Friday, 21 January 2011

Blue Valentine

Dean: I feel like men are more romantic than women. When we get married we marry, like, one girl, 'cause we're resistant the whole way until we meet one girl and we think I'd be an idiot if I didn't marry this girl she's so great. But it seems like girls get to a place where they just kinda pick the best option... 'Oh he's got a good job.' I mean they spend their whole life looking for Prince Charming and then they marry the guy who's got a good job and is gonna stick around.

Marriage break-up films traditionally revolve around some infidelity or tragic event that shakes the foundations of a previously secure marriage. Blue Valentine avoids these obvious dramatic episodes and enters the more interesting territory of what happens when hairline cracks and fissures appear in a marriage and the centre cannot hold. The film dissects the cliché that people “fall out of love” with a poetic intelligence that reveals the blessing and the pain of love as something elemental to our human experience.

From the outset we sense some bleeding toxicity in Dean and Cindy’s marriage and yet, we cannot locate where the bleed is coming from. They communicate in staccato, accusatory outbursts or silences, thick with loathing and blame. While they live in close proximity to each other, they are emotionally strangers. Husband and wife relate to each other as tenants who cannot remember what brought them together in the first place. They look like two people worn down and defeated by their increasingly futile attempts to keep the fragility of love from shattering in their hands.

Yet, the director, Derek Cianfrance, intercuts historical flashbacks to remind the audience of the times in Dean and Cindy’s relationship when love seemed possible. Dean wooing Cindy by singing you always hurt the one you love in a “goofy voice” as she tap dances in front of a wedding outfitters. The choice of a doo-wop, soul classic that becomes “their song”, the musical glue of their affections. The hushed intimacies, the physical tenderness, the belief that in each other they have found something protecting and ennobling. These glimpses into Dean and Cindy’s past are not just romantic excursions but evidence that, in the words of the poet, Czeslaw Milosz, “love means to learn to look at yourself/The way one looks at distant things/For you are only one thing among many./And whoever sees that way heals his heart...”

Ryan Gosling’s Dean is all bloke-ish charm but with a sense of the real responsibilities that come with trying to be a husband that loves. He is not the stereotypical man who abandons the girl when things get tough. He is not the commitment phobe but is determined to stand by his woman. It is Dean who tries to claw back the relationship from the precipice of destruction and is not frightened to say “I love you” repeatedly in order to do so. Gosling’s blistering performance has a physical rawness that manages to combine coiled-up ferocity and masculine tenderness.

Michelle Williams played one of the wives in Ang Lee’s Brokeback Mountain. In that film, the slow realisation that her husband was living a double life and the grief that came with this knowledge was handled with a pitch-perfect sensitivity and honesty. I doubted that I would see another performance of this quality from Michelle Williams. I was wrong. In Blue Valentine, she manages to convey the sunny passion of love and the desperate hurt when that superficial love begins to burn away leaving the cinders of a failed marriage. Her every look is an autopsy on a dying relationship.

In narrative terms, Cianfrance’s film looks slight but its ability to consider the death of love from within the lives of the characters themselves is powerful and convincing. Who or what is to blame for the failure of this marriage remains a mystery and it this mystery that makes Blue Valentine so believable. This remarkable film lays bare the secret movements of love and shows how falling out of love can, for many of us, be as heart-achingly bewildering as falling in love.

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