Nothing in the world has distorted our view of love more than the movies. Every two months we get a romantic comedy that features a couple falling in love, falling out of love, and then getting back together just as the credits are ready to roll. But reality doesn’t work like that. Real relationships involve pain, struggle and sacrifice; topics glazed over in the typical Hollywood perception of relationships. It’s well known that 50% of first marriages end in divorce, but did you know that 67% of second marriages and 74% of third marriages end the same way? It’s this reality that writer/director Derek Cianfrance brilliantly shows us in his film Blue Valentine.
Ryan Gosling and Michelle Williams play Dean and Cindy, a married couple trying to rediscover their love for each other. Crossing back and forth within the story of how they originally came together, they rent a hotel room in the hopes that it will help them reconnect physically, but instead brings all of their problems to a boiling point.
Because of the emotional heft coming from both the individual characters as well as the relationship itself, Blue Valentine’s performances carry the film. Luckily Gosling and Williams are absolutely flawless. Playing characters that flip-flop between sympathetic and unlikeable, never letting the audience feel comfortable cheering for only one of the spouses, the pair appear are so lost in their roles that the passion is palpable. Heightening the intense effectiveness of their performances are the physical changes both underwent for present day versions of their characters. Gosling cut his hair into a widow's peak and gaining weight while Williams makes herself look strung out and defeated. These physical changes inform the audience to the point that you know the marriage is on the rocks before the first line of dialogue is even uttered.
Yet nothing in the movie is more dominant than the Future Room, the hotel suite Dean books for a romantic night with his wife. What he doesn’t anticipate is that the room is a soul sucking nightmare, of that kind that would blend perfectly into any horror film. A windowless tomb lit only by an eerie blue light, the suite is a character of its own, a third party that acknowledges the shaky relationship between the two protagonists and tries to shatter it like glass. The happiest couple on Earth couldn’t survive a night inside those walls, let alone Cindy and Dean.
In spite of Blue Valentine’s well publicized battle with the MPAA over the film’s rating, there’s little here to shock mature audience members. While the movie does contain a few scenes involving nudity, its never used gratuitously, instead it’s always in service to the story. If Hollywood’s movie raters were shocked, it’s only because of the crippling intensity level brought to bear in those moments. Using the dark lighting of the hotel room and a series of close-ups, Cianfrance’s brings us almost uncomfortably close to these characters. That kind of intimacy will naturally turn some people off. For the rest of us, it’s simply powerful filmmaking.
In a way, Blue Valentine is two movies in one. If you were to expand the flashback sequences and cut out everything from the Future Room, it could easily stand alongside Gosling’s most notable role in Nick Cassavetes’ The Notebook. Yet Derek Cianfrance seems to have no interest in making something so trite. Using a relationship’s origin to contrast its downfall only makes the film hit harder. We’re so used to watching the boy and girl live happily ever after, that when the convention is disrupted, so are we.