By John H. Foote
For two agonizing hours we experience the breakdown of a marriage, though through broken narrative, we also see what drew the two together. Blue Valentine, a difficult film from director Derek Cianfrance, explores with unflinching honesty the beginning and end of a relationship between two young people with a child. The reason is simple – one has grown, the other has not, tale as old as time.
They are Dean and Cindy, portrayed respectively by Ryan Gosling and Michelle Williams, who with their brilliant performances in this film, could lay claim to being among the finest young actors of their generation under 40. Each actor was exquisite in bringing their vulnerability and pain to their characters, allowing us to see each of them for what they were, what they had been and their past hopes and dreams. Directed with subtle touches by the gifted Derek Cianfrance, who also co-wrote the screenplay, the film is an anguished howl of pain from both characters, yet beautifully the director also explores the time in their relationship when they had love, when they wanted no one else.
They meet on a bus, he gives her his number and she never calls, but he knows where her grandmother lives, so seeks her out. They go back and forth and eventually fall in love, but suddenly she announces she is pregnant. Are they really in love? Or just in that early stage of infatuation where you want to be with the person every waking moment? Despite the fact it might not be his baby, he asks her to marry him, and she does. They form a loving family, they have a daughter, Frankie, and for five years they are a family but are they truly happy? Cindy was an ambitious student, high achieving and remains that way as a mother and wife, juggling their busy schedule, as always doing her very best.
But Dean is lazy, unambitious, truly happy with his lot in life. He likes his job as a painter because he can drink while at work, or when finished early, start drinking. Despite his hard drinking, he is an excellent father, and clearly adores his little girl who he loves spending time with.
Cindy on the other hand has grown, she is ambitious and seeks a better life for both she and her child. After giving up on her dream to be a doctor, she became a mother instead, she works in a medical building as a nurse for a doctor who clearly has his sights set on her. Growing tired of Dean, growing sick and tired of his lack of ambition, we can see the love for him leaking out of her. She begins to realize this is the best he is ever going to be, and she is saddened by him, by their situation. Things come to a head during a night at a strange theme hotel where the couple end up in a science fiction themed room and argue and fight all night. Dean had hoped for sex, instead he gets drunk and gets a punch in the face, waking up alone with no way to get home. Cindy has gone to work and he is raging. He invades her job and makes a terrible scene, resulting in Cindy being fired after Dean punches her boss. They leave together and, on the way home, find their dog dead on the road, which is really metaphorical of their marriage, it is over, she is finished.
The performances carry the film, and each actor is superb. We can feel the pain of each as each decision gets made, as they move closer to the end. The fights are shattering in their purity and honesty, and we see why each is at odds with the other. Cindy feels like the parent of two, her child and her husband who really is a big kid, an adult, a husband and father who has never grown up. She cannot believe she is doing this essentially all by herself while Dean loves his life, his family, he cannot believe he has it so good. But really he is going nowhere fast and she knows it before he does. What Cindy fears is being dragged down with him, never owning a home, being in the same place five or 10 years from then, stuck in a rut from which there is no escape. She begins to resent Dean, blames him for the way her life has turned out, even though he may not be the child’s father and never questioned Cindy about it, he stepped up. When they finally bottom out, terrible things have been said, unforgivable accusations have been thrown out, and when Dean walks away from them, there seems little chance they will ever be together again.
Cianfrance created a powerfully realistic film, about the beginning and end of a relationship, a roller coaster ride that is often unbearable to watch. That said it has its light moments, Dean singing while Cindy dances, Dean pleasuring Cindy quietly in her bedroom with her parents downstairs, his lame attempts to make her happy in the science fiction room, show us there was a time they were happy, that they could not be without the other.
Williams was nominated for an Academy Award as Best Actress for her riveting performance, and though Gosling was overlooked, he should have been among the nominees as each performance feeds off the other, one exists because of the other.
This is among the finest films ever made about the end of a relationship, a marriage. Raw, visceral, fearless, it is sometimes a tough watch because there is so much fresh pain on the screen, but it is never less than honest and brilliant. It explores fully that that person we once adored, that we thought we could not live without, becomes repellent to us.
How does that happen?
John H. Foote is a well-recognized Canadian film critic/historian who has been an active critic for 30 years. His deep love for the movies began at a very young age. He began his career as co-host of the popular TV show Reel to Real where he remained for nine years. While on TV he began dabbling in education, eventually ascending to Director of the Toronto Film School, where he also taught film history. After leaving the college to care for his wife, he returned to teaching at Humber College where he taught both Film History and Method Acting Theory. John has written two books: “Clint Eastwood – Evolution of a Filmmaker” and the upcoming “Spielberg – American Film Visionary”. He is currently working on two books, one about the films of the seventies and another on the films of Martin Scorsese. Through his career he has worked in TV, radio, print and the web. John has interviewed everyone in the industry (more than 300 interviews) except Jack Nicholson, he says sadly. Highlights include Martin Scorsese, Tom Cruise, Meryl Streep Robert Duvall, Jane Fonda, Francis Ford Coppola and Kathryn Bigelow.