Blue Valentine is preceded by the automatic buzz of indie golden-boy director Derek Cianfrance who returned from documentaries to narrative features, with a film reportedly a dozen years in the making. This hype makes the dust-up about its rating—NC-17, until a successful appeal for R—now seem like a patient PR strategy. While that matter was being settled, the film racked up critical accolades. But did it really deserve them?
Cianfrance has said his two essential boyhood nightmares were of nuclear war and his parents divorcing. A vision of the latter is what Blue Valentine explores, with what the filmmaker evidently hopes is all the ominous scorching force of the former.
It begins apocalyptically enough, with a small child wandering alone in a field and worriedly calling for her dog.
Tellingly, she doesn’t bother calling for her parents, who are played by Ryan Gosling and Michelle Williams. I first laid eyes on Blue Valentine a year ago, at the 2010 Sundance Film Festival. At the time, Wendy and Lucy was fresh enough in the memory for me to record this first impression: “Indie naturalist Michelle Williams and another lost dog, eh?”
And as it unfolded, I revised: “vaguely pretentious portrait of a working-class (yet suspiciously hipsterish) marriage in decay.”
So maybe I could have been a tad more receptive. Blue Valentine’s values, after all, are easy to appreciate. Nodding with approval and gratitude to John Cassavetes, Cianfrance wants to rebuke standard-issue movie glamour with bracing emotional authenticity. (That a big chunk of his target audience might not know there are precedents for this MO only works to its attention-getting advantage.) And the actors clearly are on board, giving all they’ve got to their many bravely intimate close-ups. But of course the actors are glamorous—even as their not-quite-characters progress from cutesy ukulele-intensive courtship to the savage quagmire of recriminations in mutually assured destruction.
One problem is how much it seems like that progress occurs only because it must to have a movie. As charisma increasingly substitutes for character, the bravery of that intimacy seems more and more like falsity.
Not that drama motivated solely by the need for drama is so off base in a film about posturing young people in a troubled relationship. Whether we admit it or not, most of us know how it feels to careen from enamorment into weary disgust. Plus, the surety of Cianfrance’s style is self-validating—all done with a kind of mock-reticent irony that is the fashionable mode of sentimentalism now. It’s just that, even after the first impressions have been revised and the reputations have been built, I’m still left with the hollowness of it all. And if that’s the point, well, it has been noted.
If anything (aside from the hollowness) gives Blue Valentine away as a project begun in the late ’90s, it’s the film’s non-linear narrative structure. As usual with that trick, it seems like hedging against a suspicion that the story might not amount to much if played linearly. The end result is a kind of swaggering asceticism, and how authentic is that?
Directed by Derek Cianfrance
With Ryan Gosling, Michelle Williams