Oct 12, 2010

LFF 2010 review: Blue Valentine [15]

DIR: Derek Cianfrance
CAST: Ryan Gosling, Michelle Williams
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BLUE VALENTINE has just been awarded an NC-17 certificate in the US. Apparently it’s fine to take anyone to see HOSTEL, providing there’s an adult with them… chainsaws are fine for kids apparently, but a brief scene of cunnilingus and one use of the C word, THAT you have to keep impressionable little minds away from. There has been buzz around this film since it premiered in Sundance, so I was looking forward to seeing it, and especially to seeing Ryan Gosling and Michelle Williams – surely two of the most gifted actors in their age group – play against one another.

BLUE VALENTINE focuses in closely on the relationship between Dean (Gosling) and Cindy (Williams), following it in two parallel strands, four years apart, showing us the birth and the death of their marriage.

For the most part the film focuses exclusively on Dean and Cindy, for a good percentage of the time they are the only characters on the screen, and that’s when the film really works. Gosling and Williams are both excellent, giving nuanced, specific, credible performances and creating a weighty unspoken history between their two characters. It is in the smaller interactions that they do their best work. A scene in a car after Cindy has run into an ex boyfriend at the store is especially outstanding, humming with barely repressed tension between the couple. Both are also particularly good in scenes with the couple’s four-year-old daughter Frankie (Faith Waldyka, who steals several of her scenes). All in all this is often a very convincing portrait of a stagnating marriage.

The fact that so much of the film is so well acted makes it all the more frustrating when, occasionally, there is a bafflingly bad scene. The best (or worst) example comes when we first meet Cindy’s family, at a dinner table scene so hackneyed and so baldly written that it could have been lifted word for word from a screenwriting for dummies book, but there are others. The problems come largely when the film attempts to turn up the volume, making Dean and Cindy’s problems more dramatic in the film’s third act, and in doing so it slips, on occasion, into melodrama.

In his first feature, director Derek Cianfrance largely impresses, not only with his dedication to a warts and all depiction of his story, or the sensitive performances he draws from his stars, but also with some of his technical choices. The two time periods in which the film takes place are shot on different stock. The sequences of Derek and Cindy falling in love are shot on 16mm film, which gives these scenes a nostalgic feel, along with a grainy quality that lends a documentary feel and a softness that suits the events of this half of the story. By contrast the present day scenes are shot on digital video, which has a much different feel. Along with the lighting and make up choices, the stock serves to accentuate a coldness about the visuals in these scenes, the harsh atmosphere that pervades this part of the story seeming to be present even in the stock.

Though I enjoyed much of BLUE VALENTINE, there was something that just kept niggling at me; I remember seeing this film when it was Francois Ozon’s 5X2, only it was deeper, more complex and better then. BLUE VALENTINE is well worth seeing; for the most part it is brilliantly acted, and an acute, sad, sometimes disturbing, look at the breakdown of a modern relationship. It’s also worth a look because I suspect that Derek Cianfrance is a director we’ll be hearing about. This is very much a debut film; flawed, a little bit longer than it needs to be, not a little indulgent, but there is plenty here to suggest that Cianfrance is a real talent. I just hope that next time he doesn’t make a film that reminds me so much of another, better, film.

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