BLUE VALENTINE (Derek Cianfrance, 2010)

Even when necessary, the end of a marriage is a tragedy. Beyond the irreversible dissolution of the couple (even in those rare instances where the couple reunites, things cannot be set back to “square one”), there is something else: as with the death of a couple’s child, the cancellation of a huge emotional investment of hope for the future. Therefore, any film that addresses a troubled union, a marriage for which divorce looms as a possibility, had better take the matter seriously and not trivialize it. I am not talking here about drama versus comedy; the hilariously funny The Awful Truth (1937), for which director Leo McCarey won a richly deserved Oscar, takes marriage and divorce very seriously. Rather, a film must not toy with the subject, for instance, by presenting its material in a clever, virtuoistic, formally distracting manner. From what I had read about it, this was the problem with Blue Valentine. Now that I’ve seen it, I know better. Derek Cianfrance’s both delicate and turbulent survey of a breaking marriage is a seismographically moving, powerful film. Its crosscut mosaic of bits and pieces of different time-frames, while initially daunting, far from subverting the seriousness of the subject matter, creates a highly sensitive, expressive framework for our understanding the increasingly bumpy relationship of Dean Pereira and Cindy Heller, a volatile young couple in Brooklyn, New York. This is a fine American film.
     Cianfrance’s artful, meticulously edited presentation does subvert one thing, however: our judgmentalism. We constantly revise our view of things as the non-chronological train of scenes and snippets unfolds. At the last, we know we can never know enough about the Pereiras to judge either one of them.
     The film’s survey of the Pereiras includes glimpses of their lives before they meet, their meeting and courtship, and the evolution of their relationship. This is a working-class couple, with Dean, a high-school dropout, trying various jobs, as a mover and a house painter, for example, and Cindy, college-educated, eventually a clinic nurse. The film is suffused with loss—for instance, daughter Frankie’s search for her lost dog and her father’s history of a broken home. Loss makes more loss that much more horrible—and, also, that much more anticipated and likely.
     I have both liked and not liked Michelle Williams in various roles; here, I can take her or leave her. It may be that the film’s pieced-together style shortcircuits her effectiveness as an actress. But Ryan Gosling, who closely resembles Cianfrance, more than takes up the slack. His Dean is the heart and soul of the film—an amazing performance.

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