Blue Valentine charts the birth of a hopeful romance towards its painful dissolution through a non-linear narrative. Think (500) Days of Summer sapped of any hope or optimism. When we meet Dean (Gosling) and Cindy (Williams), they are six years into their relationship and living in the suburbs of Scranton. It’s obvious that married life has beaten them down as a simple breakfast with their daughter, Frankie (Faith Wladyka), turns into a passive aggressive snipe-fest. Cindy works as a nurse and has a hard enough time balancing her career with raising a child, let alone an emotionally immature husband. Dean, a high school dropout, is content with cracking a beer in the morning before heading off to his job as a house painter.
Their marital problems have been simmering below the surface for some time and the heartbreaking loss of the family dog acts as a catalyst for a series of life altering events. Cindy is disappointed by Dean’s utter lack of ambition while the growing emotional distance between them frustrates him. Dean’s harebrained idea to fix things is a trip to a cheesy theme motel where they check into the Future Room, complete with a Star Trek Conn panel and a cold, sterile décor. Dean’s awkward attempt at making love is equally cold, bordering on rape at one point.
The film flashes back to their halcyon days living in Brooklyn. Cindy deals with med school, a douchebag boyfriend (Mike Vogel), and a rough home life due to a verbally abusive father (John Doman). Dean has just arrived in the Big Apple and gets a job with a moving company. The two meet cute while Cindy is visiting her grandma at a nursing home and we watch love gradually blossom before our eyes. The new couple explores the city one night, doing cutesy things like walking down the streets backwards. Cindy dances by a storefront window as Dean does his best Tiny Tim impression, strumming a ukulele and warbling, “You Always Hurt the One You Love.” Much like the characters, you wish you could linger in these moments a little longer.
Director Derek Cianfrance has been developing the screenplay for Blue Valentine (which he co-wrote with Cami Delavigne and Joey Curtis) for nearly a dozen years. Even so Cianfrance employs a largely improvisational approach similar to Cassavetes and Mike Leigh. Cianfrance prepared his actors by having Williams and Gosling live together as a couple for a time. The two dealt with the stresses of raising a family with a meager budget of $200 every other week. The flashback scenes can be a bit cloying, but have a spontaneous feel to them that capture the feeling of young love. Cianfrance differentiates the parallel timelines further by shooting the present day in digital with blue tones. The past is shot with warm tones on Super 16mm with wide-angle lenses. Using a handheld documentary style, the camera alternates from passive to intrusive as the everyday life of Cindy and Dean unfolds.
The performances are strong, if overly mannered from time to time. Michelle Williams (who had been attached to the project for six years) deftly portrays vulnerability and weariness. This is the exact type of performance that gets recognized during awards season. Not surprising, it was as Williams was nominated for a Golden Globe and an Academy Award. She truly is one of the best young actresses in Hollywood today. Gosling is charming and it’s easy to see why a girl could fall for him. With a few subtle changes, he turns it all around. What once seemed charming becomes aimless immaturity. Dean travails a downward spiral, becoming something of a 21st century version of Brando’s Stanley Kowalski from A Streetcar Named Desire, a brutish alpha male unaware of his soul-crushing nature.
Blue Valentine was at the center of some controversy late last year when the MPAA handed down an NC-17 rating due to a sex scene between stars. The Weinstein Company (who also got slapped with an undeserving R for The King’s Speech) appealed and the film was ultimately given an R. After viewing the movie, I saw nothing in it that merited an NC-17. In fact, I’ve seen racier stuff on basic cable. Sometimes it’s best not to think too much about the inane decisions of the MPAA.
The video is presented in 1080p with an aspect ratio of 1.66:1. Using the Red One camera, the present day sequences are pristine with images coming in strong and detailed. The flashbacks have a grainier quality due to the Super 16, but look surprisingly sharp.
The audio is presented in DTSHD-MA 5.1. Don’t expect shock and awe from your speaker system. This is a film dependent on dialogue. Everyone’s lines come in crisp and clear.
The primary feature is an audio commentary with Derek Cianfrance and co-editor Jim Helton. The director does most of the talking and provides a wealth of information about the development and production of his movie. He talks about the acting process and shares many cute anecdotes, like trying to get young Faith Wladyka to hate oatmeal or shooting the furniture moving scenes. Apparently, cinematographer Andrij Parekh was going to move anyway…
The Making of Blue Valentine (13:50) is a standard EPK featurette consisting of interviews with the director and his stars.
Frankie and the Unicorn (3:04) is a short home movie with Gosling, Williams, and Wladyka as their characters.
The Blu-Ray also includes about twenty minutes worth of deleted scenes. All special features are presented in standard definition.
Film Value: 6
Blue Valentine is the hipster indie cinema version of the kitchen sink drama, complete with a soundtrack by folk rock band Grizzly Bear. The actors are excellent and there are touching and powerful moments scattered throughout the film. However, they aren’t enough to elevate the material, which drags on into tiresome melodrama. There are only so many scenes of squabbles and disillusionment that we can tolerate before wanting to slit our own wrists.