Saturday, January 22, 2011

Blue Valentine: Anatomy of a Doomed Love

Blue Valentine isn’t nearly the heartbreak that it could have been, but this inventive, spare film nevertheless manages to be about a whole lot more than the simple breakup of a couple. For one, the inventive story telling, which jumps back and forth between the beginning and end of the relationship, provides a powerful point/counterpoint rhythm to this couple’s tale. If you’d re-arranged the story and told it with a straight timeline, it wouldn’t be nearly as interesting or meaningful as it is.

Much of the meaning of the movie, in fact, comes out of not knowing what you don’t know about this couple. As their few days of disintegration progress, you’re filled in with critical missing pieces of back story that shed light on conversations and arguments. For example: when Cindy, the wife, accidently runs into an old acquaintance in a convenience store, an argument ensues about why she didn’t mention this to the husband right away. You get the current about jealousy, but it’s not till later – nearly the end of the movie – that you get the full sense of what that scene imports.

Once you know the entire sequence of events and all the facts of the story (that is, once the story ends), it’s obvious why these two never would have lasted. Theirs is the kind of young-person’s relationship or first marriage (or whatever you want to call it) that’s all too common. But from the outset, you don’t know that…the movie immerses you in this couple’s ignorance about themselves (as well as in the extended pressures of their economic and cultural status), and that, perhaps, is its unique genius. When Dean accidently meets Cindy at an old folks home where they are both taking care of elderly wards (Dean takes care of an Army vet he happens to be moving; Cindy takes care of her grandmother. Both of these old people provide convenient mirrors to their own aimless young lives that they are trying to understand), they “meet cute” and – given the violence of Cindy’s previous boyfriend and the loneliness of Dean’s life – they’re immediately smitten with each other.

Riding along the top of this movie – and propelling it along – are the two magnificent performances from Ryan Gosling and Michelle Williams. Without these, you would have a thin movie indeed, and both deserve the Oscar nominations they will hopefully receive. The “present” moment in this film opens three years after they’ve been married. Their dog escapes its pen in the yard…a few hours later, Cindy finds it dead on the side of the road. The movie allows the two actors to fully express the complex emotions of this event – from recriminations to sadness to tenderness and finally, perhaps, a kind of resignation, as each of them mourn the dog both in their own individual way, and also as a couple.

As a dog owner, I found that heavy handed but nevertheless effective. That dog is their dead relationship, and over the next 48 hours the two of them do their utmost to revive it, going through the same sequence of emotions. Dean rents them a hotel room at a couple’s getaway (the “Future room,” ironically, considering that future is what these two have little of). Like most men, Dean is making his version of a genuine attempt at intimacy, one that’s physical. But like most women, what Cindy wants isn’t sex but talk: she needs them to discuss the weighty issues that have gone unresolved between them.

What results is an hour and thirty minutes of yeoman’s acting, interspersed with flashbacks and bits of history. Almost like a stage play, the story introduces its themes: differences between male and female intimacy, living up to what it means to be a man or a woman, fear of repeating parent’s mistakes, differences between class. Designed to provoke discussion, the movie sets up a prism whereby the viewer might justify one character or the other based on one’s own class or gender. That’s why it’s worth seeing with someone with whom you can discuss it afterwards, and in this great couple’s argument, decide who was right.

But as I said at the start, once you know everything, it’s pretty obvious how they got here – if not to them, then to us. That obviousness, I feel, takes away from the puzzle of viewpoint the movie is trying to create. If the couple had been older, or their problems had been less of a cliché, the discussions about the relationship might have carried more weight.

Nevertheless, the movie is fascinating, and both Williams and Gosling are hard to take your eyes off of. Their performances raise this common relationship to an uncommon film, which is a true actor’s art.

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