‘Blue Valentine” brings heartbreak to Feb. 14

Blue Valentine, Derek Cianfrance’s new foray into heartbreak, is a beautifully shot and emotionally resonant film, but it guarantees viewers will leave the theater feeling somewhere between depressed and emotionally assaulted. The film tells the story of Cindy and Dean, a nondescript Brooklyn couple whose relationship crumbles in an all-too-realistic way. The lead roles are played by Michelle Williams, wife of the late Heath Ledger and art house star of movies such as Wendy and Lucy, and a near-unrecognizable Ryan Gosling, former heartthrob of The Notebook and recent indie movie pioneer. Both actors lend achingly real performances to this film, which was until recently slapped with an NC-17 rating that the producers finally managed to overturn. The stars are both receiving praise for their roles, including a best actress nomination at the Academy Awards for Williams. The fact that Gosling did not receive a matching nomination is a testament to the increasingly questionable taste of the Academy.
Blue Valentine unfolds like its namesake: a handcrafted card that looks beautiful on the outside but has an unpleasant secret written inside. The character archetypes are clear from the beginning; Dean is the cool dad, encouraging his daughter Frankie to “eat like a leopard,” while Cindy is the stressed-out mom trying to balance her job as a nurse with taking care of one – or is it two? – children. The slow dissolution of their marriage is intercut with scenes of how Cindy and Dean first met as a premed student and a professional mover, respectively, crossing paths at the retirement home where Cindy’s grandmother lived. Much of what we learn about Cindy is revealed through her talks with her grandma, just by observing her face. When she asks, “Grandma, what did it feel like when you fell in love?” only to be met with the answer, “Oh dear … I’m afraid I never found it,” Williams doesn’t have to speak for us to feel her fear – a testament to the actress’s subtle talent.
The sick brilliance of the movie lies in how these scenes of innocent and youthful love become the film’s most painful and hard to watch. Cianfrance manages to taint these moments – such as Williams tap dancing as Gosling goofily sings “You always hurt the ones you love” – much the way that an entire relationship can become colored by a bitter breakup, the memories left marred.
Shot in gloomy blue undertones, this is a beautiful film and is worth seeing despite its depressing content. The movie’s tiny details – Gosling’s “giving tree” tattoo on his forearm, the can of Budweiser always by his side – contribute to its feeling of reality. Before shooting, Williams and Gosling actually lived together on a budget similar to their characters’. Perhaps the most interesting asset of the film is how sympathetic both of the main characters are, even at their worst. Though neither is to blame, most viewers will find themselves picking sides. Dean, though short-tempered and immature, is a loving husband who’s dedicated to making things work. “Tell me what to do,” he says at one point during an argument. “Tell me how I should be. I’ll do it.” Cindy, though irritable and fed up with her marriage, has reason to be unhappy – she has sacrificed her dream of being a doctor and ended up with a childish partner. At one point, she stands in the kitchen after a fight, saying, “Nothing … nothing …” over and over again. This word captures the emotional barrenness of Blue Valentine. It lures out all of your feelings and destroys them, leaving you with nothing to feel, nothing to say.
This movie does not paint a pretty picture of two unlikely lovers mastering their different backgrounds and overcoming life’s obstacles. It is not a hopeful film. It shows two people who vow not to repeat the boring, broken marriages of their parents, who want to be different, and yet end up being just the same. Unlike most films which depict this common scenario, Blue Valentine shows the devastating aftermath. This is not a movie for a first date, but for a last: After seeing it in theaters, my sister’s boyfriend broke up with her, citing the movie as an example of what can go wrong when two very different people try to make it work.

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