Tuesday, December 21, 2010

Exhausting but well-acted "Blue Valentine" full of emotional truth and pain

Blue Valentine (2010) 
112 min., rated R.
Grade: B

Woody Allen has made a whole round of movies about marital turmoil that felt honest, but "Blue Valentine" lacks a sense of humor or a sliver of hope. In fact, it achieves something Hollywood romances do not: it's a heavy, adult love story. A merciless love that runs its course and implodes, but a love story nonetheless. Ryan Gosling and Michelle Williams give the performances of their careers, both feeling lived-in and emotionally raw. Co-writer and director Derek Cianfrance observes with grim exactness and depth the birth and death of a relationship. And he gives us an achingly honest acting exercise. 

Gosling and Williams, playing with every inside feeling and outside emotion they have, are Dean and Cindy, a working-class Pennsylvania couple with a young daughter. Dean is a house painter who stars off the morning with a beer. Cindy is a nurse working up in her career. When we first meet Cindy, as she's taking care of her grandmother in a nursing home (Dean working across the hallway), she asks her grandmother about love. Her advice: “You gotta be careful that the person you fall in love with is worth it.” 

"Blue Valentine" moves between past and present, from when they first fell in love to when they start to fall out of love. Cianfrance's film works in leisurely long takes, but despite some uneventual stretches, the story is at the service of the characters (rather than the other way around) and allows us to feel what they feel. We understand both characters' point of view, why Cindy doesn't love him anymore and why Dean still loves her, and it's inevitable that the marriage is doomed. This Scranton-Brooklyn love tale was shot on high-def digital video for the “present” and Super 16 mm for the “past.” To both styles' effect, the film captures a gritty, scrappy cinéma vérité style and Cianfrance has cinematographer Andrij Parekh shoot it tightly when need be. For instance, when the couple “presently” gets away to drink and have sex in a tacky futurama-themed motel, you feel the cramped claustrophobia of the ill-fated relationship reaching its foregone conclusion. Other times, it's just proving that it's an indie film. 

"Blue Valentine" has caused quite the fuss about its original NC-17 rating (mostly from its frank, somewhat graphic simulated sex scenes) and more understandably the intense, daring rehearsal period its actors undertook. In a key moment, Gosling was ready to jump off the Manhattan Bridge without alerting the director or Williams (and without a net). Gosling and Williams perform an impromptu duet to “You Always Hurt the One You Love” (he sings and plays the ukulele, while she tap-dances). Even though Gosling's strangulated-cat falsetto warbling is tone-deaf, it's easily the sweetest and most endearing moment in the film. As imagined, "Blue Valentine" is not always easy to watch and a pretty exhausting experience, but the painful emotion it brings hits closer to home than anything in recent memory.

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