Blue Valentine

Small and nakedly shattering, Blue Valentine is a searing drama of rare emotional intensity and spontaneous, vagrant beauty. It’s an autopsy of a toxic marriage that feels like an eavesdropping expedition, and becomes a heart-rending, unforgettable cautionary tale.

Megan, a beloved golden retriever, is missing. Frankie, a young girl, is calling for her. So begins Blue Valentine, an extraordinary time-lapse portrait of a contemporary couple that goes back and forth from their whirlwind, violent courtship to their eventual breakdown in a Pennsylvania trailer home. It’s a latticework of regret and sorrow, as bright-eyed youth and bedraggled adulthood alternate in a mournful spectacle.

As such, it’s not for the incurably romantic or people who don’t want to know how difficult it can be to keep love alive. In fact, for those who have had a relationship dissolve this hopelessly, it may be visceral enough to elicit the cold sweats of post-traumatic stress. But for better or worse, the formula of the romantic drama has its neck, painstakingly and deliberately, wrung out and put on the chopping block.

Writer-director Derek Cianfrance (Brother Tied) uses subtle visual cues to toggle between the promising past and the dead-end present, photographing the flashbacks on warm 16-mm film and present-day scenes on chilly digital video. In this way, Blue Valentine’s success at both Sundance and Cannes can be deciphered: Although the film couldn’t be more American in subject, setting, and spirit, it has a reverential aesthetic vision that recalls European art-house cinema.

Shot with a fly-on-the-wall quality and an unflinching honesty that refuses to draw either character as good or bad, Blue Valentine is all the more tragic because it is so easy to believe. Cianfrance’s integrity is beyond question; he’s taken some of it from his personal life and employed unpolished, caught-in-the-moment cinematography by Andrij Parekh.

Blue Valentine is enhanced by a pair of fearless, unglamorous, viciously honest performances. Ryan Gosling (Half Nelson) and Michelle Williams (Brokeback Mountain) take the plunge as Dean and Cindy, tearing up the screen and reeling beneath their characters’ troubled lives. They have the most palpable chemistry of any couple this year, never striking a false note in this achingly tender tale of a love that implodes before our eyes.

To prepare for the roles, Cianfrance made the actors live together for a month in the film’s prefab home. The results are on the screen, in nuanced performances free of condescension or sentimentality. Dean and Cindy are both sympathetic and both at fault, a pair of normal, damaged people with not enough money, too many broken dreams, and a pile of unanswered questions.

A working-class American take on Ingmar Bergman’s Scenes From A Marriage, Blue Valentine is one of the bravest films of the year, an intimate and wrenching portrait of a marriage in what may be a state of terminal decay. It’s a story of a relationship on the rocks garnished with hickeys and ripped panties, bruised chins and bruised egos; a powerful, piercing, brilliantly acted exploration of the ways in which love can die.

Halfway through, there’s an amazing flashback – an impromptu dance number – that observes relationship dynamics at a molecular level. You hope it never ends. When it does, dysfunction has devastated the groundwork of hope, and the poison of the everyday infiltrates the glory of the new. Once the saccharine staring is over, the two sexes often have incompatible agendas.

Yet for something dedicated to loss and self-deception, Blue Valentine is an oddly exhilarating experience, if only to witness two of the finest actors working at the top of their game, to the depth of their souls. After 30 minutes, I wondered about Dean and Cindy. After 60 minutes, I knew them. After 90 minutes, I cared. By the end, I’d felt and believed their every pulse, beat, and thought. It’s one of the most honest depictions of a relationship gone sour ever committed to celluloid.

The final thirty seconds underscore a truth so bitter and indigestible – there is no way to avoid the crushing impact of a doomed parental relationship on a child – that it leaves you gasping for air. The credit sequence is a zealous illustration of the film’s terminating insights: love sparkles like fireworks, glittering in glimpses and disappearing into the blackness long before we’ve come to recognize or appreciate what we’ve had. Agonizing and cathartic, Blue Valentine swells your heart, punctures it, breaks it, and rips it cleanly out of your chest.

3.5/4

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