by Sam Juliano
A dark boat through the gloom—
and whither? The thunder roars But still we have each other!
The naked lightnings in the heavens dither
what have we but each other?
The boat has gone.
After an opening night screening of his brilliant new film at the Angelika Film Center in Manhattan director Derek Cianfrance confirmed that Blue Valentine was “in preparation for no less than twelve years” and that he always felt he was “born to make the film.” The achingly realistic observational “day in the life” styled film may indeed have been a long time in planning mode, but you’d never know it from it’s seemingly improvisational execution, nor in its dearth of events that could be characterized as anything out of the ordinary. There’s more than a hint of Cassavettes here, and the raw and naturistic urgency of the work validates the cinematic use of a magnifying glass to document marriage fallout by way of an aching idiosyncratic portrait. Rarely has movie intimacy achieved such harrowing results. And even rarer still is the remarkable navigation of a narrative balancing act by Cianfrance that has the viewer wondering well after the screen turns black who is really the blame for the painful deterioration of such a supreme example of unconditional love.
Seen initially as overweight and scruffy, Dean (Ryan Gosling) and Cindy (Michelle Williams) are the parents of a five-year-old girl named Frankie, who is the film’s opening scene is callng for a missing dog. Much like the opening words in Hamlet, there’s a sense of despair and marked uncertainty in this opening that carries over to the rest of the film, a segue if you will from bliss to anguish, from celebration to desolation. There is mutual blame and the aftermath of a relationship that has seen far better days. Cianfrance purposefully gives no clues both by way of screen chapters or tonal alteration when the film goes to flashback mode, clearly intimating that there’s little difference in the fragility of temperment on display, that the past and present are as indistinguishable and as interwoven as the the near inevitability of the relationship here that mirrors so many others in this impoverished blue-collar Brooklyn enclave where the film is played out. As Cianfrance’s background is in documentary cinema, it’s easily discernable that naked realism is the order of the day here, and the film’s ample sequences of unbridled sex are stark and intoxicating as they are no-holds-barred in their physical scrutiny. There is no fantasy or compromise in this picture, and there’s an equal dose of rage, violent outbursts, enacted threats, and some telling passages of silence. It’s the kind of film that takes you to a time and place, but never asks for forgiveness, never implies that anything that happens in life is fully predictable.
Gosling (in a raw and volcanic performance that defines “unobserved” screen acting) is seen initially as a house painter, who meets his future wife, a nurse, while paying a visit to patients in a retirement home. Attraction is followed by lust, and a mutually intense involvement. Gosling is seen as a romantic, as he serenades his new found love with a song and a ukelele, even while the far more reserved Williams is a bit more guarded in her responses. Gosling takes a job with a moving company, while Williams is hoping for a permanent position in the medical field. The film unflinchingly illustrates the mind set of early attraction, where marriage is seen as the way to build on, to enhance and to consummate passion. It’s clearly an implied scenario, where a sustained relationship,without the rigors and commitments of marriage would have had a far better chance than what ultimately played out, but Cianfrance (who co-wrote the script with Cami Delavigne and Joey Curtis) is less interested in happy endings than he is in studying incompatibility and it’s dire consequences. As such, one is reminded here of the far more symbolic Revolutionary Road by Sam Mendes, and films where sudden tragedy takes it’s toll on a seemingly innocuous relationship as was recently on display in John Cameron Mitchell’s Rabbit Hole. But Blue Valentine’s amazing authenticity stands apart from those films, due to Cianfrance’s cinematic language, where the flashback sequences were shot utilizing hand-held cameras and a single lens to connote some fond memories by way of hazier textures. There’s a sharper, more unforgiving quality in the present-day scenes, apparently shot with digital cameras with long lenses that are meant to convey the aforementioned improvisational quality that allows the daily events and character interactions to come off with accentuated spontaneity. Cianfrance’s cinematographer, Andrij Parekh, effectively saturates the color for the the real-time sequences to at least allow for that fine line of visual discernment.
Every bit as effective as Gosling, Michelle Williams delivers a fearless performance, cutting to the bone in a painful scene near the end, where Gosling slugs a doctor in a last-ditch attempt to save the failed marriage, a scene where Gianfrance illustrates the tragedy of wanting something (or thinking you really want something) that can be as ellusive as anything in life. The courageous and emotionally searing Blue Valentine is one of the very best films of the year.
Final Rating: ***** (highest rating)
Note: I saw Blue Valentine at 7:45 P.M. on Wednesday evening (Dec. 29th) with Lucille and Melanie at the Angelika Film Center, Director Derek Cianfrance led a post-screening Q & A session with the New York Daily News critic Joey Neumaier, where he revealed some startling details about the film, including the arresting scene where Gosling climbs over the fence on the Brooklyn Brige and threatens Williams that he will jump off. According to Gianfrance, the film crew was on the other side of the bridge, and Gosling boldly decided to do this without Gianfrance’s permission or blessing. Of course it worked beautifully in the narrative arc of the film. The three of us then joined Jason Giampietro for a 10:00 P.M. showing of Mike Leigh’s superlative Another Year, which also takes it’s place among the year’s best films.