Tuesday, January 18, 2011
Aiming for Cassavetes gets you Cassavetes, which would be outstanding if we didn’t already have Cassavetes. Which isn’t to say that Derek Cianfrance’s Blue Valentine is wholly derivative, but insofar as it’s an exploration of a crumbling relationship, it breaks no new ground and comes to no conclusions. This, thanks to its opening at a point where Ryan Gosling’s happy painter is blissfully unaware of how far down the road to separation his wife Michelle Williams already is. Talk about in media res. Opening here makes it abundantly clear that Blue Valentine has no interest in how or why relationships drain of eros. The goal, I suppose, is believable depiction—not interrogation, not reminiscence, just straight depiction—thereof, which is a pretty low bar admirably bounded by Williams with Gosling and Cianfrance on her coattails.
The disparity, of course, is subjective, but Williams seems to me to melt entirely and resolve herself into Cindy, whereas Gosling is sometimes busy acting, fidgeting, ticking, repeating. The glare she gives the back of his head in the opening scene is light years from sitcom wife; it’s a calibrated dart that embodies her perspective on their relationship and packs a mean punch. The film is full of such nuance, as when Gosling’s Dean plans a night away, but it also hosts far too much obviousness and contrivance. Which can be forgiven, especially as Cianfrance trades Cassavetes’ straightforward naturalism for a jumbled impressionism with his parallel narrative structure cross-cutting the falling in love and the falling out, but when a flashback reveals Cindy’s father to be auditioning for Precious’ mother, it’s safe to say the film is overdoing it.
The cinematography is equally obvious, but effectually: the grainy film stock for the Six Years Earlier sequences is genuinely nostalgic, and the digital video for the Must Come Down years is appropriately cool. Meanwhile the structure is a touch gimmicky if we’re being kind but it’s increasingly disorienting, frustrating, maddening to go from the ostensible happiest day of their lives back to the inescapably pathetic present. Cianfrance’s other structural coup is to expand the claustrophobic world only to supplement his portrait of casual relationship cruelty, as in the smooth propositions for adultery or the aforementioned Precious scene or the less cruel but equally unfair isolation of the older characters. I’m not sure Cianfrance entirely understands his point considering there’s a moment of physical violence—not between the leads—that’s played for laughs, but it’s a convincingly colored panorama nonetheless.
Too bad that’s all it is, a craggy landscape, a Civil War battle reenactment without the guide showing you where things went wrong. It’s an impressive show but you already know what’s going to happen and now you’re stuck watching in painstaking detail the doom that was obvious from the beginning.