By: Addison Wylie
Marriage is hard. At least, that’s what I learned as I left the theatre having watched the critically acclaimed Blue Valentine. Lots of films have tackled the subject of relationships and fidelity and have portrayed the subjects in both a positive and negative light. Even if the films themselves have been forgettable, they usually make movie goers immediately reflect upon love and marriage. However, when the topics are presented in a gloomy light, these films usually offer a moral to the story or the characters enter a self-actualization period where the audience can figure out what the movie is trying to say. With Blue Valentine, this self-actualization moment is where I begin to have problems with Director Derek Cianfrance’s work.
Dean and Cindy aren’t exactly your picture perfect, ideal couple. Dean, played by Ryan Gosling, has a drinking problem as well as anger issues when he isn’t acting childish to amuse their daughter Frankie, played by Faith Wladyka. Cindy, played by Michelle Williams, is in a rut. She’s a bored individual who is not entirely happy with the status of her life. When the family dog escapes from the backyard and is accidentally hit by a car, Dean, observing how miserable Cindy is, suggests they have a romantic night; just the two of them. Cindy and Dean take Frankie to see Grandpa Jerry, played by John Doman, and the two head off on what they hope will be a relaxing and peaceful outing. Throughout the movie, the film shows us in flashbacks just how the two lovebirds met and fell in love. That said, the flashbacks also illustrate what possible complications lead up to the couple’s unhappiness.
I state again, in films like Blue Valentine, I have no problem with the director and the screenwriters (Cami Delavigne, Joey Curtis, and Cianfrance) depicting the difficulties that can arise in a relationship. What makes an effective story though is representing what the characters take out of the situation and seeing how they apply that new wisdom. There doesn’t necessarily have to be any happy endings but, like I said earlier, a self-actualization period should happen. Without giving away too many details, the film does have a moment of self-reflection but it happens quickly towards the end and, therefore, it lacks punch. Instead of viewers walking away from the movie learning something, we’re left feeling discouraged. It’s an ending that doesn’t sit right because it feels as if Cianfrance and the two other screenwriters are more interested in relishing in the melancholy instead of stating a point. Perhaps though, a much stronger message would’ve been conveyed if the circumstances Dean and Cindy are put through weren’t so inevitable.
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The film also has an odd look to it. The film was presented in a 4:3 format; sometimes referred to as a fullscreen effect. For those unfamiliar with the format, it’s when the sides of the image have been cropped off in order for it to fit within a screen. The problem is that since theatre screens are designed for widescreen features, the final product has two permanent black bars on both sides of the movie. When the film Fish Tank decided to present itself in a fullscreen format, Critic Mark Kermode stated that it was to represent the claustrophobic nature of the movie. With Blue Valentine, it doesn’t feel like it’s symbolizing anything. Cianfrance might’ve been trying to symbolize how claustrophobic Dean and Cindy feel within their relationship but the effect is distracting. Also, because of this format and how the visuals are boxed in, a lot of the shots are framed sloppily and are unpleasant to look at. That said, the footage shot in the cheesy hotel room is very creative, well lit, and it looks gorgeous.
Note: After looking the movie up on IMDB.com, it appears the movie has a widescreen aspect ratio. I don’t know whether or not IMDB is wrong or if my theatre projected it incorrectly, but Blue Valentine was shown in a fullscreen format during my screening.
The film, however, is supported by strong performances. Gosling continues to show movie goers just how talented and versatile he is as an actor with this role. When we see Dean at a younger age, we instantly connect Gosling with his performance in The Notebook due to the similar material. However, the character takes on a much darker manifestation when we see Dean later in life with a receding hairline and an attitude problem. Gosling is able to do emotional 180s within seconds and it’s incredibly effective when it comes to pulling on an audience’s heartstrings. That said, hopefully people won’t be too distracted and overlook Williams’ performance as a broken soul. In those flashbacks, we see Cindy’s innocence in full bloom. Williams never has to mug for the camera or excessively exhibit her naiveté in order to make the audience feel for Cindy because Williams’ development beforehand has made movie goers believe in that persona. Whenever an unfortunate event takes place, our hearts sink for her. Additionally, Mike Vogel plays a very convincing villiain-esque character and he portrays jealousy quite well. With all the surfer-boy performances he has played, this role was a strong career step for Vogel.
Even though Gosling and Williams, both gifted actors, offer incredible performances, the film’s voice doesn’t offer anything new and once the movie ends, you’re left wondering what exactly you’re supposed to pull from it. This makes Blue Valentine a tough film to recommend. The fact that Cianfrance and his other two screenwriters appear to be milking the audience’s emotions, especially during the last reel of the movie, doesn’t help the situation. Putting all this aside, the one aspect that disappoints me the most about Blue Valentine is that it lacks a message that’s as top notch as its performances. It’s actually a case where the actors outshine the material. There’s probably, or should I say hopefully, a better message here other than “marriage is hard”. I’m willing to give the movie the benefit of the doubt. However, if my accusation is true and the only message the movie has to tell me is that marriage has obstacles, Blue Valentine has let me down.