The Perfect Date Movie for Masochists
Arriving on British shores still trailing the whiff of controversy whipped up by its too-hot-for-America sexual frankness (Don’t get excited, Americans just aren’t keen on cunnilingus. Even in long shot.), writer/director Derek Cianfrance’s Blue Valentine is the latest in a long line of American Indie mumblethons to dig up John Cassavetes and rattle his dusty bones all over the joint in a vain attempt to rub the audience’s collective nose in a little human suffering as it charts the disintegration of a marriage.
Using the death of the family dog as an excuse to pack their adorable daughter off to Grandpa’s, laidback painter/decorator Dean (Ryan Gosling) and driven, hardworking nurse Cindy (Michelle Williams) seize upon the opportunity to slope off to a sleazy motel for a dirty weekend in a last-ditch attempt to rekindle the dying embers of their marriage. As the couple implode, bittersweet flashbacks juxtapose the wreckage their marriage has become with the sweetly naïve romanticism of the beginning of their relationship.
The perfect date movie for masochists, Blue Valentine is a slog, the cinematic equivalent of being repeatedly kicked in the nuts until you puke blood. Undeniably well-made, the film is sooooooo relentlessly bleak I found myself just not caring about the modern versions of Gosling and Williams’ characters and their marital woes. Ponderous and obvious, the film unfolds with the doomy predictability of an EastEnders Christmas episode. From the start, we know the couple are in trouble even if it takes Gosling’s Dean three quarters of the film to catch on that his marriage is essentially over and that he has no say in the matter. Williams’ flinty Cindy has already decided.
A likable lug with a slight drink problem, Dean’s principal fault in his wife’s eyes seems to be that he lacks ambition; he’s content being a devoted husband and father. A driven, ambitious nurse, Cindy’s decided that she no longer loves him and that he’s surplus to requirements. She can’t bear to be touched by him, can’t even look at him without her face betraying a mix of loathing and regret. The writing is on the wall from the first scene; a morning domestic interlude familiar to many from the trenches of the war between the sexes. Cindy is harried, resentful of Dean’s ease with their child while he simply can’t comprehend her attitude. When Dean decides that the best way to save their marriage is to cash in a gift certificate for a local sleazy motel it’s one of the most cringingly awful movie decisions since Robert De Niro took Cybill Shepherd to a porno on their first date in Taxi Driver. You know they’re doomed. Everything that comes after is predictably inevitable. And only in a gritty Indie movie would someone have been given gift vouchers for the local sleazy motel. When is it appropriate to give someone gift vouchers for the local sleazy motel? Christmas? Birthday? Wedding Anniversary? Do sleazy motels even offer gift vouchers in real life or is that just a cliché of gritty Indie flicks?
But in the words of football commentators the world over, Blue Valentine is very much a game of two halves. As po-faced, downbeat and obvious as the scenes of marital strife set in the present are, the flashback scenes where the couple separately remember how they met and fell in love are wonderful with a loose, freewheeling spirit and easy charm that seduces you. If the present day scenes are very much dominated and driven by William’s disappointed Cindy, the flashbacks belong to Gosling’s Dale and are shot through with optimism and a wistful romanticism. His pursuit of the reluctant Cindy after a chance encounter in an old folks home, wooing her with some impromptu ukulele playing, is sweetly romantic and these scenes have a loose, improvised feel in sharp contrast to the more heavy-handed present day scenes. While a rather portentous conversation about the fickle nature of women that Dale has with a co-worker overtly signposts the trouble that lies ahead, these scenes are easily the most interesting and surprising of the film as the pair’s quirky courtship morphs into a realistic love.
However, how much you invest in the characters and sympathise with them will, inevitably, depend on (a) whether you possess a penis and (b) just how much of a cowbag bitch from Hell you think Williams’ Cindy is. Possibly the best young actress of her generation, Williams is far better than the film deserves, taking a thumbnail sketch of a character and investing herself in it. Much as she did in Scorsese’s tedious Hitchcock masturbation Shitter Island. The chemistry between her and Gosling is electric, the two actors having worked hard to create a believable intimacy but while Cianfrance’s script gives Gosling the room to turn in a charismatic performance of wounded sensitivity and easy charm, cementing his status as a leading man, Williams is ill-served by a script where her character is an underwritten schizophrenic cipher required to fluctuate between kooky romantic, studious good girl, hump-the-furniture horny sex kitten and cold-hearted bitch. It’s almost as if Cianfrance lost interest in her character and just thought “Well, she’s a woman and you know what they’re like”. We see Cindy through Dean’s eyes and, as is obvious in the film, Dean really doesn’t know his wife. And I can’t help but think that Cianfrance really doesn’t know her either.
While the performances are fantastic and there are some heartbreaking, beautiful moments, Blue Valentine’s ponderous pace and the shallowness of the script ultimately reduce the film to a melodramatic soap opera. With added mumbling.
Ryan Gosling, Michelle Williams
Derek Cianfrance, Cami Delavigne, Joey Curtis