards or hints that the film will jump back and forth; any audience will be smart enough to catch on quickly, and Cianfrance's direction does not insult anyone's intelligence. The cinematography by Andrij Parekh is just as layered and complimentary. The hues of blue may seem obvious, given the film's title, but combined with the gray desolation, they are done carefully without jarring the audience with overabundant cinematic flairs. Blue Valentine is a moving, tense film that is unequivocally artistic, but an example of an "art film" that really deserves a bigger audience. It's not for everyone, but with dozens of relationship movies made every year, it's rare to see one that truly tries to capture the notion of everyday, unanswered questions. As depressing and blunt as the film is at times, these characters are people from all walks of life, and the journey is much more important than the destination.

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