Blue has often been the subject of study within cinema and has itself an extensive filmic language: the blue in David Lynch films often represents mystery, Krzysztof Kieślowski perceived Blue in his Trois Couleurs trilogy as a memento of loss and mourning, and Derek Jarman’s swan song Blue is a heartfelt documentation on deterioration.
Here director Derek Cianfrance seems to draw on all three wells of meaning for his sophomore feature film Blue Valentine, the story of a couple’s birth and death told in asynchronous fragments.
Michelle Williams plays Cindy, at once both high school sweetheart and distantly preoccupied housewife, whilst Ryan Gosling plays Dean, her dashing courter and Blue collar (okay, I’ll stop!) worker. Unfortunately for the couple, and for all the hopeful hearts in the audience, the story starts nearer to the end of the relationship where the atmosphere is fraught with embittered exchanges, made all the more worse by the fact that they take place in front of their 6 year-old daughter Frankie. By all accounts it appears to be an unhappy marriage, a domestic state that even the family dog flees from.
Sadly, intermittent flashbacks to the love story origin offer little respite from this tone as you quickly become aware that by the time they end we’d be stuck right back in the present. Because of Cianfrance’s decision to frame everything starting from the couple’s decline, an unhealthy air of dread hangs over everything else.
That’s not to say that earlier scenes where we witness Dean’s boyishly handsome and confident demeanour slowly wear down Cindy’s guard aren’t charming, but for all the sweetness and admiration they offer, the screenplay calls for future drama to be dealt twofold in return.
Dean and Cindy’s aged performances are often cutting in their honesty and brutality. But sometimes in scenes where Dean is called to explode in anger it feels like Gosling is searching for reasons as to why Dean is angry, rather than channeling them. I can’t say that’s entirely due to his acting ability as Cianfrance’s screenplay purposefully glosses over long stretches of their marriage together; a move that obscures the details we need to connect the dots.
The tightly focused cinematography in which the characters always fill the frame recalls Cassavetes signature style of up-close, handheld examination. Sometimes we are so near to their faces that we are able to see every pore emote. And one long, stormy confrontation at a seedy, themed hotel could easily pass off as a scene from A Woman Under The Influence.
Another stylistic touch is the broad use of the colour red, indicative of the passion of love blossoming, in their clothing during the early flashbacks — a theme paralleled in Paul Thomas Anderson’s Punch-Drunk Love, which also charts the serendipitous romance of two people who personify red and blue. But while the characters of Anderson’s vision see the collision of red and blue as a powerful force for good, Cianfrance sees it as inevitable tragedy. Their differences an unavoidable time-bomb.
The narrative conceit doesn’t just stop at contrasting the two points of great love and great loss, but also acts as a way to subtly weave in different stories and perspectives on love from the people that surround Dean and Cindy’s lives. Worryingly however, all of these tales are broken or beset with tragedy. Cindy’s father is abusive to her mother, her high school boyfriend is jealous and brutish, whilst young-Dean meets an elderly man at a retirement home who appears to have had a fruitful marriage and adventurous life, yet Dean’s inquiries about the past are met with blank stares. The reality of aging and of mortality is lost to Dean then and there.
The culmination of all these elements leaves Blue Valentine feeling like a brutally pessimistic Cassavetes-y deconstruction of the Punch-Drunk Love dream, and by the end of it I was left asking: Where’s the hope?
In one scene we are subliminally shown a sign held up by Dean that says “Is this you???” — I think an attempt to goad anyone who’s ever had a broken heart to form some kind of reflexive recognition. Well, what if this IS you? What kind of message can we take from that?
Whilst I am of two minds about the outlook presented, Blue Valentine contains performances and vision that is rare in American cinema and there is enough going on narratively to spur conversation long after the film is over.
Special nods to the immensely rich and evocative Grizzly Bear score too.
movie rating: 3/5
(first posted at Cinehouse)