Burt Bacharach and Hal David were right: breaking up really is hard to do. The doomed relationship around which Blue Valentine orbits has its genesis in an unlikely place: a rest home. Cindy (Michelle Williams) is visiting her grandmother, when, peeking across the hall, she spies Dean (Ryan Gosling), a furniture mover, taking some cash from a nightstand. He goes over to her to assure her that he’s not stealing the money—that it’s a tip left him by the old man whose furniture he was moving—and gets his foot in the door just as she’s about to shut it in his face. They have a brief conversation, and in the following weeks he doggedly pursues her by going back to the rest home and asking her grandma who “that pretty blond girl” was.
But this isn’t where Derek Cianfrance’s second feature begins; the film opens six years after Dean and Cindy met. Over a single day intercut with flashbacks to the relationship’s founding, we witness its dissolution—starting with an ominous scene: a little girl (their daughter) stands in an open field at dusk calling out for her missing dog. The momentary tension and dread in this scene never quite abates: it comes and goes in waves throughout the rest of the film as we flick back and forward between snippets of present and prologue. In the past, Dean woos Cindy with his goofy ukulele rendition of “You Always Hurt the Ones You Love.” In the present, as something of a last-ditch attempt at relationship rehab, he books a room at a themed sex-hotel. The futuristic room, which in Dean’s phrase “looks like a robot’s vagina,” is basically a Trekkie’s take on Austin Powers’ shag-pad—but there’s nothing comic about the tense debate that unfolds therein.
Director Derek Cianfrance had been working on the film since 1998: he wrote the first draft after wrapping production on his previous feature, Brother Tied. 13 years later, after the stars aligned to bring together the perfect cast and crew, Blue Valentine has come to fruition. Cianfrance studied under experimental filmmaker Stan Brakhage at the University of Colorado, and, in the intervening years since the film’s first draft, has made short documentary portraits of Run DMC, Jam Master Jay and Puff Daddy, among others. Both of these sensibilities—the creative, output-driven aesthetic fringe and the observant, character-driven profile work—combine in the formal and structural characteristics of Blue Valentine: Cianfrance delivers a beautifully detailed rendering of the couple, while at the same time really listening to their interactions.
The film is structurally unusual, and has technical elements to match: scenes in the past were shot on Super-16 stock and were entirely handheld, whereas present-day scenes were shot on RED HD digital cameras mounted on tripods. These were placed at a distance from the actors but had long lenses affixed to them in order to, in Cianfrance’s words, “achieve suffocating close-ups.” Cinematographer Andrij Parekh (Cold Souls; Gosling’s previous big outing, Half Nelson) maintains an intense claustrophobia throughout the majority of the film, and this is especially palpable in virtually all the present-day sequences.
Cianfrance pairs music with emotion perfectly. Folk-rockers Grizzly Bear provide a mellow, lilting soundtrack composed of various extant songs of theirs, and one of the film’s centrepieces is a sequence centred on the first track of a mix CD Dean makes for Cindy. Some time in the early to mid 1970s, a soul group called Penny & the Quarters recorded a number of demos; among them was a song called “You and Me.” Gosling heard the song and suggested to Cianfrance that it could be Dean and Cindy’s ‘song’—a special tune for the couple to treasure as a memento of their burgeoning romance.
Grizzly Bear’s “Alligator” (specifically the horn-filled, arguably jazz-inspired ‘Choir Version’ from their 2007 EP Friend) is the perfect accompaniment to the film’s firecracker-filled end credits, which have just won an award for title design at SXSW—although the Brooklyn quartet’s delicate, percussive cover of The Crystals’ “He Hit Me (And It Felt Like a Kiss)” would have been just as powerful. There’s genuine romanticism in Dean and Cindy’s courtship, but there’s no beauty in their eventual, inevitable break-up. This is an achingly tangible, heartbreaking depiction of separation made all the more poignant by the twin vantage points we are provided—and it contains two of the best performances Gosling and Williams have given to date.
Blue Valentine is in cinemas now.