Messy Heartbreak: Gosling and Williams Go the Distance

City Pulse | December 15, 2010
Ryan Gosling and Michelle Williams credibly play a young married couple--Dean and Cindy--whose relationship is falling apart in director/co-writer Derek Cianfrance's heavyweight romantic drama. Housepainter Dean (Gosling) is a caring father to the couple's young daughter Frankie (Faith Wladyka). The pressures of working as a nurse constantly on call have made Cindy deeply unsatisfied with her marriage and role as a mother. The filmmakers use a flashback motif to show a series of events and adventures that led to couple to marry under less-than-ideal circumstances.

Cinematographer Andrij Parekh ("It's Kind of a Funny Story") creates a beguiling compositional scheme that incorporates extreme close-ups of the actors' faces for most of the current-period sections of the dueling narrative. In the flashbacks we discover how Dean wooed Cindy when he worked as a professional mover. In the film's most charming scene Dean plays a ukulele and sings while Cindy tap-dances in the doorway of a closed shop at night. The emotional and sexual vibrancy between Gosling and Williams is unavoidable. Sex is a significant ingredient in the film. The emotionally honest scenes of lovemaking are exquisitely executed to give depth and meaning to the relationship.

Derek Cianfrance began making films at 13. He's worked primarily in the documentary format since then. His training has given him specific ideas about compartmentalizing narrative aspects that inform his rigorous process here. For "Blue Valentine" Cianfrance crafted a specific list of rules. All of the past, or flashback sequences of the couple, are shot on film. The current period of their relationship is recorded on digital cameras. For the sequences of the pair falling in love, both actors are held inside the frame as much as possible. But Dean and Cindy are captured individually during the waning days of their marriage. It's a methodology that works subliminally on the audience, making us aware of personal aspects of the characters that go far beyond the scripted page. When Dean shows up at the clinic where Cindy works he sees her happy and smiling. "Is this where the smiles happen?" It's as if Cindy becomes a different person at work. His reaction tells us everything about the status of their relationship. The doctor Cindy works for has been flirting with her. He even makes plans to move his practice with the expectation that she will follow him. Although Cindy pretends to be unaware of the doctor's advances, e-mail clues that Dean discovers tell another story.

"Blue Valentine" represents a new generation of cutting-edge filmmaking. The film uses sex not in a pornographic way, although it is fairly explicit. It's not a method that Cassavetes would have approved, but it achieves a similar imprint of tangible emotional reality. We get the full force of the meaning in the universal physical expression at hand. Like Cassavetes's films, "Blue Valentine" is messy about love and heartbreak.

Ryan Gosling and Michelle Williams are two of the finest young American actors working in film today. The emotional colors and understated psychological transitions that Gosling and Williams reveal make watching them a pure joy. As the title suggests, "Blue Valentine" is a sad love story, and a very personal one as well.

Rated NC-17. 120 mins. (A) (Five Stars - out of five/no halves)
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