[If you’ve stumbled across my review looking for Ryan Gosling’s tattoo, it’s the giving tree.]
Blue Valentine, directed and co-scripted by Derek Cianfrance, places the relationship of Dean (Ryan Gosling) and Cindy (Michelle Williams) under the microscope. It’s an apt analogy as the camerawork often places us claustrophobically close – during Cindy’s visit to an abortion clinic for example, or focusing on her expression during an attempt to patch things up through sex. Many people who’ve been through a failed relationship would identify with this – a sort of living death of desire – so perhaps it’s brave and honest to portray it. But if you’re tackling big issues, and Blue Valentine claims to, then you need more than a talent for reproduction. Mark Kermode’s comment that ‘a little bit of quirky goes a long way’, is one that applies equally to misery.
I almost suspect that all the talk of the film being ‘an actors’ piece’ is a polite way of saying that the audience has been forgotten. I’m not suggesting that films should be saccharine, but anyone going to see this film who’s gone through the breakdown of a relationship certainly won’t learn anything new. We’ve received – and inflicted – those endless point-scoring arguments, and we know just how bad things have to get before you can make the break. So I’d question the point of a film that doesn’t add anything new to the argument. However great the acting, it’s never going to match the emotional punch of the real thing.
Peter Bradshaw writes in the Guardian ‘The questions it asks are important: how do relationships fail? Is there a stage at which the unhappy couple can do something, somehow change course?’ And Anthony Quinn, in the Independent, suggests ‘it’s a subtlety of the film that our sympathies keep shifting between husband and wife’, Cianfrance ‘preferring to nudge the audience along rather than semaphore every last message’. But the cues we’re fed are as subtle as sledgehammers. Rather than challenged, stock responses are appealed to – where Quinn describes Cindy as ‘martyrish’, I suspect women would support her. By simply restating tired battle lines from many a domestic argument, the film fails to deliver any serious investigation into why many women feel they end up playing Ernie Wise to their partner’s Eric Morecambe.
At the Sundance film festival Cianfrance commented: ‘I never understood this idea of sympathetic or unsympathetic characters. Because everyone I’ve ever known in my life is like both at the same time. When I met my wife Shannon I told her I was like Dr. Jekyll, but eventually I was going to be like Mr. Hyde.‘ But broad stripes of black and white aren’t the same as grey and it’s this lack of subtlety that changes the story from one of everyman/woman to one where it’s too easy to blame the individuals. (I’m thinking here of the relevance of revealing Cindy’s sexual past.) It’s a process, too, that undermines the validity of any questions the film asks. The earth-shattering conclusion of those increasingly manipulative and unlikely plot developments is *fanfare*: there’s faults on both sides!
As each scene is painted on thicker than the last – Dean marries her despite the child not being his! Cindy cares for her elderly grandmother! Dean gets beaten up by her previous boyfriend! – to be honest I stopped believing or caring. And if a potential medical student believes water is more effective than the morning after pill, all I can say is she was probably never cut out to be a doctor.
I did appreciate the honesty of certain scenes; the way fault-lines and power struggles are played out through sex, or how different emotions strive for supremacy during arguments. And the delicacy of some of the detail was mighty fine – especially the scene where Dean struggles to remove his wedding ring. Sadly, though, many of these touches were lost in the intellectual flabbiness. Even the symbols are so glaringly obvious it hurts – the ‘future room’ at a sex motel has no windows and a bed that goes round in circles. And this before I get started on the much-praised ‘moving’ scene where Cindy tap dances to Dean playing his ukulele and singing ‘You Always Hurt the One You Love’ (geddit?). Even Mark Kermode thought it was ‘endearingly kooky’. Puh-lease. Perhaps when we were 18 and drinking Mateus wine to the soundtrack of Betty Blue.
Also at Sundance, Cianfrance shared the source of his inspiration: ‘My parents did divorce when I was 20, and it made me question a lot of things in my life. And question the point of falling in love.’ Making the film may well have been cathartic for the director, but it reminded me of adolescence when we all believed ‘profound’ equalled ‘bleak’ or ‘miserable’. The only interesting question was some hints about the unsuitability of our current cultural maps. Whether songs (as Dean says, ‘Everyone has a song’) or the romantic fiction that Cindy reads to her grandma. But, while I agree we need more useful guides, I don’t believe Blue Valentine is one of them. Do yourself a favour and instead listen to Tom Waits’ Blue Valentine or read Michael Donaghy’s poem Reprimand, “We fell out of love as toddlers fall / glancing down, distracted, at their feet”.