Half sublime sonnet, half gut-wrenching elegy, Blue Valentine is a film that inhabits your soul. The second feature from writer-director Derek Cianfrance, this critical and film festival favourite stars Michelle Williams (Wendy & Lucy) and Ryan Gosling (Half Nelson) as young couple Cindy and Dean, who fall desperately in love, before their bridal waltz becomes a danse macabre as the relationship unravels over the ensuing six years. Moving between the glorious glow of their courtship and their last ditch effort to patch things up in a tacky motel (in a wry conceit, Cianfrance literally places them in a ‘future room’), the filmmaker allows his two characters, just like the two distinct halves of the film, to perfectly, and poignantly, play off each other.
“I’ve always seen the film as a duet, or a duel, between opposites,” Cianfrance explains. “Between a man and a woman; between their past and their present; between love and hate; between their long-term memory and their short term memory; between the aesthetics of film and video. I was inspired by The Godfather Part II, the idea of the rise of the father cross-cut with the fall of the son.”
“In [the] twelve years I had to think about the movie, I would spend so much time just meditating on a magnet. How it’s the positive and the negative in one thing, [and] that [it] exists in nature, without any explanations.”
In truth, Blue Valentine has been gestating for far longer than 12 years. Cianfrance admits the story stems from his childhood fear that his parents would divorce. And they eventually did, when he was 20, the same age as Cindy and Dean when they first meet.
“To me it’s really the child’s perspective in the movie. The movie isn’t about my parents, at all, it’s about me, and people of my generation who are trying to deal [by] not repeating what we saw our parents do. It’s about us trying to avoid our destiny.”
“There is this erosive power of time that often comes [into a marriage], and it’s the same power that can turn a mountain into a pebble.”
In battling with the spectre of divorce, Blue Valentine is certainly confronting. It’s a film that provokes as much deep self-reflection as it does heated discussion about the characters’ foibles and the recipient of your sympathies. And while Cianfrance describes his film as ‘a cautionary tale,’ and suggests discussion is ‘healthy,’ especially for couples brave enough to see the film together, he does admit, “I do know some friends who split up [after watching the film]. That’s always been my dilemma in relationships: you can be one hundred percent of a person, then you meet someone else who is one hundred percent of a person…What happens when you start living as a pair and you become half of a whole? What happens to the other half of you?”
Such questioning ripples through Blue Valentine, and at times boldly bursts to the surface as Dean openly questions ideas of success, masculinity and love. The filmmaker, however, is perfectly happy leaving these complex and potentially polarising questions unanswered.
“I feel like movies can be very arrogant. So many movies have perfect people up on the screen, they speak perfect sentences, they know what they want, they have inciting incidences in their lives and [at the] end of the second act they’re about ready to have their catharsis. But I don’t know people like that, you know? I know people who are yearning and bewildered and confused and who don’t have the answers. With Blue Valentine, there is no message, there [are] questions. And I don’t pretend to have any answers to any of these questions. I was inspired for so many years by that song by The Supremes, Where did Our Love Go. That became a perennial hit, so I thought I could do the same with Blue Valentine!”
The question mark hovering over Cindy and Dean’s love gradually becomes glaring as the film bounds across the six years of their relationship. Visually, Cianfrance achieves this distinction by shooting the past handheld on super 16mm with lots of warm, saturating reds, while the present is conveyed in stark blues with the sharp focus of the HD RED camera. For Williams and Gosling, the years show through weight gain and hair loss, as well as the requisite shift in the emotional landscape. Cianfrance admits this transformation was by no means an easy one.
“Shooting the past of Blue Valentine was such a vacation for all of us; it was like making a documentary of two people falling in love, of two beautiful people Ryan and Michelle getting to know each other on screen. None of us actually wanted to shoot the present, we just wanted to call the film ‘Valentine’ and forget about the present part!”
“It was just incredibly difficult to get them to start fighting,” he admits “[Then] I looked at my son, Walker, who would make these incredible block houses and then at the end of the night he would have to tear them down, and it was so painful to him. So I told Ryan and Michelle, 'We can’t be so precious about this. We have to destroy it.' And they did. They lit their wedding picture on fire and from that moment forward they were good, they could start arguing.”
For Cianfrance’s duel, his duet, everything hinges on the actors’ transition. It’s a raw and exquisite dichotomy that Williams and Gosling masterfully embody. “They’re beautiful, magical people, and they showed that they could go to the heavens and to the basement.”
Image - Derek Cianfrance with Michelle Williams
Published in The Drum Media by Street Press Australia (page 67)
Blue Valentine is released on Boxing Day - read my review over at Concrete Playground