Monday, May 16, 2011

Love Story: BLUE VALENTINE

Blue Valentine tells a story that could be told easily, simplistically. After all, how many couples have the same story in its broad outlines? A man and a woman meet. They fall in love. They get married. Time passes. They grow apart. A relationship that starts with playful sparks ends with burns. What elevates this film is its unflinching specificity, its searing emotional intensity, and its marvelous performances. It’s all in the telling. This is a story of love, but it’s not exactly a love story.

When we first meet Dean and Cindy, they’re married with a small daughter and a missing dog. They converse and through their seemingly routine morning conversation it is clear that their relationship is falling apart. Their words crackle and bite at the edges of polite behavior. Tension hangs in the air between every space and silence of the dialogue. Every word spoken feels like a careful yet hasty step into a field of landmines. They agree to a romantic weekend. He books a hotel in a themed hotel with a suite poignantly called “Future Room.” It’s unclear whether or not their marriage has one.

It wasn’t always this way. We see them years earlier. They’re younger, fresher, smoother, two young people maneuvering around each other in the first, gentle steps towards romance. He comes on strong. She resists. They talk. Each word seems to slip carefully, inexorably towards comfortability. He serenades her. She does an awkward little dance. They grow closer. They feel safe together, as if all of their problems will disappear just because they love each other enough to make it work. They’re falling for each other.

Writer-director Derek Cianfrance (with his co-writers Cami Delavigne and Joey Curtis) takes the beginning and the end of this relationship and weaves them together creating interesting resonances and comparisons but serving, most of all, to add layers of tension to an already wrenching portrayal. The film’s structure makes the romance bittersweet and the break-up all the more painful. In the “Future Room” Dean puts in a CD and plays a song – “You and Me” by Penny & the Quarters – in a late attempt to reopen the romance. Later, we’ll hear the same song again. Dean plays it for Cindy early in their relationship, introducing it as “their song.” Indeed it will always be their song, but, as we see all too clearly, the meaning is all too fluid.

We’re a step ahead of the couple when they’re starting out, prematurely pessimistic as they see nothing (or almost nothing) but potential. Then, we’re right with the two of them as their relationship breaks apart. Their past weighs heavily on the current tensions. The break-up is for the best; it has to be. We have plenty of evidence to think that their marriage is untenable, dangerous even. But the dissolution doesn’t feel easy.

The film is so beautifully done, exquisitely haunting, emotionally exposed and harrowing. Like two perfect short stories dancing together, one all beginning, the other all painful end, the film moves between its separate yet intertwined plots with an intuitive, expressive ease. The couple is played by Ryan Gosling and Michelle Williams in performances of such emotional openness and raw conflict and romance that it doesn’t seem like mere acting. No, this is instead a duet between two performers fully inhabiting their characters at two separate moments in their lives. The way they navigate their characters’ internal feelings towards one another and externalize this in painfully raw intimacy is some of the finest screen acting in recent memory.

Watching Blue Valentine doesn’t feel so much like a typical story of a relationship as told in the movies. I felt like I was eavesdropping, looking in on a slow-motion wreck of a relationship while knowing far too much about its beginnings to remain impartial. It feels, at times, queasily personal. This is a film with characters that keep no secrets from us. It’s unflinchingly honest and emotionally draining. When the credits rolled I had to sit in my seat while my heartbeat could normalize and my hands could stop shaking. This is not just an excellently structured drama with amazing performances, though it is. This is a full emotional experience.

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