Perhaps the most you may know about “Blue Valentine” is that it was rated NC-17 for a short period of time before the rating was changed to R. There is, however, more to this movie than that.
“Blue Valentine” tells the story of Cindy (Michelle Williams) and Dean (Ryan Gosling), a young couple with a six-year-old daughter, as they fall out of love. Or, rather, the movie portrays a young couple already out of love with each other, no matter how hard they try to bring back the spark they once had.
Gosling’s and Williams’ acting chops are showcased beautifully throughout the movie. Gosling is nearly unrecognizable as the washed-up failure that Dean is. From his wardrobe to his body language to the lazy, careless drawl with which he speaks, Gosling disappears into his character and becomes Dean. Gone is the fresh-faced youth we knew and loved from “The Notebook” and, in his place, is the alcoholic dreamer with no future.
Williams, too, is heartbreakingly stellar in her portrayal of Cindy, Dean’s wife. With a twist of her mouth or a flick of her eyes, she conveys a whole host of emotions: longing, sadness, anger and frustration. Her weariness as Dean’s overworked wife is palpable through every word and movement.
The ugliness of Dean and Cindy’s marriage is highlighted not only by the actors’ exquisite performances but by cinematographer Andrij Parekh’s beautiful and artful shots. Parekh focuses closely on his actors’ faces, sometimes filling the entire frame with a view of Williams’ profile or Gosling’s eyes. The closeness of these shots feels claustrophobic, particularly during emotionally intense scenes, which heightens the discomfort of watching the death of a marriage. In one tense scene, as Dean and Cindy drive to a “fantasy motel” on a getaway, Parekh’s extreme close-ups on the actors’ faces makes the audience squirm in their seats, unable to escape from Dean’s accusations or Cindy’s unhappiness.
Additionally, the tone of each scene is emphasized by differences in light and color. The dreariness of the couple’s life at home is washed with grey: the light is grey, the sky is grey and color appears muted and almost indistinct. The “Future Room” at the motel is lit by a cold blue light that washes out the actors’ pale faces and even emphasizes the lack of heat — sexual or otherwise — in the relationship.
Director and co-writer Derek Cianfrance intercuts his narrative of a dying marriage with scenes depicting its genesis. We see a happier, brighter Dean and Cindy, aglow in their newfound love with each other. The beauty of their relationship’s beginning is emphasized by contrast with the ugliness of their relationship’s end. The scenes depicting their courtship are awash with bright lights. Cindy wears a bright red skirt and Dean a leather jacket on their first date. Silhouetted against the brightly lit windows of a dry cleaners, Dean plays the ukulele for Cindy and she laughs as she tap dances to the song.
Parekh also artfully and poignantly utilizes the “shaky-cam” technique. In one scene, the camera follows Dean and Cindy as they run hand in hand, becoming shakier and shakier until the picture seems to dissolve into a blur. Though the “shaky-cam” is often used to emphasize realism — as seen in “The Blair Witch Project” — Parekh uses this technique to give the scene a whimsical quality, as if the couple’s joyful laughter and childlike enthusiasm are merely a fleeting fantasy, a dream that fades as quickly as it begins.
The story of the relationship’s beginning is woven into the story of its end, and it is done so the weary Dean and Cindy become, seemingly in the blink of an eye, their more youthful selves. As a result of the back-and-forth narrative, the contrast between the present day and the past is felt very heavily.
There are several scenes that depict sexual acts, which aren’t anything too explicit — certainly not anything to warrant an NC-17 rating — though they are uncomfortable to watch. Cianfrance focuses more on the undertones of the scene, using the sexual acts to highlight and emphasize the deep hurts and bitterness of his characters.
However, the film is not without its flaws. Cianfrance’s narrative extensively portrays the beginning and end of a relationship but leaves out the six years in between. The audience doesn’t get to see what went wrong with the relationship. We don’t see how Dean turns from a hard-working young man into a whiny good-for-nothing who lazes on the couch while his wife cleans. We don’t see why Cindy becomes a sour-faced woman who emanates resentment from the beauty who first captured Dean’s eye — though it is certainly implied.
This narrative gap could be a deliberate storytelling device that leaves the audience to infer that a marriage can become poisonous just because “life” happens and Cianfrance certainly tries to show (through plot devices that are somewhat clichéd) that an unwanted pregnancy and “shotgun marriage” can quickly take a toll on one’s dreams. Still, it is difficult to connect the characters with their younger, brighter selves.
Though the cinematography of the movie is artful, it is not enough to fully develop the characters. We can’t really love Dean and Cindy because their characters aren’t fully realized. We only catch a brief glimpse of who they used to be, which just isn’t enough to emphatize with them completely. They’re more like half-baked ideas than believable characters and that really hinders an emotional connection with them.
However, the movie is good for what it is: a raw, visceral portrayal of love gone sour. It’s certainly not a feel-good movie. It’s not something you can walk away from and feel good. It leaves a bitter taste in your mouth. You see how the final straw in a loveless marriage causes it to completely fall apart. You see how life has turned two bright young people into bitter caricatures of who they used to be. “Blue Valentine” is gritty and grim, sad and depressing. And perhaps that’s exactly what Cianfrance was going for.