Even before I’d seen a single frame of Derek Cianfrance’s second feature Blue Valentine (his 1998 debut Brother Tied is still unavailably trapped in a maze of music rights clearance) I had high hopes for the film. Firstly because it brought together two of my favourite working actors; Ryan Gosling, who I’ve followed since his performance as a confused anti-Semitic Jew in The Believer and Michelle Williams, the transfixing centre of Kelly Reichardt’s Wendy & Lucy, and secondly because of Cianfrance’s approach to working with his actors. Instead of bringing Gosling and Williams together to rehearse the roles of Dean and Cindy, Cianfrance prepped each actor individually, keeping them apart until the shoot, thereby enhancing the authenticity of the performances during the romantic discovery period of the film. With those scenes complete, Cianfrance convinced his producers to allow him to shut down production for a month while Gosling, Williams and Faith Wladyka, who plays Frankie their onscreen daughter, set up home as a ‘real’ family, getting to know each others’ characters and building the memories they needed to draw on for the breakup to come.
Blue Valentine is the story of Dean, an average Joe who falls for Cindy, a pre-med student and the evolution of their romance as they fall in and subsequently out of love. We get to see the heady excitement of burgeoning romance as the pair share their talents and unite in the face of calamity, but intercut and disrupted by the ticking clock that is their eventual break up.
Shot by cinematographer Andrij Parekh, Blue Valentine mixes handheld Super 16 for the honeymoon period of Dean and Cindy’s romance, with dual long lens Red cameras documenting its dissolution, which works well to orientate the viewer as we move between the timelines. Parekh’s framing also signposts the current relationship phase, with the past captured largely in master shots, Gosling and Williams sharing the frame, while the present day couple ride mostly solo on screen, emphasising the widening gulf between them. These images are well matched by the Grizzly Bear soundtrack who, although unable to find time to record original material, provided existing tracks and instrumentals which despite being created independently of the film are a perfect fit for the tone.
In an industry that prides itself on bigger, louder and flashier, Cianfrance and co-writers Cami Delavigne and Joey Curtis’ script is an oasis of small moments; moments which run from innocent joy to heartbreak, yet all feel just as authentic as your own memories. The true tragedy of Dean and Cindy’s break up being the lack of a signposted catalyst. “Tell me how I should be. Just tell me. I’ll do it”, begs Dean at one point, but there’s no one moment Cindy could point to even if she wanted to and it feels that by the time we rejoin the couple, salvage is something she’s already moved beyond. We’re so used to seeing on-screen relationships torn apart by infidelity, greed, alcoholism or any number of other negative events that make us wish, ‘if only you hadn’t…’, but there’s no fixing the relationship that ends with a fizzle rather than a bang. There’s no chance here for an “I promise to never do that again” or “I’m truly sorry” speech shot at redemption, because all Dean and Cindy have is the creeping realisation that together they’re a sum of diminishing returns, much less than they could be apart.
Alongside the feature, the Blue Valentine DVD comes with a decent set of extras including a commentary with long time friends Cianfrance and editor Jim Helton, deleted scenes which provide a look at the improvised nature of the performances, a Q&A, a making of featurette and home movies the actors shot during their month of living together.