14 February 2011

Blue Valentine

Love can die.

Even the most passionate, romantic love between two beautiful infatuated people can slowly wither away. Blue Valentine's a delicate autopsy of that decay. With a compassionate -- but clear-eyed -- gaze, director Derek Cianfrance  probes into the lives of Dean and Cindy and the influences within and without them that break up their marriage.

The movie starts on a current Fourth of July weekend -- Independence Day. Dean wakes up on the chair, a few cans of beer around him, exiled, apparently, from the marital bed. He's great with their daughter, but also a bit too much of a big kid for Cindy, who's trying to get the girl out the door and herself to work. Their dog is missing, ominously. 

We learn how they met and fell in love six or seven years earlier, in a series flashbacks to the blossoming of their relationship. Those moments are as charming and lovely as the present is grinding and sad. Shot in warm and gritty 16mm, these scenes show us how they got there, filling us on details, explaining their reactions, helping us understand the flareups, rages and frustrations even as they offer some clues about what's going to break them up.

The director treats the two evenhandedly up to the end. Dean's trying hard, going the extra mile, being the good dad, trying to work it out with Cindy. But we can see that he seems stuck as an overgrown boy. Cindy, on the other hand: Cindy's cold -- cold with the chill of disappointment, with the hunger for achievement, bitter, wanting, like Emma Bovary, something. . . . more. Maybe it's the ex-boyfriend, the jock she bumps into. Maybe it's the doctor she works for. You can understand her: she wants something more, that indefinable "better" that tortures us. Maybe, she thinks, if her man did something different, picked up drawing or even music again. Did something beyond merely loving her.

But Cianfrance shows some wider forces at work, too. Their class differences that seem irrelevant when she's a student start to be a bigger deal as they cross the threshold into middle age. Their parent's failed marriages fuel a terrible irony. We see Cindy's father raging at her mother over meatloaf, the sad daily drama that makes children flinch and wish they were 10,000 miles away. 

So Cindy wants more than anything to avoid the bickering, the fights and the grinding conflict she grew up with.  Dean's mom, we hear, left his father, leaving him alone. He wants to make sure they stay together, no matter what. They each are fighting against that heritage, heartbreakingly, because we see that they're failing.

Confused gender politics plays its role, too. Cindy's the main provider. She's the authority figure, the responsible one, the person who's the foundation. Dean's the nurturer, kind, devoted, loyal, domestic. The final searing insults she hurls cut to to the heart of it: Dean's not a man. But the model of what masculinity constitutes is limited and brutal. And Cindy's not going back to full-time housewifery any time soon. They're stuck between lies, the lies of the past and the lies of the present.

Blue Valentine earns its comparisons to Cassavetes with raw performances and the gritty, bone-marrow deep emotions. Michelle Williams can age six or seven years, visibly but subtly. Its as if her soul itself gets worn down before our eyes. Gosling had some luxury in his externals: balding, slightly puffier, the smoked-lens glasses immediately telegraph his fall from winsome dude to That Guy on the Barcalounger. Gosling has no vanity, apparently. He can switch on the charm and radiate white-hot star charisma. But then he'll turn it off and be as vulnerable, repulsive or pathetic has he needs to be. Both of them are courageous, psychically naked, willing to be unappealing and yet owning great physical beauty and magnetism. When Dean breaks down and cries, it's ugly. You can feel the audience, particularly the women, recoil.

The script -- revised 66 times -- is well and subtly structured. The approach is so naturalistic that the art disappears. 
Maybe a larger issue is lurking here, as well: the limits of naturalism. Blue Valentine excels at delivering the daily life we share in, and that's a huge achievement in the degraded media culture we live in. But you feel the lack of another dimension, which, I think, is the fault of naturalism itself.

Still, Blue Valentine is one of those rare films that tries to tell the truth about its subject. It succeeds, often with painful and cringe-inducing moments --  moments we've all experienced to a degree but hardly ever see on a screen. While Blue Valentine doesn't quite transcend itself the way, say, Last Tango in Paris or In the Realm of the Senses do, it stays faithful, tough, compassionate, and honest.

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