Blue Valentine was 12 years in the making. The script had 66 drafts. When the concept was first created, Ryan Gosling was in a Disney show called Young Hercules and Michelle Williams was auditioning for Dawson’s Creek. In the intervening years, the two actors grew to become two of the finest and bravest working in their medium, and the script developed into one of the most raw, painful, heartfelt pieces of screenwriting I’ve ever experienced. As a result, Blue Valentine became a piece of filmmaking born from love, dedication, hard work and time, a remarkable achievement for both actors and director, and one which deserves all the recognition it can get.
The film tells the story of Dean and Cindy, a young couple on the brink of destruction. Intercutting between the start and end of their relationship, the audience is allowed to understand how the couple fell in love while watching their relationship deteriorate. The scenes of their meeting and initial romance are touching, funny, charming and beautifully realized. They could quite easily come from an indie rom-com along the lines of Garden State or (500) Days of Summer; complete as they are with spontaneous dance routines, quirky humour and a leading man to make any and all female audiences dissatisfied with their current partners. Gosling particularly shines in these sequences; effortlessly charming and handsome, his performance had every girl in the audience (myself included) giggling as though he were flirting with them alone, rather than with the characters on screen. Although the film of their early romance would clearly do spectacularly well at the box office (almost undoubtedly better than the actual film will fare), it is in the scenes of destruction, of love lost, that the true genius of the film lies.
Opening on a shot of their daughter calling out for their lost dog, the film sets a tone of searching, of desperation, of an impossible desire to regain what is lost. This heightens as the film continues, until every moment of tenderness between the pair hurts just as much as every harsh word. Instead of focusing on moments of high drama, as is the way of so many other films dealing with the breakdown of a marriage, here the film confronts us with the day to day life of the couple. The tedium and routine of daily life, the little frustrations, the things which used to be cute or funny but suddenly aren’t. This is the way love dies in real life, played out in excruciating detail. Parallel sex scenes from the start and end of their relationship spell out most explicitly the change that has come upon them, and make for some of the most uncomfortable viewing you’re likely to get in the cinema for quite some time.
The reason that the audience cares about the characters, that the film remains watchable and compelling even when you’re confronted with images and situations you’d really rather not see, is entirely down to the two lead actors. Ryan Gosling continues on his quest to avoid the heart-throb image in which Hollywood is so desperate to cast him, and by so doing provides us with yet another tour de force performance. His character, Dean, is a wonderful father but a sub-standard husband, an insecure, bullying dreamer caught in a life he chose but never wanted. Michelle Williams is quickly proving to be one of the best actresses in her generation, instilling Cindy with the quiet determination and vulnerability of a woman whose life has turned out the opposite of what she had planned. Both performances are so perfectly nuanced, so delicately observed, so essentially human that it is impossible to look away.
Blue Valentine will not be to everyone’s tastes. It is slow, quiet, understated and sombre. Beautifully and unobtrusively shot, with a cold, washed out colour pallet which makes everything appear even bleaker than it already is. The soundtrack by Grizzly Bear is dreamy and melancholic, hinting at a happy ending that we know won’t come. While not for the faint of heart, or those hoping to do anything after the film apart from sit alone and have a little cry, it is a film worth watching. Beautiful, brutal and heartbreaking, it reminds us that the happy ending is only half the story, and that the point where most romance films end is where the real story begins.