A dazzling, thought-provoking reflection on love found and love lost, Derek Cianfrance’s Blue Valentine puts marriage on trial.
Till The Petals Fall by Mark Wilshin
CAUTION: Here be spoilers
Eleven years in the making, Derek Cianfrance has had time to get Blue Valentine right. It’s taken that long to recruit producers as well as indie darlings Michelle Williams and Ryan Gosling, who shoulder the film with their electric performances as Dean and Cindy, twenty-somethings falling in love and thirty-somethings entangled in an end-of-days cold war of recrimination. But it’s been time well spent. For Blue Valentine is virtually faultless, every song perfectly pitched, every frame expertly elaborated. And as the sparks fly in these twin stories and the fires of passion burn out, it’s not just smoke gets in your eyes.
From the opening scene of daughter Frankie calling for lost dog Megan, there’s an air of foreboding that doesn’t so much haunt Blue Valentine as possess it. The loveless state of Dean and Cindy’s marriage pokes through a surface amiability – the husband asleep in the armchair, jaded digs at Daddy – as the couple play happy families for Frankie. But when Cindy finds the dead labrador on the side of the road, the blame game begins in earnest. And leaving Frankie with apneic granddad, they head, not altogether graciously, to cash in their sex hotel voucher in the Future Room. Instead of the cosier sounding Cupid’s Cove, they head for their neon-lit and windowless room, where their relationship stands trial in a final, claustrophobic danse macabre.
The backstory is framed through Cindy’s eyes, remembering the romance as she was whisked off her feet by charmingly beansy Dean. There’s even a startling cross-narrative eyeline as Dean comes out of Walter’s room, an old-timer he’s just helped move from the Big Apple to a Pennsylvanian old people’s home, to Cindy in the present, looking out over her husband as he buries their dead dog. The eyeline is only later woven back into its true narrative weft as Cindy steps out of her grandma’s room at the same nursing home for their first eye-sparkling meeting. There’s a delicious chemistry as Dean anxiously convinces Cindy the tip he earned isn’t stolen pickings from Walter. But it’s little more than a brief encounter until Dean chances upon Walter’s forgotten locket and seizes the opportunity to return to Carbondale and give fate a helping hand. Meeting by chance on a bus, their romance is fluorescently real; Dean all puppylike exuberance, Cindy reluctant grace. But as they bond over Walter’s locket, imagining for him a long and happy marriage, love becomes a fiction they invent together.
While their love story is filmed on handheld 16mm film, the present is captured through static, digital close-ups. It’s a subtle sleight of hand by DOP Andrij Parekh, but it’s his beautiful cinematography of a grainy NYC that really shines, imbueing their romance with a sunny Manhattan poetry. Slowly revealing themselves to each other, there’s black humour and loved-up goofiness as Cindy sings the US presidents or dances to Dean’s ukulele rendition of You Always Hurt The Ones You Love. Despite this rather foreboding ditty, their relationship takes off, albeit only once Dean has unloaded all Cindy’s baggage – an unwanted pregnancy and violent ex-boyfriend Bobby.
Throughout their romance, the couple muse naively on love; Dean philosophising that men are more romantic than husband-hunting women or that his love at first sight for Cindy was uncanny – a feeling he knew her, which in the end was just a feeling. Cindy too waxes pragmatic on this meeting of kindred souls, questioning her grandmother over the nature of true love and how to trust your feelings when they can just disappear? They’re optimistic, but it’s a bittersweet love pierced by life, and when Cindy abandons the abortion it’s up to Dean to step up to fatherhood no matter whose daughter Frankie might be.
There are no happy marriages in Blue Valentine and if the flashback couple are drunk on love, the present Dean and Cindy are just drunk. Gut-wrenchingly cross-purpose, Dean attempts to salvage their marriage with drink, dancing and making love while apprehensive Cindy recedes into the icy depths of estrangement. They skirt cautiously round prickly conversations, about Bobby who Cindy bumps into at the liquor mart and Dean’s romantic fecklessness – his simple life fulfilled with being a husband and father. But Cindy’s out of love with this Peter Pan and her worries about his decorating career are more concerns for his post-divorce future. In the Future Room, their planets orbit a couple of times, wrestling in foreplay and dancing to their song. But the ice melts only a little, and even as Cindy gives Dean her body, her soul is hidden away. Dean’s violent protestations (“Shall I rape you?) are ugly but provocative, aiming at some exposed underbelly of emotion beneath Cindy’s steel shell. But she remains glacial and quickly escapes from couple claustrophobia to behind a locked door.
Their lost love may be seen through Cindy’s eyes, but the story’s heart belongs to Dean and Blue Valentine is seen through male eyes. Not only does Dean chivalrously exonerate her from her violent exes and lingering pregnancies, but he’s the only one trying to salvage their marriage, living only for his family. And, driven to distraction by her coldness, when she finally hurls her unfeelingness towards him, “I have nothing left for you, nothing!”, he takes the blame, conforming to the world’s view of him as a drunken good-for-nothing, promising to make amends and be a better man. It’s a self-sacrifice that threatens to erase him, as the eternal boy wanders out of the final reel, banished from his reason for being.
As the credits roll fireworks illuminate the screen, sparkling and dying like Dean and Cindy’s love. It’s a melancholy metaphor and just as Blue Valentine exposes only the burn and fade of their relationship, there’s no normalcy for an audience to hang hope onto. Not privy to their love’s gradual erosion, only its gasp into life and final death rattle, there’s a gloomy despair to their relationship, a blue doom reflected in Dean’s trailer-trash glasses or flecked onto his paint-stippled arms. Blue Valentine is the hopeless tale of lovers growing apart, as what was once enchanting innocence turns into irritating childishness. And with firecracker performances from Michelle Williams and Ryan Gosling, Blue Valentine is an everyday tragedy you can believe in.
Blue Valentine is released in the UK on 21st January 2011