At the centre of this study are two incredible performances by Gosling and Williams. Director Derek Cianfrance apparently only gave one take for each scene, and improvisation was heavily encouraged, although the actors were originally given the script several years ago, when Cianfrance originally wanted to start making the film.
What we see is a very intense mix of brutally honest and raw feelings that, coupled with a very naturalistic directing style, comes across very truthfully.
The film feels like it wouldn’t be out of place next to some of the British kitchen sink dramas of the 50s and 60s, or something like Scorsese’s Alice Doesn ‘t Live Here Anymore.
The stark realism of the film makes it at times very hard to watch, and it does feel in part like watching friends or even parents arguing.
But in the same way, the scenes where Dean and Cindy seem truly happy, whilst providing somewhat of a break from the tension, seem just as real and just as emotional, if not more.
And it’s these scenes short as they are that attempt to provide a backbone for the emotional crux of the film.
Cianfrance’s usage of flashbacks works very well, especially the way he uses 16mm film for the flashbacks and digital for the present day.
But while some of these scenes come across truthfully, there is still a question of whether or not they created a lie. We see snippets of Cindy’s home life, with her aggressive and abusive father, and Bobby, her previous boyfriend and the father of her child, and then we see her relationship with Dean blossom very quickly.
But there’s an underlying question of whether her marriage and family relationship with Dean is a just an escape mechanism from what was already in her life. When we see Cindy as an adult, she chides Dean for behaving like a child as he plays with her daughter, and mentions a few times about him acting like a kid, which almost makes it seems like she’s been forced to grow up too fast, compared to what she was like when she first met him.
Whilst we only see one instance of her father’s anger, there is potentially more where that came from. Likewise, we see a jealous Bobby kick the living shit out of Dean after he finds out Cindy is seeing him. Was this a part of their previous relationship? Would this kind of behaviour return, especially if he found out that she was carrying his child?
And that’s one of the strongest things about Blue Valentine – which is funny, as it immediately came across as a sort of negative trait. That we don’t know exactly what caused this schism, this fracture in the relationship that has caused so much pain and anguish that by the end has broken both of these people. The film is almost parasitic in that it’s not enough that it emotionally drains you during its running time, but it grabs hold of your thoughts and forces you to think about the characters and what happened to them, and what might still happen to them.
However, one negative that I did pick up was the music. The actual score, composed and performed by Brooklyn folk band Grizzly Bear, is very good, quality wise, I just felt it was at times inappropriate and intrusive for what we were seeing.
Thankfully, not only has Optimum has seen fit to give us a lovely transfer with crystal clear sound, they’ve also bestowed a bucketful of neat extras on us, including director’s commentary, deleted scenes, a making of featurette, and other goodies.
‘Blue Valentine’ is sometimes very hard to watch, sometimes a joy to watch, but always fascinating and compelling. Come for the amazing acting performances of Gosling and Williams, but stay for the inspired direction, writing, and overall tone of a brilliant film. Highly recommended.