Thursday, February 24, 2011

Caitlin's Review of Blue Valentine

Love hurts and so will this by Caitlin Murphy
I have long suspected it. And now that I have official confirmation, I can confess: I hate movies about couples. More specifically, I hate movies that chart the evolution and inevitable dissolution of couple relationships. I’m still in the midst of refining this category, so bear with me. Comedies don’t count; Annie Hall for instance: safe. And brilliant masterworks don’t count either; Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf: also safe. But movies like Revolutionary Road, and, recently, Blue Valentine: danger, danger, danger. You know that people will say horrible, irretractable things to one another; painfully awkward attempts at physical intimacy will be made; alcohol will feature prominently; third parties will linger seductively in the wings; long-suspected truths, hitherto too awful to admit, will finally be revealed; and last ditch efforts will be hurled across the kitchen. And. All. For. What?

Blue Valentine, is a decade-in-the-making film directed by Derek Cianfrance (who? I know), about a married/with kid, working-class couple, Cindy (Michelle Williams) and Dean (Ryan Gosling). Their relationship has certainly seen better days, and those are the ones the film flashes back to throughout, creating a dance between the couple’s promising beginnings and their more punishing current conditions.

Stylistically, the film leans into a sort of cinema verite; many of the agreed upon signals for “raw, gritty, honest” can be found. There’s a dead dog, unkept lawns, gravel roads, a liquor store, lots of blue lighting. It’s the kind of movie you expect to see someone go for a pee in. And you do. (sidenote: someone has got to put a cinematic moratorium on the shot of the bouncy horse toy, sitting unsat upon, used as nod to general themes of loss and abandonment.)

Through the cross-cutting between today’s drudgery and yesteryear’s bliss, (which accelerates significantly near film’s end) we’re clearly meant to marvel at the dramatic deterioration that’s taken place in Cindy and Dean’s life together. But if the point of the film is to linger on the tragedy that horribly dysfunctional relationships actually start out idyllic and full of promise… well, duh. There’s only so much ironic depth to mine in a truism of time that anyone over fifteen has pretty much come to terms with. It’s just not that interesting. Especially when you feel like you’re being told that it’s supposed to be.

Michelle Williams is highly likeable as an actor; she’s pretty, but by no means stunning, and her roles have always been low-enough profile that she’s certainly not a starlet. These traits consistently serve her well. In brief, as Cindy, she delivers and she’s believable. Conversely, there is something simply too aesthetic about Gosling’s performance, as though he made very good use of his How-to-Build-a-Character Kit. You can imagine him sitting in his trailer, delighted that Dean is a chain-smoker, devising ways to use “cigarette as prop to express character”. Sunglasses, cigarettes, head hair/facial hair, chewing gum – they’re all used to effect: overused to overeffect. In many scenes, the younger Dean wears a hoodie with hood perched so precariously on his head, you’d swear it had to be pinned in place.

I’ve read that the principal actors actually lived together for a month to let them experience domestic familiarity; that’s neat I guess, but I’m not sure what it yielded. I often had the distinct feeling in scenes that I was watching theatre school acting exercises; I could imagine the voice in the background five seconds before: “Okay, she’s just told you the dog is dead, but you have to pretend to be surprised because you already knew and have been lying about it… Let’s just see what happens. Okay… go!” One especially mismanaged scene, involving several other characters, descends very quickly into amateur improv left to go way too long (and thus painfully wrong).

I guess by their nature, movies about couples just feel insular and impenetrable for an obvious reason: couples consist of a population of two. That’s a rather tiny world, and its intimacy can be alienating. There’s a reason the first song at a wedding is chosen by the bride and groom and danced to only by them. That song means nothing to anyone else, and is completely interchangeable with any other song; it makes sense that we sit passively in the sidelines. Perhaps I move closer to understanding my real problem with these films then – it’s not that they focus on a couple, but they focus solely on a couple. The world feels too small, the view too narrow, the attention fetishistic.

Long-standing couple conflicts of the sort found in this baby-genre I’m carving out also mean for some pretty exhausting dialogue. We’re all too too familiar with such exchanges:

HIM (or HER, who cares) What did you mean by that?
HER: What do you mean what did I mean?
HIM: You know what I’m asking.
HER: God, I hate when you do this
HIM: Do what?
HER: You know.
HIM: No I don’t. I don’t, okay? Can we assume for a second, just one second, that I don’t know. Can we do that?

And all I can think is “make it stop.” It’s horrible. Realistic? Sure, couples are having similarly insipid debates on every street corner in every city around the world right now. But engaging? Illuminating? Tolerable? Hell, no. I can’t even engage with such conversations when I’m involved in one myself and it has imminent bearing on my own relationship. I space out, float into another dimension, all the while parroting the expected “well, what do you mean what do I mean?” responses. A coma patient could do it convincingly.

A major difficulty in assessing films like Blue Valentine is finding that difference between watching what is painful because the subject matter is simply unpleasant (so deal with it), and what is painful because it just feels pointless, as though nothing new can be gleaned from asking the film ‘what it meant by that’. As in the dreadful dialogue above, it’s a question that can’t really be answered, except with more noise.

In one of the film’s last moments, Cindy drives the final nail into the couple’s coffin by exclaiming: “I just can’t do this anymore!” And I had to stop myself from raising my hand in agreement and shouting out, “Neither can I!” I’m probably making the film sound much worse than it was. And to be fair, like most bad relationships, Blue Valentine¸ looks better in the rear-view. That is, as you put more distance between it and yourself, you feel less claustrophobic and irritable, and, as a result, a little more forgiving. Doesn’t mean you’re not still incredibly thankful to hit open road though. Or re-discover the lobby.

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