review by Anthony Lane | The New Yorker, January 3 2011
TThe first thing we see in “Blue Valentine” is a small girl, standing alone in the grass, crying out a name. It’s a simple sight, yet fraught with alarming possibility, and that goes for the rest of the movie. Here is the tale of a man and a woman falling in and out of love: something that happens every day, to millions of people, as if that were any consolation. “ ’Tis better to have loved and lost / Than never to have loved at all,” Tennyson wrote, and instinct tells us to agree. But he was writing of bereavement—of a love cut off in its glory, through nobody’s fault. What if the love wizens and sours, through everyone’s fault, making the loss too bitter to endure? Who wouldn’t wonder, in a low moment, whether the whole damn thing was worth it, after all?
The girl is Frankie (Faith Wladyka), aged about five, the only child of Dean (Ryan Gosling) and Cindy (Michelle Williams). Frankie is calling for their dog, which has run off, and Cindy’s search for the wanderer strikes the first note of desperation in the film, though hardly the last. When she arrives late for a school concert, her eyes are wet; the news is not good, and you want to know how Dean will break it to their daughter. “Maybe she moved out to Hollywood and became a movie dog,” he says to her, which is as good a working metaphor for death as I have heard. It’s also a hint of how closely Dean is tuned to Frankie—more closely, sometimes, than her mother is. Together, father and daughter lick the raisins from her oatmeal off the kitchen table (“We’re eating like leopards,” he explains), which shows what a kid he is himself, and what sort of laceration would result if they were parted.
As if in response to this worry, the movie then parts company with itself. One moment, we’re watching Frankie being dropped off with Cindy’s father (John Doman) for a sleepover. The next, we see Dean, looking spry and chipper, applying for a job with a firm of house movers. What’s happening? It takes a while to realize that this is a flashback, to the period before he and Cindy met—the era in which, like all lovers, they feel in retrospect that they were arrowing toward each other. But notice what Derek Cianfrance, the director and co-writer, does not do. He supplies no title saying “Five years earlier,” or whatever, and arranges no major shift in tone, aside from a slight cranking up of the colors. In other words, the past is not so different from the present, and what should be horribly confusing about “Blue Valentine” becomes its most rending aspect; namely, that as we swipe backward and forward through the rest of the film, we can’t always tell the now from the then. Given that one means rage, silence, and failed sex and the other meant a flurry of eagerness and lust, you would imagine the gulf to be unbridgeable; but it doesn’t look that way, and the bridging is the saddest thing of all.
Nothing out of the ordinary happens in “Blue Valentine,” and that, together with the vital, untrammelled performances of the two leading actors, is the root of its power. Dean and Cindy try to mend their marriage by taking a short, child-free, romantic break—a sure sign that the damage is now beyond repair. They go to a motel with a choice of fancy suites: Cupid’s Cove or the Future Room. They pick the latter, which, with its revolving bed and planetary décor, is a tacky, dated vision of a future that will never be. “Don’t let’s ask for the moon. We have the stars,” Bette Davis said at the end of “Now, Voyager”; but she was eons away from the cratered desolation of these two, and she didn’t have a guy with smoke on his breath, arms covered in tattoos, and a head full of vodka trying to muscle her into submission on the floor. Not that the past was a paradise; when Cindy runs into an old boyfriend (Mike Vogel), we are spirited further back to the time when she got pregnant by him, with harrowing results. If you want to see an entire abortion debate dramatized in a few minutes, every angle is represented here, from the brutishness of the conception to the delicate courtesy of the doctor and the sudden, terrified realization of the woman that she cannot and must not withdraw her child from existence.
All of this demonstrates that “Blue Valentine” is that rare creation: a love story that doesn’t shy away from sex, ignore its consequences, or droop into pointless fantasy. The result is adult entertainment as it should be, in other words, right down to the laugh that Cindy lets out, in her leaping delight, when Dean goes down on her. Needless to say, the M.P.A.A., which cannot bear very much reality, took fright at all this and hobbled the movie with an NC-17 rating, which was overturned only after a concerted challenge. It is now an R-rated picture, and rightly so, although you have to ask: In what circumstances would you take a teen-ager, let alone a child, to see it? Who, on the verge of growing up, would wish to learn that the first heady bloom of rapture is doomed to rot and fall, and that even someone as devoted as Dean will wind up pleading to his paramour, with a kind of bullish grovel, “Tell me how I should be”?
Thursday, February 17, 2011
for the record | anthony lane on blue valentine
No particular Soul Food angle on the one. Just a superb review of one of my favourite recent films.