This stunning portrait of a disintegrating relationship features career best performances from its two leads, which alongside Derek Cianfrance’s bravura direction serve to make Blue Valentine the strongest contender for the best film I’ve seen at the London Film Festival so far. Recalling Ingmar Bergman’s Scenes From A Marriage (1973) in its juxtaposition of couple Dean (Ryan Gosling) and Cindy‘s (Michelle Williams) courtship and marital breakdown, it’s an emotionally devastating picture full of wit, passion and heartbreak.
Few directors manage to use sex in cinema as anything more than a narrative device, showing the consummation of a relationship as little more than that, but Cianfrance (like Andrew Rowe in the LFF playing Leap Year) creates and develops character through the act itself, the different love scenes from the passionate and tender early ones (chronologically speaking) to the aggressive and resentful later episodes in the motel room provide more insight into the state of the relationship than any dialogue could. It’s an honest (albeit hardly graphic) representation that garnered the film an NC-17 certificate in the US by the MPAA, it would seem that they’ve no problem with us seeing ever increasing instances of extreme screen violence but two consenting adults having sex in anything more than candle-lit timidity has them fearing for our safety as a society.
Shooting in 16mm for the flashback sequences charting Dean and Cindy meeting and falling in love, and an icy digital aesthetic for the present-day scenes some years later, the film looks fantastic, utilising a shallow focus that frames the characters beautifully, adding an air of wistful romanticism prior to their arrival at the future-themed motel (“it’s like the inside of a robot’s vagina”) where Dean hopes they can spend a passionate night on their own, having left their young daughter with Cindy’s father.
“You gotta be careful that the one you fall in love with is worth it.”
Both characters are wonderfully drawn, the startlingly natural performances imbued with a depth of emotion and feeling that offer no easy judgement or side-taking, just the complexities of love and loving, paranoia and regret that in their case takes them to the brink of collapse. It tinges the presentation of the early stages of their relationship with an air of sadness, knowing where they’re heading, but their courtship is beautifully rendered – both laugh out loud funny and cutely quirky whilst never resorting to sentimentality or easy generalisation of feeling, with the dialogue feeling especially fresh and semi-improvised.
The frankness of the presentation is particularly refreshing, no punches are pulled with either our sympathies or what we see (a near-abortion scene is tough to watch), but the acting ensures we’re truly invested with both Dean and Cindy through to the bitter end. There’s no black and white here, they both make mistakes, catastrophically and violently so in Dean’s case, but the emotional paths to their actions are subtly paved, entirely (sometimes understandably) in character but never predictable.
It’s an incredibly pessimistic film nonetheless, one about broken dreams and the tolls life can take on romance. Dean’s charm and optimism when they meet gives way to paranoia and misdirection of these qualities by the end, when he seems uncomfortably resigned to the hand life’s dealt him :
- “I wish you had a job you didn’t have to start drinking at 8 in the morning just to go to!”
- “I have a job where I can start drinking at 8 in the morning. It’s a luxury!”
As Cindy continues to suffer the scars of her parents’ hostile relationship, the only source of light in the claustrophobic later sequences is daughter Frankie, the totally unselfconscious Faith Wladyka. It’s a film of brutal honesty and terrific performances (Williams here even exceeds her fantastic turn in Meek’s Cutoff, also at the LFF) bringing to mind the best of John Cassavetes (particularly A Woman Under The Influence, 1974) and whilst this anti-love story is ruthless in both its examining gaze and it’s attitude to love, it’s also brilliant cinema.
Blue Valentine – 2010 – USA – 114 mins – Dir : Derek Cianfrance
Screening as part of the Film On The Square strand at the London Film Festival on Friday 15th & Sunday 17th October. Tickets available at www.bfi.org.uk/lff