Sunday, 10 July 2011

Blue Valentine (2010)

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.


Sam Juliano said...

"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.."

Excellent point here Rod, and a wholly fantastic review of the film that I listed as my #2 of last year. Interesting stylistic comparison there to IRREVERSIBLE. Narratively I am reminded here of the far more symbolic REVOLUTIONARY ROAD by Sam Mendes, and films where sudden tragedy takes it’s toll on a seemingly innocuous relationship as was recently on display in John Cameron Mitchell’s RABBIT HOLE. It's quite a coincidence that I made reference to these very two films in my own WitD review back in December, yet we have a rather contrary point of contention! Ha! But BLUE VALENTINE'S amazing authenticity stands apart from those films, due to Cianfrance’s cinematic language, where the flashback sequences were shot utilizing hand-held cameras and a single lens to connote some fond memories by way of hazier textures. There’s a sharper, more unforgiving quality in the present-day scenes, apparently shot with digital cameras with long lenses that are meant to convey the aforementioned improvisational quality that allows the daily events and character interactions to come off with accentuated spontaneity. Cianfrance’s cinematographer, Andrij Parekh, effectively saturates the color for the the real-time sequences to at least allow for that fine line of visual discernment.

Every bit as effective as Ryan Gosling, Michelle Williams delivers a fearless performance, cutting to the bone in a painful scene near the end, where Gosling slugs a doctor in a last-ditch attempt to save the failed marriage, a scene where Gianfrance illustrates the tragedy of wanting something (or thinking you really want something) that can be as ellusive as anything in life.

Roderick Heath said...

Some great comments there Sam on the cinematography, although I've got to say I found a lot of the hosepiping and wobbly camerawork a bit affected, one aspect of why this film didn't quite hit the heights it might have reached. But, you know, this is the sort of sweat-inducing intense human-scale drama I really love and whilst it could have been deeper I still enjoyed it very much, and, yes, recognised people I know and love in several scenes. That's always a precious thing in movies; even more precious is that it took them seriously instead of mocking them like too many contemporary portraits of human weakness - you do get the feeling that there are vastly complex causes of what we're seeing, not some young smart-ass indulging his misanthropy.

Dan O. said...

This film is a very hard one to enjoy, but I must say watching these two on screen together really made it all work and come together. I just wish that the whole film wasn't so damn close. Good Review!

Roderick Heath said...

I'm not sure, Dan O, when you say you "wish that the whole film wasn't so damn close," whether you mean close to the emotional bone or close in the camerawork, although both are accurate! Anyway, thanks for reading and commenting!