Love stories have been told many different ways in Hollywood. First time director Derek Cianfrance puts an interesting spin on the genre in his new drama, Blue Valentine. With talented stars Ryan Gosling and Michelle Williams on board, the director ambitiously attempts to show a couple's puppy-love beginning and heartbreaking end simultaneously. It's an interesting concept however, his unconventional storytelling method of non-linear crosscuts and switchbacks gave the film a feeling of undernourished incompleteness.
Dean (Gosling) and Cindy (Williams) are a couple on the skids. Gosling's Dean is a man-child, wiseacre with a receding hairline and Raoul Duke sunglasses. He's a loving husband and father, but a schlub and an underachiever. (He's constantly got a cigarette glued to his lip and a beer in his hand). Even in the film's earliest moments as Cindy prepares breakfast for Dean and their daughter it's evident that the distant between the pair is ever-growing. Michelle Williams as Cindy is the film's heavy-lifter, acting with her sour puss and tired eyes as opposed to Gosling who plays Dean with a childish charm. Cindy is a hardworking medical assistant who's clearly aggravated with her husband's lack of ambition as well as her own failed aspirations and poor choices. The movie depicts 24 hours in the life of Dean and Cindy including their last gasp attempt to reconnect at a sleazy lover's motel.
Of course director Cianfrance (who also co-wrote the screenplay) has higher ambitions for his film than that. The story is frequently interrupted with flashbacks explaining how Dean and Cindy first met. Dean was a mover in those days and had a full head of hair, a courageous charm, and a romantic's spirit. Cindy was only a student with a lugubrious home life and a desire to find a guy who would show her the decency her mother never got. This Dean-and-Cindy are only five years younger, but freedom and hope pervade them. Gosling and Williams' chemistry is most enchanting in this delightful early courtship. An early scene on a bus has Gosling winning hearts with cutesy humor and smooth talking. Williams reciprocates moments later with an adorable tap-dance to Dean's ukulele Elvis rendition. The film captures the purity and excitement of that first connection with moving clarity.
Yet Cianfrance's film is less concerned with feelings of warmth as with the bitter chills that replace them. The kind filling the air at that tacky motel where we find Dean and Cindy today. It's a loveless and suffocating place -- especially since the cinematography is spookily Casavettes-style with extreme close ups and grainy film. (The screen feels caked with so much grit you could scrape it off with your finger). The chasm forming between man and wife is most palpable in that motel room -- not as anger or aggression, but as a kind of cold intimacy exacerbated by that claustrophobic aesthetic. An awkward lovemaking scene erupts on the filthy floor -- cheesy futuristic themed decor is visible on the bed and the walls around them -- and Cindy goes limp with apathy. "I don't want your body," Dean shouts with disgust, "I want you." The moment is symbolic of a relationship fallen fatally lifeless. This is a couple spiraling toward complete dissociation. And Gosling and Williams' extraordinary performances attain biting realism from these love-sick-souls grown weary.
But despite it all, Blue Valentine ends up as divided as its two protagonists -- almost like a bisected now-and-then chronology with only intimations connecting the dots. How Dean and Cindy ever went from sweet and idealistic kids to miserable and life-hardened trailer trash is beyond me. With no explanation in the narrative, Cianfrance's trendy back-and-forths begin to resonant superficially -- like party tricks as opposed to carefully constructed storytelling devices. On top of that, his Cinema Verite approach plays out so rawly -- with enough dead dogs, dads on oxygen, and overly-explicit sexuality to evoke a come on already -- that it turns Dean and Cindy into little more than pitiable victims.
Maybe they were victims, of life, and of each other. But truly stimulating cinematic experiences come when the viewer is able to empathize with and embrace a film's characters with a true personal investment. The sharp and heartfelt performances of Ryan Gosling and Michelle Williams encouraged that response, but the over-ambitious pyrotechnics of Cianfrance's direction made their plight something of a charity case. With so many missing pieces and broken connections in Dean and Cindy's journey I was kept at a cold distance instead assured in by a warm embrace.