Directed by Derek Cianfrance and written by Cianfrance, Joey Curtis, and Cami Delavigne. Blue Valentine tells the story of a young couple whose marriage is unraveling as they both look back at the years when they met and got married. A romantic film that is more unconventional than a lot of films of the genre. It explores the ups and downs into relationships as one is content and the other wants more. Starring Ryan Gosling, Michelle Williams, Mike Vogel, John Doman, and Ben Shenkman. Blue Valentine is a harrowing yet enchanting film from Derek Cianfrance.
It’s another day for Dean (Ryan Gosling) and Cindy (Michelle Williams) as they take their daughter Frankie (Faith Wladyka) to school. Yet, it’s a hard day as their dog went missing while Dean and Cindy seem to be going through some issues. Even as Dean wants a quiet night with Cindy at a motel despite her reluctance. After dropping Frankie off to her grandfather (John Doman), they go to the motel for a night of drinking and fun though Cindy doesn’t seem into it. Even as a conversation leads to more tension between the two with Dean wondering what has come to this.
Years ago, Dean and Cindy met one day when Cindy was visiting her grandmother (Jen Jones) as Dean was helping an old man named Walter move in to an old folks home. Dean was a mover while Cindy was a college student studying medicine while dating a wrestler named Bobby (Mike Vogel). Dean wondered about Cindy as he asked her grandmother about her as the two went on a date and they had fun. Then one day, she became pregnant as the two pondered about what to do. Though Bobby was upset over the news as he confronted Dean, Dean still managed to be in Cindy’s life as he met her parents. While her father wasn’t impressed by Dean, he reluctantly welcomes him to the family as he would see the two unravel years later.
The film is about the life of a young couple of how they met, fell in love, get married, had a kid, and then fall out of love. That doesn’t seem like an exciting story to tell as there isn’t much plot to the film. Yet, it’s all told in a somewhat, non-linear style since it starts off with the marriage in present time as its unraveling. Then it goes to the moment they met and fall in love and inter-cut with them at present time. It’s a style of storytelling that seems like a gimmick but it works. Largely because it allows the audience to see what it was like when they were in love and how they’re falling out of love in the scenes they’re watching now as in comparison to what they were doing then.
The screenplay not only plays up to the film’s non-conventional storytelling but also to how the main characters are portrayed. Dean is a man of simple taste that just likes to please people and charm them. Cindy is a young woman that has aspirations to become a doctor. When they get together, everything seems fun though Cindy’s pregnancy would be a bump they would have to face. Years later when Frankie is already in elementary school, the differences between Dean and Cindy start to show. Though Dean seems content with the way things are, Cindy wants more not just for herself but also Frankie. The difference becomes more troubling with Cindy starting to drift and Dean becoming more desperate to hold on to things.
Derek Cianfrance’s direction is definitely marvelous in the way he presents the film as a simple though unconventional film. While it’s shot in a somewhat, documentary style with lots of close-ups, blurry shots, and all hand-held cameras. The film has a realist approach that doesn’t play up to the conventions of romantic films. Even as the camera is always there on the characters wondering what is going on. One notable factor to the film that has caused a lot of controversy with the MPAA in giving it a NC-17 the first time around has to do with a sex scene.
Well, there are scenes of nudity but the sex isn’t as graphic as the MPAA deemed it to be. The scene that did get the MPAA into such an uproar is a scene where Dean is performing oral sex on Cindy. The problem is that the scene isn’t graphic at all. There’s no explicit shots and it’s presented in a simple way of Cindy having an orgasm while Dean is doing his thing. It’s a sexy yet emotional scene but nothing that is over-the-top nor explicit. Cianfrance’s approach is very subtle as he doesn’t try to overplay the drama. Even in an intense scene where Dean and Cindy argue at her job that is really one of the most horrifying because of how raw it is. The overall work that Cianfrance did is truly spectacular.
Cinematographer Andrij Parekh does an amazing job with the film’s colorful yet grainy photography. Mostly shot in a verite style, Parekh’s photography is never flashy as it has a gritty, street-like look as it’s shot largely in Pennsylvania and parts of New York City. For the nighttime exterior scenes, there is a bit of de-saturation to the photography while the scenes at the motel has a dream-like look that is stunning in its mix of grainy realism and colorful palettes reminiscent of the films of Wong Kar-Wai. It’s definitely one of the film’s technical highlights.
Editors Jim Helton and Ron Patane do a superb job with the way the film is presented. Even as it maintains a leisured pace for the most part while its transitions from a present scene to the scene of the past. Those transitions are what makes the film so interesting as it would go to a scene where Dean is about to answer the phone and then a phone is being picked up by another person at the present time. Even as it goes into jump-cuts to keep the film going as it’s definitely another technical highlight.
Production designer Inbal Weinberg, along with Jasmine E. Ballou and art director Chris Potter, do an excellent job with some of the places they create. Among them is the room of the old man Dean helped moved and the future-room that Dean and Cindy spend their night together as it has a space-look that is fun to see. Costume designer Erin Benach does a very good with the costume designs from the casual yet pretty dresses that Cindy wears to the more ragged look of Dean. Sound designer Dan Flosdorf also does a good job with the sound design to convey the tense atmosphere between Dean and Cindy in the motel room they’re staying while a lot of the other scenes is mostly all over the place whether it’s in a good scene or something dramatic.
The film’s soundtrack features cuts from the likes of the Dirtbombs, Pat Benatar, the Platters, Department of Eagles, Penny & the Quarters, and Matt Sweeney with other musicians. A lot of the music, notably Penny & the Quarters’ You And Me represents the love song for Dean and Cindy while other stuff either conveys their romantic moments or something dramatic. Helping to play up to the film’s drama is music by the indie band Grizzly Bear. Featuring a mostly-instrumental score, the material from Grizzly Bear is very calm and ambient-like as it goes into dramatic tone and tense moments of the film as the overall soundtrack is phenomenal.
The casting by Cindy Tolan is truly excellent with its array of memorable appearances from Melvin Jurdem as the old man Dean befriends, Alan Malkin as a cantankerous cab driver, Jen Jones as Cindy’s grandmother, Maryann Plunkett as Cindy’s mom, and Ben Shenkman as Cindy’s boss at the hospital. John Doman is very good as Cindy’s father Jerry who is always controlling towards his wife while having big suspicions towards Dean. Mike Vogel is excellent as Cindy’s ex-boyfriend Bobby who dislikes Dean as he appears early in the film in present when he bumps into Cindy as he plays a much friendlier person. The best supporting performance is Faith Wladyka as Frankie, Dean and Cindy’s daughter who is a lively person that brings the best in both Dean and Cindy.
Finally, there’s the duet performances of Ryan Gosling and Michelle Williams as they give their most powerful performances of their careers. Gosling is great as the loving but childlike Dean who is content with everything he has despite having no ambition. Gosling definitely creates a performance of a man who starts out looking childlike and then is someone whose starting to have a bald head as he is burned out. It’s definitely Gosling at his finest. Michelle Williams is radiant as Cindy, a young woman with ambitions to be a doctor as she falls for the charming Dean as opposed to the then-brutish Bobby. Williams truly plays a woman who starts out all fun only to be consumed by her own duties as a nurse, a wife, and mother. Even as she plays sexy in the flashback portions of the film only to be insecure and resistant as Williams definitely creates a role that is truly haunting to watch.
Blue Valentine is a mesmerizing, raw, yet exhilarating film from Derek Cianfrance featuring top performances from Ryan Gosling and Michelle Williams. While it’s not a film for conventional audiences wanting a romantic film. It is something that is challenging while features all of things that makes relationship intense and real. Even as it is presented in a form that isn’t traditional as it also doesn’t feature a lot of plot. In the end, Blue Valentine is of 2010’s most fascinating surprises from Derek Cianfrance.