After Happily Ever After
(Blue Valentine, Derek Cianfrance, US, 2010, 112 minutes)
The director of Blue Valentine, Derek Cianfrance has forged his career, heretofore, in the documentary business. This timesliced narrative of the bloom and wilt of a relationship between Dean (Ryan Gosling) and Cindy (Michelle Williams) is only Cianfrance’s second full feature film in twelve-years since Brother Tied (1998). And it would seem that the intervening time spent filming the real has shaped his latest foray into fiction: Blue Valentine is grimly determined to be realistic.
The telling of Dean and Cindy’s story starts both at their beginning and the beginning of their end. Cianfrance intersplices the good times and the bad, by virtue sharpening the contrast between early idealism and older disillusionment. Unvarnished scenes of family friction are thrown amongst images of their immature selves and a rushed courtship; he the hopeless romantic, she the emotionally bruised fugitive of another man. The scenes of their courtship are filmed on video, the two always in the frame together; the scenes of their demise on film, the characters kept isolated within individual close-ups.
Pitched together, these scenes embody a worldly bent of the paradoxes of love. In an attempt to salvage some romance the older Dean and Cindy spend a night in a themed couples hotel where they spend half of the film, the theme of their suite: The Future Room. But, reminiscent of a tired Star Trek set, it is a dated vision of the future, all brightly buttoned control panels and brushed aluminium walls. Here we are presented with not only their disenchanted past hopes, but also a time-warp of their potential future – a cell of bickering, violence and sexual nullification.
Beyond the cruder symbolism of this sci-fi scenery is the strange effect these seedy surroundings have on their more tender moments. Fans of Wim Wenders’ Paris, Texas or Wong Kar-Wai’s In the Mood for Love will recognise the bizarre tonic of genuine affection and pain mixed within the garishly lit confines of a sordid hotel.
It is all part of Cianfrance’s unrelenting realism. “Maybe I’ve seen too many movies”, states the young, lovelorn Dean, “You know, love at first sight?” This is a film that has clearly seen too many such movies, too many romanticisations of romance, or perhaps too many movies that report a happily ever after without going back to check. Dean’s older self, ravaged by age and habit, is a long way from such idealism. The final images as the credits roll are of brilliant fireworks, so perfect while they last.
Blue Valentine is less than perfect, it is in particular perhaps a little too eager to justify the flaws of its characters. But it is nonetheless complex, and even sympathetic in its pessimism. Gosling and Williams’ performances are superbly natural, and regardless of the film’s heavy-handedness in other areas, the strength of their individual characters are enough to savour alone. Which is, ultimately, the appropriate way to consider them.