Friday, May 27, 2011

Blue Valentine: Hurting the Ones You Love

Blue Valentine
US, 2010
Directed by Derek Cianfrance

Amongst the first tricks you learn if you want to pass college-level liberal arts classes are the complementary skills of narrowing in from the general to the specific, and extrapolating from the specific to the general. For the former, you bluntly restate a character's traits from different broad angles (as a made-up example: he's a manual laborer, a person who lives in a world of schematics and blueprints) in order to shed light on facets of the story (this is why he thinks of people as parts, of no use unless in service of some larger "machine"). For the latter, you take a specific scenario or character (a rudderless, unemployed assembly line worker) and make it stand for something bigger (the human cost of America's move from a manufacturing to a service economy). For a critic, these skills become instinctual to the point where you simply can't help but look at stories this way.

I suppose this is why Blue Valentine—a tough film for any audience—has been particularly devastating for critics. Not only do they see this story of a love in its death throes and empathize with the characters on the screen; they must also take in all of the context clues (broken homes, marriages maintained by habit rather than love, elderly couples separated by death) and realize that Derek Cianfrance and his co-writers Cami Delavigne and Joey Curtis have made a picture about the self-perpetuating cycle of doomed relationships in 21st century America.

Blue Valentine's narrative doesn't spell out this theme in a linear fashion. Rather, it cuts between two periods (you could call them The Beginning and The End) that each play out in a linear way. Through this somewhat-unconventional structure, we see Dean (Ryan Gosling) and Cindy (an Oscar-nominated Michelle Williams) meet, marry, and fall apart. He's a blue-collar kid, a high school dropout whose mother abandoned the family when he was still too young to process it. She's the product of the sort of middle-class home where the domineering father and apologetic mother remain together to the detriment of all. These details from The Beginning give you the motivation for Dean's and Cindy's positions at The End: He doesn't want her to become his mother and leave, while she doesn't want to become her own mother and stay.

"Unflinching" is a word that gets tossed around a lot, perhaps too often, in critical circles. But Blue Valentine earns the description. Its shaky, hand-held camera shows us awkward, uncomfortable scenes—both good and bad—of the kind normally kept behind closed doors. Cianfrance and cinematographer Andrij Parekh stay with these scenes in search of the tiny moments, the gestures and expressions that are indicative of each character's state of mind. The script gives them words and phrases to repeat, and the actors imbue these halting repetitions with subtle depth that shows just how stuck their characters have become. We're privy to fights, intimate conversations, even sex scenes, none of which have the typical glamor we've come to expect from a film, and both leads do a great job keeping their performances raw and real.

In a way, this deglamorization is Blue Valentine's primary characteristic and is indicative of its central theme. Aside from their resemblance to Gosling and Williams, there's nothing special about Dean and Cindy. Neither is especially smart, talented, or successful. Theirs is not some magical Hollywood tale, where two stifled souls find each other and reach their hidden potential through love. There is no perfection in this story. It's a story of disappointment, compromise, and the change from "new and exciting" to "old and tiresome." It's a story that could be unfolding in the house next door, with people you know well. It could even be your story.

If I appear to be focusing on the darker aspects of the film rather than the few happy moments found in The Beginning, well, that's sort of the point. As cheerful as scenes like the ukulele serenade/dance or the nursing home meet-cute may be, it's all bittersweet if you know the dark times that lie ahead. While you could certainly take home the lesson to cherish the good moments because they won't last, Blue Valentine doesn't give it to you in anything resembling a friendly, tidy package. Nor does it give us anything close to an easy fix, something to point to and say "If only they'd done X, things would have been different." As I said earlier, the film doesn't take a sanguine view on romance, and it's fully aware that the roots of our relationship issues extend well beyond ourselves.

Blue Valentine shows us that love is hard, and anything with the potential for such high highs also has the potential for painful lows. First, it charmingly reminds us through song that we always hurt the ones we love, and then, through unsentimental realism, it makes good on the promise implicit in the word "always." If anything can be extrapolated from Dean and Cindy's relationship and applied to relationships in a more general way, it's that one generation's poison trickles down into the next, and that this inherited trauma is too difficult to overcome without constant work and self-reflection—and even then there are no guarantees. Are the highs worth the lows? Perhaps. Can the cycle be broken? The film has its doubts.

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