“I feel like men are more romantic than women. When we get married we marry, like, one girl, ’cause we’re resistant the whole way until we meet one girl and we think I’d be an idiot if I didn’t marry this girl she’s so great. But it seems like girls get to a place where they just kinda pick the best option… ‘Oh he’s got a good job.’ I mean they spend their whole life looking for Prince Charming and then they marry the guy who’s got a good job and is gonna stick around.”
In the quote above, Dean (Ryan Gosling) inadvertently foretells his own future. At this point, he has yet to meet Cindy (Michelle Williams), the girl who will be his one and only. Blue Valentine, directed by Derek Cianfrance, jumps back and forth in time from the beginning of Dean and Cindy’s relationship to the days when their marriage is falling apart. This conceit, although similar to 500 Days of Summer (2009), is executed magnificently and with great sensitivity. The physical transformations the two actors underwent between the early section and the late section make the juxtaposition of the two eras simply heartbreaking. We fall in love with the young Dean and Cindy as they tap dance on the street and play the ukelele, but are repeatedly confronted by the older, more worn-out versions of them. We are never shown exactly what went wrong in their relationship, but we can guess.
The most remarkable thing about Blue Valentine is its performances. Ms. Williams and Mr. Gosling are simply wonderful, and the years of work they did on their characters truly show. One thing that’s so unique about the film is its relationship to the authorship question. Normally, the director and/or screenwriter is considered the “author” of a film, but these characters were created by Gosling and Williams in concert with the director. Many of the scenes were improvised, and some were even shot in such a way as to push the boundaries of reality and performance. For example, one of the early scenes in their relationship involves them walking down the street and chatting, then stopping to show each other their “hidden talents.” Cianfrance had told them each separately to think of a hidden talent they had and then, once they reached a certain spot in the scene, to demonstrate them. Therefore, when Ms. Williams breaks into a tap dance routing, and Mr. Gosling begins singing and playing the ukelele, both their reactions are genuine. All of this information is in the behind-the-scenes documentary, so I’m not privy to an inside view here, but I am very intrigued by the effect scenes like this have on ideas of authorship and performance. Can the film be called “Derek Cianfrance’s Blue Valentine” if the characters and the action were also largely created by the actors? Granted, improv is a practice that crops up all over the place in comedy, particularly in the Apatow oeuvre, so it’s not a new idea. It is, however, a very different experience in drama, especially when it involves character creation to this extent. I don’t really have an answer for any of these questions, but it’s something I found very thought-provoking about the film.
Going back to the performances themselves, Ms. Williams and Mr. Gosling are incredibly gifted and sensitive actors. I have grown more and more appreciative of Michelle Williams since seeing her in Meek’s Cutoff and then My Week with Marilyn, as well as hearing this amazing interview with her on NPR. She is a very thoughtful and considerate actress who really gets inside the skin of her characters. Her performance as Cindy is quite interesting in that we never truly understand her. There are moments when we learn shocking details about her that seem to open her up, but she remains a bit of an enigma to the end. This is particularly effective because Mr. Gosling’s Dean is so open and giving, ready to to sacrifice everything for her, and yet he doesn’t truly understand her either. This disconnect becomes quite clear in the scene (in the “late” section) where they talk about his future; he seems so blissfully unaware of what she wants from him and what she’s saying. His inherent sweetness and gentleness was able to keep her with him for a while, but at a certain point Cindy needs more.
This endless analysis of their relationship is part of what stays with you after watching Blue Valentine. The haunting ending images remind you of their early happy times together while their song plays over the credits. We are left with nostalgia and regret, almost as if we were in the relationship with Cindy and Dean. Blue Valentine has its flaws: Dean is rather too reminiscent of Mr. Gosling’s character in The Notebook (2004) and some of the side characters are cartoonish. Its lovely moments and delicate performances, however, make the film worthwhile. Cindy and Dean will stay with you for days.