Derek Cianfrance, director and co-writer w/Joey Curtis and Cami Delavigne
Starring: Ryan Gosling (Dean), Michelle Williams (Cindy), Faith Wladyka (Frankie), Mike Vogel (Bobby), Ben Shenkman (Dr. Feinberg)
Back in the 1960s, Jean-Luc Godard, then the hottest director in the world, was being interviewed at a lively press conference during the Cannes Film Festival. An interviewer was trying to understand why Godard liked to break up his narratives, often playing fast and loose with characters, location and time. “Surely, Monsieur Godard, every film should have a beginning, middle and end,” said the exasperated journalist. To which Godard replied, “Yes, of course, but not necessarily in that order.”
45 years later, Blue Valentine had its European debut at Cannes, where its fractured timeline certainly caused no concern among the sophisticated viewers of the Un certain regard section of the festival. The American indie film, directed and co-written by Derek Cianfrance dramatizes the beginning and end of a love affair and marriage–but not necessarily in that order. The question that Cianfrance and his producers must be asking this week is: will the public understand why this emotional romantic tale is being presented in a fragmented style?
Whatever the audience’s response will be, there’s no doubt that the two leads, Michelle Williams and Ryan Gosling, are effective as the ill-starred lovers Cindy and Dean. Williams conveys Cindy’s quiet but persistent ambitions, winsomely as a teenager and more blatantly, with anger and longing, as an adult. Gosling’s Dean is a complex figure, filled with talent but brought down by low self-esteem: a man going nowhere trying to fit in with a woman who wants to be somebody.
It’s remarkable to see how far Williams has gone in the past few years. The ingénue who won hearts in the TV series Dawson’s Creek in the ’90s has evolved into a remarkable actress, performing as the love starved Alma in Brokeback Mountain, in the ensembles of Synechdoche, New York and I’m Not There and as the lost traveler searching for her dog in Wendy and Lucy. Beautiful blondes don’t have to work this hard in Hollywood but Williams is clearly an artist, willing to use her stardom to allow her to play the difficult parts that excite her.
She’s matched well with Canada’s Ryan Gosling, who has shown a similar commitment to immersing himself in roles. Also a child star and former member of the Mickey Mouse Club with Britney Spears, Justin Timerlake and Christina Aguilera, he has gone on to play absolutely challenging roles as a neo-Nazi in The Believer, a drug-addicted teacher in Half Nelson and an eerie “romantic” in Lars and the Real Girl.
These two superb performers are well served by Cianfrance’s story, which offers a tale of romance with all of its complexity. Strip apart the time disjuncture and you have the story of a simple working guy, a mover, who falls for a high school girl who has become pregnant and doesn’t want to stay involved with the arrogant guy who got her that way. Without consciously intending to do so, that girl–Cindy–ends up marrying Dean, the blue-collar boy who loves her not wisely but well.
We find out the back-story after a while. In the present, the still charming Dean is a great dad to Frankie, their little girl but not so successful as Cindy’s partner. The beautiful blonde had wanted to be a doctor back in high school; now she’s a very competent nurse. Dean is content to drink too much, work as much as is needed and love his wife and kid.
Blue Valentine moves us back and forth in heartrending style. We see what Dean had to offer Cindy when she was young. It wasn’t just love or a safe harbour: he genuinely was funny and musical and free spirited. And we understand Cindy’s anger with Dean’s abdication of adult responsibility. After nearly a decade, charm wears thin.
Cianfrance’s film is a beautifully rendered character study of how two people discover that love isn’t enough. Set in the hardscrabble world of American factory workers, service industry professionals and high school dropouts, Blue Valentine is a film that has much to recommend it. If it seems pat or obvious to those used to Godardian techniques, that’s not a bad thing. This isn’t a film for the avant-garde; its heart is with the people and the tragedy of a love affair gone wrong.