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Quite by accident I had the opportunity to watch back-to-back films at the festival ruminating on the destructive force of love, ignited first in Tracy Wright’s haunting monologue in Trigger, and then extrapolated in fine detail through the anatomy of a divorce that is Blue Valentine. Director Derek Cianfrance took twelve years to stew on what he wanted to say about love and marriage in his film Blue Valentine, the principle actors, Michelle Williams and Ryan Gosling, had over half a decade to think about how they would bring Cindy and Dean to life – this rare gift to the creative process paid off astoundingly as the final product is second only to Ingmar Bergmans’ Scenes from a Marriage in its capacity to lay bare the wounds of love after the veil of the honeymoon phase has been lifted. Like in Bergman’s film, the destructive force at play in the marriage of Cindy and Dean is not one of particular abuse or issue but rather emotional illiteracy. Try as they might to understand one another or even have a civil conversation, the lack of a common grammar keeps them perpetually on edge. Complicating the matter is their mutual love for their daughter who goes through the majority of the film oblivious to the underlying fissures of their family unit.
The film intercuts moments of the first blush of love with scenes of the last gasp and inevitable destruction of their union, the two timelines building towards the harshest of contrasts by the final scene. This play with chronology is reminiscent of Francois Ozon’s 5×2 and a far, far superior handling of what was attempted in 500 Days of Summer. Out of this collage of moments a sense of who these people are emerge, the realization is slow in coming as pertinent information about their relationship is teased out, just when you think you understand a character motivation or takes sides on an issue, a new development in the story challenges your assumptions. The effect is intoxicating. When Cindy attempts to casually tell Dean of an encounter of a old flame in the liquor store, it’s like the air in the car is slowly escaping, and having not been privy to the history underlying their conversation what you are left with is visceral drama, is he going to lash out? Is she going to burst into tears? The scene teeters on the edge as does the bulk of the denouement. When the fireworks come, literally and figuratively, you know it has been a long time coming.
The performances of Michelle Williams and Ryan Gosling are of such a caliber of nuance that they scarcely registered as performances, it’s only in retrospect that I realize what kind of achievement it was. A testament to the characters they created, and to Cianfrance’s attentive script, Cindy and Dean feel wholly genuine. Those inquiring to the whereabouts of the actor that shone so brightly in Half-Nelson may rest assured that he is back in top form here. Ryan Gosling is incredible, and I don’t care if it is a cliché to say but he is every bit Brando at the top of his game in his portrayal of Dean as a principled bully capable of restraint and articulation one moment, weakness and aggression the next. A lesser film would try to demonize Dean as an aggressive lout but in Blue Valentine he comes off immensely sympathetic while still quietly pissing you off at the same time. Michelle Williams as Cindy is a somewhat quieter performance but only because of the potential eclipse Gosling’s evokes. Her character too, resists succumbing to the stereotype, not merely a screaming wife at her wit’s end, Cindy is a woman who was never fully whole yet capable of modest ambition that dissolved over time. With respects to her feelings for Dean, her body tells her what her heart should have known long ago, and in one of the signature scenes of the film, Cindy wrestles with this conflict in one drunken night in the ‘Future room’.
I was afraid from its buzz at Sundance that Blue Valentine would be one of those safe Indie movies that pays lip service to weighty emotions but is really more quirky than ponderous. I was not fully prepared with the candor and conviction of Cianfrance’s vision, this is the real thing. Everything from the quiet animosity of their relationship to the frank body language of sex just aches with a sincerity that is above and beyond most films of this kind of Indie sheen. That said, the film has a gritty texture to it, it feels lived in, and the musical choices (mostly Grizzly Bear) are pitch-perfect. My one complaint is the inexplicable absence of the title song by Tom Waits, not only is it a phenomenal song but its lyrics seem like a blueprint for the entire film, how did it not make it anywhere in the film?! Small complaint for such a monumental achievement, quite possibly the best film I have seen at TIFF this year.