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David Thomson on Films: 'Blue Valentine'

The movie's biggest strength is also its biggest problem.

 As the award season builds, Blue Valentine is being promoted by the Weinstein Company as “the most provocative film of the year.” That’s not far-fetched: This is a challenging experience, and a conscientious effort to expose raw lives. But is it a movie or a new way of revealing helplessness? Perhaps the picture’s largest strength and problem is that its two embedded performances--from Ryan Gosling and Michelle Williams--leave us realizing their characters may not be suited to either marriage or a great fictional movie. A documentary urge is fighting against the control of narrative. 

The couple are Dean and Cindy, and a large part of the film is trying to be sure who they are as their marriage comes apart. He didn’t graduate from high school, yet he has good instincts. His jobs are not satisfying, but it’s unclear why he drinks. Cindy finished school. She wanted to be a doctor once, and now she is a nurse, though it hurts her to discover that a doctor may want to fuck her, too. The couple has a daughter, and it seems to me the film leaves it unclear whether the child is Dean’s or the result of another affair, with Bobby, a vain thug who beats Dean up when he loses Cindy. The child, Frankie (the six-year-old Faith Wladyka), is adorable--but that can be a soft option. Real children are thinking beings and thought makes problems (as well as being adorable).

Why has the marriage gone wrong, or dry? It’s a question begged by the film’s structure--a  complex, unsignaled scheme of flashbacks that cover meeting, the Bobby event, falling in love, marriage, childbirth, and then, the sadder days of separation within the same household. Dean is flaky, a drifter, though a good-natured guy; Cindy is more ambitious and maybe more naturally unhappy (because she expects more out of life). Yet it’s hard to say why the marriage has failed, except from the ordinary attrition of distance and difference. Were they ever really suited? No one is to blame, and, in life, we know that is how unmet desires build up. For so many people, marriage is the portal to disappointment. 

So it’s not that Blue Valentine is anything but life-like. Except at one point. Gosling and Williams are not under-educated, inarticulate people muddling towards their brink. They are brilliant craftspeople pretending to be Dean and Cindy. No one interested in acting will want to miss this film. There are stories that the players (and the child) lived together to learn the habits of family; that they put on weight to show aging. Williams especially has let her prettiness be flattened. Beyond that, the cast let improvisation enrich a movie full of natural talk. Any viewer will feel that commitment, and a sense of these people having lived through thick and thin. Still, the pursuit of improvisation can be an abdication in screenwriting (director Derek Cianfrance wrote this with Joey Curtis and Cami Delavigne).

The intelligence in the actors deserves more developed or interesting characters. I admire the wish to make a film about a class of people who seldom reach the American screen. This is close to the dilemma in the work of John Cassavetes, who seems to be Cianfrance’s creative base. But it is hard for actors to play characters less intelligent than they are, without condescension setting in, or without a really penetrating script.

The script for Blue Valentine is not good enough. It is unable to decide whether to be life-like or fictional; whether to let eloquence lift the lives of people who do not possess that function. So, the more absorbed I became in the performances of the film, the less moved I felt, and the more I believed I was watching a workshop for actors of the highest order. Especially toward the end, the flashbacks seem less naked or spontaneous than obtrusively tidy and complacent.

This actorly gloss is not an issue with Blue Valentine alone. We have seen so many movies and so much acting in our lives that we may be more alert to performance than existence. Perhaps in our very lives and behavior we have become increasingly studied and “skilled.” For all those reasons, I came away aware that I did not know these people enough to care.

Something in the filming adds to the problem. Cianfrance has chosen to shoot the present-day material in telephoto close-ups. The result is claustrophobic with intense, clinging views shot from some distance so the background is often out of focus--in fact, on what is plainly a low-budget film there are recurring focus problems. This method lets us feel confined (the characters seldom have space to work in) and suggests that Dean and Cindy don’t notice the real world or relate to it. But, in taking away context, the mystery of the characters becomes greater. They go to the “future room” at a theme hotel to try to repair the marriage. It is plainly a horror--yet we never see it fully. We have similar uncertainty about their home.

Whenever space is admitted--as in a strange, tender dance scene from early on--you can see how much it might help. The shooting style may have been adopted to let the actors feel unpressured. But I think it was a mistake: If the actors are liberated, that does not necessarily help our regard for their trapped characters.

I wouldn’t nag at Blue Valentine if it were less worthwhile. This is a rare attempt, though I’m not sure the director has established his talent yet. The people who flourish here are Gosling and Williams, two of the fine actors in America now. But the best actors need better scripts. So this falls short of the anguish Ingmar Bergman discovered in several movie marriages. Nor is it as compelling as barbed marital comedies like The Philadelphia Story and His Girl Friday. But Blue Valentine deserves high credit for never cheating on ordinary, inarticulate lives that feel far from “movie romance.” Its most provocative hope is that it wants to be something more and less than “a movie.”

David Thomson is the author of The New Biographical Dictionary of Film and The Moment of Psycho: How Alfred Hitchcock Taught America to Love Murder.