Arriving on British shores still trailing the whiff of controversy
whipped up by its too-hot-for-America sexual frankness (Don’t get
excited, Americans just aren’t keen on cunnilingus. Even in long
shot.), writer/director Derek Cianfrance’s Blue Valentine is the latest
in a long line of American Indie mumblethons to dig up John Cassavetes
and rattle his dusty bones all over the joint in a vain attempt to rub
the audience’s collective nose in a little human suffering as it charts
the disintegration of a marriage.
Using the death of the family dog as an excuse to pack their adorable
daughter off to Grandpa’s, laidback painter/decorator Dean (Gosling) and driven, hardworking nurse Cindy (Williams)
seize upon the opportunity to slope off to a sleazy motel for a dirty
weekend in a last-ditch attempt to rekindle the dying embers of their
marriage. As the couple implode, bittersweet flashbacks juxtapose the wreckage their marriage has become with the sweetly naïve romanticism of the beginning of their relationship.
The perfect date movie for masochists, Blue Valentine is a slog, the
cinematic equivalent of being repeatedly kicked in the nuts until you
puke blood. Undeniably well-made, the film is sooooooo relentlessly bleak you
just do not care about the modern versions of Gosling and Williams’
characters and their marital woes. Ponderous and obvious, the film
unfolds with the doomy predictability of an EastEnders Christmas
episode. From the start, we know the couple are in trouble even if it
takes Gosling’s Dean three quarters of the film to catch on that his
marriage is essentially over and that he has no say in the matter.
Williams’ flinty Cindy has already decided.
A likable lug with a slight drink problem, Dean’s principal fault in
his wife’s eyes seems to be that he lacks ambition; he’s content being a
devoted husband and father. A driven, ambitious nurse, Cindy’s decided
that she no longer loves him and that he’s surplus to requirements. She
can’t bear to be touched by him, can’t even look at him without her face
betraying a mix of loathing and regret.
writing is on the wall from the first scene; a morning domestic
interlude familiar to many from the trenches of the war between the
sexes. Cindy is harried, resentful of Dean’s ease with their child while
he simply can’t comprehend her attitude. When Dean decides that the
best way to save their marriage is to cash in a gift certificate for a
local sleazy motel it’s one of the most cringingly awful movie
decisions since Robert De Niro took Cybill Shepherd to a porno on their
first date in Taxi Driver. You know they’re doomed. Everything that
comes after is predictably inevitable. And only in a gritty Indie movie
would someone have been given gift vouchers for the local sleazy motel.
When is it appropriate to give someone gift vouchers for the local
sleazy motel? Christmas? Birthday? Wedding Anniversary? Do sleazy motels
even offer gift vouchers in real life or is that just a cliché of
gritty Indie flicks?
But in the words of football commentators the world over, Blue
Valentine is very much a game of two halves. As po-faced, downbeat and
obvious as the scenes of marital strife set in the present are, the
flashback scenes where the couple separately remember how they met and
fell in love are wonderful with a loose, freewheeling spirit and easy charm that seduces you.
If the present day scenes are very much dominated and driven by
William’s disappointed Cindy, the flashbacks belong to Gosling’s Dale
and are shot through with optimism and a wistful romanticism. His
pursuit of the reluctant Cindy after a chance encounter in an old folks
home, wooing her with some impromptu ukulele playing, is sweetly
romantic and these scenes have a loose, improvised feel in sharp
contrast to the more heavy-handed present day scenes. While a rather
portentous conversation about the fickle nature of women that Dale has
with a co-worker overtly signposts the trouble that lies ahead, these
scenes are easily the most interesting and surprising of the film as the
pair’s quirky courtship morphs into a realistic love.
However, how much you invest in the characters and sympathise with
them will, inevitably, depend on (a) whether you possess a penis and (b)
just how much of a cowbag bitch from Hell you think Williams’ Cindy is.
Possibly the best young actress of her generation, Williams is far better than the film deserves, taking a thumbnail sketch of a character and investing herself in it. Much as she did in Scorsese’s tedious Shutter Island.
The chemistry between her and Gosling is electric, the two actors
having worked hard to create a believable intimacy but while Cianfrance’s script gives Gosling the room to turn in a charismatic performance
of wounded sensitivity and easy charm, cementing his status as a
leading man, Williams is ill-served by a script where her character is
an underwritten schizophrenic cipher required to fluctuate between kooky
romantic, studious good girl, hump-the-furniture horny sex kitten and
cold-hearted bitch. It’s almost as if Cianfrance lost interest in her
character and just thought “Well, she’s a woman and you know what
they’re like”. We see Cindy through Dean’s eyes and, as is obvious in
the film, Dean really doesn’t know his wife. And you can’t help but
think that Cianfrance really doesn’t know her either.
While the performances are fantastic and there are some
heartbreaking, beautiful moments, Blue Valentine’s ponderous pace and
the shallowness of the script ultimately reduce the film to a
melodramatic soap opera. With added mumbling.