An absorbing, affecting, mostly successful portrait of two young people meeting in the flush of youthful longing and then breaking up some years later in a squall of pathos. Whilst the title suggests some aspiration towards the perverse, American Gothic postures and noirish romanticism of Tom Waits, this is a film far more in the key of heartfelt, straightforward indie rock about why everything turned so shitty with that great girl. The truly excellent performances by Michelle Williams and Ryan Gosling are the substance and raison d’etre for this film, which starts out with a relatively facile hook – overt comparison of the stages of commencing a relationship and its final days through a cross-cutting structure, perhaps inspired by the likes of Francois Ozon’s 5x2 (2004) and Gaspar Noe’s Irreversible (2002) – and invests it with biting, flailing life. Gosling is Dean, a deeply unambitious young man with few expectations because of the failure of his musician father. Williams is Cindy, a young woman who successfully struggles to become a doctor, determined to avoid the malaise that beset her parents. Marital collapse commences in a series of small gestures and provocations in the course of a perfectly ordinary workaday morning. Exhausted Cindy is woken from slumber by the playful, painfully contrasting energy of husband and daughter Frankie (Faith Wladkya); aggravations accumulate until the minor tragedy of discovering their dog has been run over after escaping the yard. Cindy encounters a former flame, Bobby Ontario (Mike Vogel), an impudent, narcissistic former jock who once beat the hell out of Dean for “stealing” Cindy away from him. The child is offloaded onto Cindy’s ailing father Jerry (John Doman), as Dean cajoles Cindy into a hopefully revivifying sojourn to a vulgar hotel. There, trapped for the evening with each-other with booze, amidst hideously tacky futuristic motifs, their inability to find any sort of intimacy results in gruesome bout of bad sex. Cindy perhaps gratefully flees in the morning when work calls, leaving Dean alone to imbibe plentifully, and eventually pursue her and start what people often refer to as a scene.
In the flashbacks, interpolated with unnecessary jaggedness by director Derek Cianfrance, Dean, with his signposted quirky romanticism – he carries about a ukulele to entertain the lady he’s a-courtin’ and expresses his certainty that men are inherently more romantic than women – glimpses young Cindy when he’s delivering furniture to an old folk’s home where she’s stashing her grandmother. Cianfrance's cinematic time jerks us elastically between poles, sometimes with clarifying focus. Cindy’s encounter with Bobby seems initially like a variation on the cliched motif of the encounter with the old flame, yet shot through with a strange uncertainty, for reasons that become much clearer once we've seen Bobby and Cindy's past, making it clear he’s a jerk who has hardly grown at all. But neither has Dean, with his receding hairline and scrub moustache, who declares that he has dedicated himself wholeheartedly to family life and holds down a job as a housepainter: he seems initially to be a natural bohemian artist looking for an outlet, but in fact he proves, in perhaps the most original character touch, to be merely a bum. He gives away his spiralling frustration in his simmering discontent and (partly justified) paranoia about her elevation into a different socioeconomic sphere where the profession offers diffuse channels for her passion, and rivals for his love wait aplenty, whilst an incapacity to balance work and home is draining Cindy’s marrow. Gosling and Williams reportedly mostly improvised around Cianfrance’s story structure after he decided to toss the script out, and the result is electrifying in places. Such places include the casually, if calculatedly, delightful slacker-chic song and dance Dean and Cindy improvise on their first date, to the full-bore eruptions of ugly emotion in their hotel room shenanigans and Dean’s infuriated drunken crack-up in the hospital Cindy works in, walloping Cindy’s on-the-make colleague Feinberg (Ben Shenkman) in a furious resentment of her place in a world beyond his reach.
The emphasis is on a certain tactile authenticity, attuned to the rhythms of behaviour, particularly in sex, that clue us in to the state of any given relationship, and in this regard the film is particularly astute. Cindy’s prostration beneath Bobby with his grizzly bear sexual technique contrasts her melting in response to Dean going down on her. The depiction of the couple, older, drunk, filled with hatred and a certain remnant yearning, trying and failing to screw with an edge of violence inflecting Cindy’s desire as she “playfully” pummels Dean before they finish up in a grinding bundle on the floor, forms the film’s best and most compelling scene. Perhaps the most interesting and yet also underdeveloped aspects lie in the hints that show why the relationship is both based in, and doomed by, the same root causes, observed in the subtle way in which class psychology, aspiration, sexual attraction, and emotional expectations graze against each other and then evolve in disparate directions. Dean’s claims for modest ambitions prove to be shot through with resentment and a boy-man’s emotional leeching, whilst Cindy’s designating Dean as “the bad guy” excuses her from examining her own alienating behaviour.
The film in some ways takes an easy option in reducing its concerns to the brittle actor-perfect set-pieces of romance and bust-up, avoiding a causative portrait of decline. Blue Valentine employs some familiar notions, as unexpected pregnancy forces a union that might have either developed with breathing space or exhausted itself, and subsequent child-rearing sucks the easy verve out of coupling. Cindy’s declaration that she will never be like her parents, of whom we get one scarifying flashback depiction of volatile suburban malaise, feeds her remarkable tendency to keep picking the wrong guy, and yet her psychology remains only distantly perceivable. The excellence of the acting and Cianfrance’s fine, if overly mannered, technical filmmaking yearns, and often deserves, to be described as a raw and gritty and honest, but in the end there are vast aspects of the main characters, and the largely caricatured and dismissed supporting roles, that demand and do not receive much examination, and this significantly hampers the film's potential to be a truly insightful human drama. Still, it avoids the stagy, smug, overly-posed drama of the likes of
Revolutionary Road (2009) and Rabbit Hole (2010) to which it might easily have otherwise surrendered to. The air of bleary exhaustion that hovers over Dean as he wanders away in a cloud of firecracker smoke captures with atmosphere the way the collapse of the miniature world of family seems apocalyptic and yet stands in contrast to the larger world’s blithe continuation.