Playwright Arthur Miller once had a fictional surrogate say for him, “I am bewildered by the death of love. And my responsibility for it.” With his debut film Blue Valentine, Derek Cianfrance dives into the bewilderment about the shared responsibility of a broken relationship.
The unflinching, unerringly truthful results of this divorce-era dissection of love and marriage comprise a rare and most welcome grown-up romantic drama. Ironically, Blue Valentine is itself a labor of love, birthed from a twelve-year development process on the part of Cianfrance and oversized commitment from stars Michelle Williams and Ryan Gosling, who respectively stuck with the project for six and four years. The commitment extended to “Method”-style preparation, with the couple and their screen child living together (by day) for a month to populate an empty house with the appropriate physical and emotional clutter. Though “It’s all there on the screen” usually refers to budgets north of a hundred million dollars, Blue Valentine earns the remark with but a sliver of that number.
At the film’s present-day outset, we find youngish couple Dean (Gosling) and Cindy (Williams), along with kindergarten-age daughter Frankie (Faith Wladyka), living in that house in rural Pennsylvania. The early scenes show a functional family with everyday tensions, little fissures that eventually erupt. Dad’s attentive but a little too buoyant; Mom’s wearily responsible but nearly humorless. The point is pressed when the family dog goes missing, with an emotional fallout that sends Frankie to the grandparents for a spell and forces Dean and Cindy to deal with each other.
In a clumsy bid for romance, Brooklyn-bred Dean insists, “We have to get out of this house. Let’s go get drunk and make love.” So the couple repairs to a honeymoon hotel and encamps in the cheesily decorated (and pointedly chosen) “Future Room.” “We’re going to the future!” Dean enthuses, but the film has already begun making trips into the couple’s past. As structured by Cianfrance and co-writers Cami Delavigne and Joey Curtis, the story unfolds in two timelines: the present-day and six years earlier, when the couple meet, court, and marry.
The structure isn’t an innovation, but it’s handled with exceptional gracefulness and poignancy, with scenes from each timeline informing and deepening scenes from the other. In this way, Blue Valentine artfully evokes life rhythms and the seasons of a relationship. Doing heroic, miraculous work, Gosling and Williams use every weapon in the actor’s arsenal. Though their greater skill is in their contrapuntal emotional depth, external appearances and gestures add to the effect: Gosling added pounds and thinned his hair for present-day scenes, and Williams’ body language speaks volumes about Cindy’s sense of self across the years (in one particularly thoughtful choice, her younger Cindy likes to run her fingers through Dean’s hair).
Andrij Parekh shoots skillfully on the fly, using soft, natural light and finding visual poetry in the mundane (at one point, the marrieds literally find themselves in the weeds). But it’s the consistently revealing characters that make Blue Valentine so special, a postmodern tragedy of two people at odds who are both right and both wrong in their argument, sharing responsibility for the birth and death of love.
[This review first appeared in Palo Alto Weekly.]
Anchor Bay delivers Blue Valentine to hi-def in a solid Blu-ray special edition. The hi-def image comes in two flavors of source material, since the film is constructed from HD footage and 16mm footage. The film gets an accurate transfer reflecting the filmmakers' intent, for the most part. Color and contrast meet muster, but for some reason, the HD footage suffers from some artifacts that shouldn't be native to the material shot on the Red One camera: banding and occasional macroblocking or jaggies. The 16mm footage has no such distractions, and the hi-def detail is good all around, certainly standing head and shoulders over DVD. No complaints about the DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1 mix, which is more than up to the demands of the dialogue-driven picture, with well-placed ambience creating a solid immersion.
First among the bonus features is the audio commentary with director Derek Cianfrance and co-editor Jim Helton. This is the meatiest extra, with the pair covering the bases about what it took to get the film to the screen, while also discussing artistic choices, the work of the actors, and what ended up on the cutting room floor.
The disc includes four "Deleted Scenes" (19:45, SD): "Relationship Talk in the Van," "Makeup in the Rain," "The Park," and "That Face."
"The Making of Blue Valentine" (13:50, SD) features set footage and interview clips with the filmmakers and Michelle Williams and Ryan Gosling.
"Frankie and the Unicorn (Home Movie)" (3:04, SD) constitutes both test footage of the screen family (shot during their rehearsal period) and a mock-home-movie short film.
If you haven't yet seen the best film of 2011, do yourself a favor and get this disc in rotation.
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