Blue Valentine

20Aug11

I don’t think I have witnessed an onscreen relationship as convincing, intense and devastating as Michelle Williams and Ryan Gosling’s in Blue Valentine, ever. I’m sure there is better somewhere. To try and claim history was made last year would be fantastically naive. Even I don’t get that swept up in the moment. But when I look back and consider all of cinema’s great romances, I really struggle to think of any that even come close. That’s simply how overwhelming the film is.

One reason why it might not be an entirely unrealistic claim, however, lies in the fact that for a long time, in particular during the classical Hollywood period, acting was a matter of looking suave but in the process also coming across as completely stale. I challenge you to watch the likes of Bogart and feel you’re observing a real human being. It’s a screen persona, and it’s too distant to provide any sort of connection.

Straight away, then, we’re looking only at the last fifty years or so: the post-Brando era, when acting finally involved emotion and became the gritty, soul-tearing job that the best actors and actresses make it to this day. Williams and Gosling announce themselves here as exemplary young members of that school. The likes of Blue Valentine just couldn’t have been made in the 40s, purely because it is representative of the real world.

The easiest parallel would be with something more modern like Revolutionary Road, but even that analogy turns out empty on inspection. There, Kate Winslet and DiCaprio reunited for a film that is also about marital trouble, but the feel is totally different. It’s not just the more polished aesthetics that comes with a $35 million budget (Blue Valentine cost $1 million), but the greater focus on capturing a time period and exploring the themes inherent in the initial novel secured two much more refined performances. I recall DiCaprio letting rip in one painful, explosive scene, but otherwise he and Winslet are hardly the focus. They are both extremely impressive and expensive vehicles for the making of a film that’s supposed to reflect a generation.

Cindy and Dean in Blue Valentine aren’t like this. Their relationship specifically is all the film is about, and Cianfrance thus hangs his chances of success on the talents of his two leads.

To say they do not disappoint is an understatement. They both have long careers ahead of them, but they’ll do well to generate performances as defining as these should turn out to be. The best scene is undoubtedly the film’s finale – the realisation they just cannot live with one another anymore. It’s like we’re watching a documentary, both of them pouring their hearts out for the first time and for real. And it’s made all the more unwatchable because it unfolds in the shadow of an array of sweet, early memories. Again, I can’t think of a more natural scene, despite it clearly being meticulously constructed, than the ukelele-driven tap-dance outside the wedding shop.

Williams as Cindy is very easy to under-appreciate. Often great performances come with great characters, but not always, and this is an example of the latter. There’s nothing loud built into Cindy’s personality to latch onto here. She’s just an especially pretty girl (which, Dean notes, will no doubt plague her – it must be mad to have everyone treat you differently just because of your looks) that studies medicine, finds a man and has a child before, somewhat mystifyingly, falling out of love.

Gosling has way more to play with: a hopelessly romantic 9-5 furniture remover intent on finding the girl to fall in love at first sight with, just how he hears it happen in songs. When he sees Cindy he knows she’s the one, but it’s only by chance that he manages to get anywhere near her. This sets up another remarkable scene: Dean is on a bus when Cindy, who he has only met fleetingly but has already become besotted with, steps on. Gosling’s face is a picture. In a second we understand his thoughts. Namely, ‘shit, shit, shit. This is it. This is the chance. Okay, man up, let’s go.’ And from there those heartwarming scenes of them fooling around around on the streets of New York begin, and we all smile and shiver and simultaneously mentally whisper ‘aww!’

Perhaps Blue Valentine‘s having these strong effects was inevitable. After all, rarely are films planned and prepared for over 6 years, but this was the length of time that transpired between Michelle Williams first reading Cianfrance’s script, and finally beginning shooting. Gosling too was onboard very early on. They were just waiting for the funding to come along, but in the process of waiting they collectively adapted the screenplay over 60 times. Gosling and Williams lived together in their onscreen house with their onscreen daughter for an entire month. They spent 8 hours in the shower together, until the feelings they needed the camera to see for a two minute scene just arose naturally. They are both super-committed to method, and the result is a diamond of a film. Cianfrance sacrificed his pay-check to get the film finished; Gosling and Williams worked for under a fiftieth of DiCaprio’s salary. Yet Blue Valentine is every bit as good as any Hollywood blockbuster. And in terms of the emotions it effortlessly extracts from us, it’s even better.

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