By Richard von Busack
The mood of Blue Valentine is like the Dave Alvin song “Fourth of July” set to film. It’s July 3 for a working couple in Scranton, PA.: Cindy (Michelle Williams) is a nurse at an ob/gyn clinic married to Dean (Ryan Gosling), a house painter. He wakes up in his clothes, sitting in the living room, to find out that the gate is open and the family dog is missing. The couple gets their 5 year old daughter Frankie (Faith Wladyka) fed and taken to school while trying not to start a fight. It’s not easy. Cindy is cross, and the too-playful Dean is a man to set nerves on end, with his sloppiness, and his habit of playing music before she’s had her coffee.
The two of them set out to work. In the evening, they rendezvous at the school to watch Frankie sing "Yankee Doodle Dandy" in the Fourth of July show at her kindergarten; on the way there, Cindy encounters the corpse of the dog, struck by a car. Fooling the daughter with a story about how the dog went away, they bury him in secret.
That evening, Dean has a really bad idea. He and his wife will head for one of those honeymoon-themed motels in the Poconos for a romantic getaway. He pressures her into accepting. They stop for vodka. And at the state liquor store, Cindy runs into an old boyfriend named Bobby (Mike Vogel) whom she hasn't seen since college. What Bobby has to say to her is too blunt to be described as flirting. Safely back in the car, Cindy and Dean travel to the hotel, some two hours away.
There are flashbacks to how Dean and Cindy met, 5 or 6 years previously. Dean was once an aimless kid, working at a moving van company in Brooklyn. On a job in Pennsylvania, he has a chance encounter with Cindy. She was, at the time, a pre-med student involved with Bobby, a real alpha-male on the wrestling team. Not knowing that she’s sleeping with someone already, Dean decides that Cindy is his destiny, his love at first sight.
And now, they have been married for some five years. “Welcome to the future,” Dean says as they settle down to some serious drinking in the theme hotel room; the Future Room is all they could get, since everything else was booked. The couple, on edge already, spends the night in a space-ship decorated chamber with steel walls, a glowing console and a round rotating bed out of a ‘60s science fiction film. The memories come back unbidden, all the way to the hung-over dawn.
Blue Valentine’s biggest problem is common to films that have been slaved over for a decade, just as this one was. Cianfrance has been mulling the film over for 12 years, rehearsing and rewriting it mercilessly. That kind of method doesn’t automatically equal greatness—one can try confidence, one can try acting, instead of putting the actors through manual labor, as he did, to make it look like they feel like they have blisters. After all that time of rewriting and rethinking, some of the details seem to still be in the director's head. The viewers have to fill in a lot of blanks. Why is it that Cindy, who is studying to be a nurse, thinks that coitus interruptus is a valid method of birth control? What's the reason for Dean’s drastic change of look: as a married man he has more stubble, less hair, Elvis glasses, and a truck stop t-shirt with an American eagle's head in profile on it. He’d seemed so hip earlier, even carrying a ukulele around with him; when did he decide to start dressing like a redneck? (He’s a ringer for Jason Lee in My Name is Earl.)
The movie’s shifts of time grind, despite the smooth matching shots: the lacy green roadside weeds of the future, giving way to a bunch of flowers held in Dean's hand, for his first meeting with Cindy’s parents. It’s possible Cianfrance wants us disoriented. We humans are never entirely in the past or the present; reveries of what we did and what we’ll do someday always intrude in the present.
Still, we keep asking: where are we in the story now? The soundtrack, like the dialogue, seems semi-improvised; something with more structure or recognizable themes might have separated past from present. The tunes are by the folk-rock band Grizzly Bear; there's some nouveau-Brooklyn irony in the name, since these noodlers sound more like the Teddy Bears’ Picnic. They dandle some strings over the action. This sort of music is most apt in the scenes of the child Frankie watching her world (she's watchful, though it's not until the end of the movie that she figures out something terrible is happening between her parents).
One tough bit of music in Blue Valentine is a love song, representing the eye of Dean and Cindy’s storm: “You and Me” by Penny and the Quarters—it’s a relic, a 70’s sweet-soul demo discovered by a collector at an estate sale in Columbus, Ohio. The tune is the one piece of music that can make the couple pretend they’re in love again.
The performances on the outer rings of Blue Valentine aren’t quite as dense as what Gosling and Williams give us. Sylvia Sidney look-alike Jen Jones brings a gentle solitude to the part of Cindy’s grandmother. Ben Shenkman, who plays the doctor at Cindy's clinic, needed about three times as much screen time as he got to develop his motives; the ultimate revelation of his motives seems far too blatant. John Doman as Cyndi’s father is perfectly formidable: one glance and you can see why his daughter is so rebellious.
It’s a feminine kind of movie, not to say feminist. Blue Valentine’s main point of view belongs to Cindy, who, as the dissatisfied party, takes over the film.
Cinema always favors the moving over the still. Dean doesn’t want to move, to go anywhere. He’s made it in life: he's in love with his wife, and as a house painter, he gets to drink beer on the job. And Gosling—one of the best actors we’ve got on the indie-movie scene— plays it childish, or childlishly debonair. He calls his seething wife “Saucy little minx” as if that will sweeten her temper. He’s insistent, but so is a drowning person.
What we start to see, thanks to Michelle Williams’s slow burning, is something bigger than this couple’s feud. It’s something more like the war of the body and the soul. Problem-wracked as it is, Blue Valentine is one of the most ambitious films of 2010; there’s far too much challenge to the insipid rom-com in here to dismiss this particularly brave and savage view of a relationship being held together by nostalgia and guilt.
The intimacy and the wrath are lived in, emotionally accurate: only married people really treat each other this way. And by “this way,” I’m not hinting at the film’s scenes of sexual intimacy, which caused a tangle with the rating board. For once the MPAA sensibly backed down from an R rating.
The sex scenes are fixated upon by the more heavy weight film critics, and that’s OK because they help popularize an important and tragic film. But there’s nothing popularly erotic about the way Cindy handles Dean’s need for intimacy. Nor is there any pleasure in the way she tries to get him off, to make him happy and shut him up.
More than anything, Blue Valentine makes it clear what a terrible thing “romantic destiny” would be if it really existed. As for Williams: Wendy and Lucy suggested this actress had something deep inside her and we see it revealed here. It's her finest work: it's something that reflected and sometimes improves upon classic work by Ingrid Bergman and Marilyn Monroe (who she’ll be playing soon). She simply gives the single best female performance of the year.