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Gosling and Williams deliver ‘Blue Valentine’

By Sean Fabery

Section: Arts

February 11, 2011

Towards the beginning of director Derek Cianfrance’s “Blue Valentine,” college student Cindy Pereira (Michelle Williams) asks her grandmother a question: “What did it feel like when you fell in love?” In response, her grandmother looks around as if she’s lost something, then gently but bluntly responds that she doesn’t think she ever found it and, if she did, it was fleeting.

Cindy is not alone in probing the nature of love. Cianfrance’s film itself explores the fickle nature of relationships—specifically that of Cindy and her husband, Dean (Ryan Gosling)—and how easily they can become corrupted.

“Blue Valentine” begins with the end, so to speak. Cindy and Dean have been married for roughly six years and share a house as well as a daughter, Frankie (Faith Wladyka). They share increasingly little else, however. Cindy spends much of her time at the local hospital, where she works as a nurse; Dean, meanwhile, is adrift, stuck in a dead-end job as a house painter. He tells Cindy he’s fine with this—he prefers being a father and a husband to everything else—but she increasingly finds his lack of aspirations, along with his feelings of inadequacy, troubling.

Even in their present state, they still share several moments where they seemingly reconnect, yet this tenuous present is underscored by intermittent flashbacks of their courtship that reveal a genuinely loving past. In a way, it’s love at first sight for Dean: he happens to spot her while working for a moving company; as he tells it, he immediately gets “that feeling when you just gotta dance” and eventually convinces her to take a chance on him. Their early relationship is not completely absent of drama, but an undeniable connection ties them together.

Innumerable films have tackled the topic of failing relationships, but there’s something singular about “Blue Valentine.” Cianfrance approaches his characters with a watchful tenderness, never allowing himself to view marriage with the kind of cynicism that defines so many other attempts to explore the subject. The film’s screenplay, written by Cianfrance, Cami Delavigne and Joey Curtis, does not innately distrust the institution of marriage but instead recognizes how easily corruptible it is. As such, the film presents the specter of several other marriages that have fallen asunder. Dean’s mother abandoned both her husband and her children, while Cindy’s father constantly berates her mother. Yet there’s also hope—before meeting Cindy, Dean helps move an elderly man into a nursing home and comes across the man’s wedding portrait which he treasures long after his wife has passed away.

One of the film’s strengths is that it does not rely on standard plot contrivances, like infidelity or physical abuse, to eat away at Cindy and Dean’s marriage. In fact, the reasons for its decay are surprisingly banal. Dean’s pronounced feelings of inadequacy aside, the two change little in the time between the beginning and end of their relationship. Instead, they simply become tired of one another, though to varying degrees. Cindy no longer finds Dean’s manchild routine charming and thus pulls away from him physically. Dean, meanwhile, finds Cindy’s intelligence intimidating and her distant behavior aggravating. In short, their relationship suffers from problems that may be surprisingly relatable to some; boredom transforms our views of things, both generally in life and specifically in romance.

Though the film’s use of flashbacks is hardly new—“Annie Hall” and, more recently, “500 Days of Summer,” do the same thing to similar effect—it emphasizes how different their reactions to one another have become during the last few years due to their marriage’s malaise. Time and time again, the two encounter elements from their past—a favorite song, an old romantic flame—and have wholly different reactions to them, and the flashbacks only increase the bite of these disparities.

Of course, a film centered so squarely on one relationship requires that both actors involved must be exceptionally strong. Luckily, Cianfrance brought together two of the best actors working today.

Gosling completely buries himself inside his role, imbuing Dean with a combination of energy and immaturity that makes it abundantly clear why Cindy can alternately find him charming and infuriating. For the most part, his Dean is all charm and heart, and, even as he alternately tries to verbally attack and attract his wife as their marriage crumbles, he still possesses a strange naiveté about the whole matter. Gosling also completely transforms himself physically for the scenes set in the present; while once youthful and confident, the present finds him with a receding hairline and a shrinking inadequacy that marks even his physical demeanor.

Williams, too, never feels anything less than inauthentic in a role that is arguably more difficult than Dean’s. Dean speaks his mind at all times, but Cindy remains constantly aloof even in the happiest of times; furthermore, her unhappiness stems less from the present than the years of marriage that preceeded it. Despite this, Williams ensures that we also give Cindy our sympathy; she may be less afraid to challenge Dean, but Williams conveys the love that accompanies her disenchanted state.

As a result of these sterling performances, Dean and Cindy’s marriage never feels anything less than authentic and lived-in. Even when they’re destroying each other, they exist in a kind of concert together, one perfectly instep with the other.

Of course, their performances owe a large debt to Cianfrance, who employed unorthodox techniques to enhance the film’s reality. “Blue Valentine” relies heavily on improvisation, as Cianfrance became bored with the script before filming and instead chose to workshop many key scenes with Gosling and Williams. To ensure that the pair perfectly captured their married life, he also instructed Gosling, Williams and Wladyka to live together as a family in order to mimic domestic life together.

Based on the final product, these decisions paid off well. Cianfrance has created one of the most searing deconstructions of a relationship in recent memory which works for all the reasons mentioned above. To boot, it’s also beautifully framed visually and boasts a haunting score by the band Grizzly Bear.

Just one word of caution: you probably won’t want to take your own valentine to see “Blue Valentine.”

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