I don't know why I keep gravitating to sad things. It's obnoxious, but it's a comfortable place. I like the sad song, the sad book, the sad people and even sad dogs. So it shouldn't be surprising that after hearing the initial buzz and rumbling, I was looking forward to watching Blue Valentine.
On paper, it sounds too pedestrian and run of the mill. Two people fall in love but then they aren't, and they live in a city, and they're young and dress well, and then they become not-as-young and dress in awful bald eagle pullovers. If you read a synopsis or a summary, you would think, hasn't this movie been made already? Likely. But I don't know if its been made this well.
In our modern world, films about love have become the territory of Nicholas Sparks, where someone has a terrible illness and someone loves that person and then one (or both) of them die. It's a jack-in-the-box of feelings. You turn the crank in one direction, over and over, of course you get the desired emotional response: Jack springs out.
Blue Valentine doesn't need any of the fancy dressings of sailing scholarships and Alzheimer's disease. Patton Oswalt called it "a movie for fucking adults"and not just because it bounced back and forth between an NC-17 and an R rating. This is a film that goes to great lengths to capture reality, and just like reality, it doesn't sit well with you at all. There aren't extreme world-ending stakes or star-crossed lovers, but the way the details of their misery have been presented makes them feel just as heavy.
The best way to describe the film is that it's intimate. There's a real sense of privacy to the best scenes, like a whole ugly set at a love motel, thanks to the cinematography and the convincing and earnest Michelle Williams and Ryan Gosling. The writing is restrained and organic. It achieves this through the deceptively simple act of making dialogue simple. They stumble and tell jokes we've already heard. They work good enough jobs and have stupid ideas. For all this familiarity, it stops just short of seeming generic or typical. Everyone involved from the script to the editing team to the Grizzly Bear soundtrack invokes so much pain into their circumstances. Dramatic, but honest.
It's a universal enough story of young city dwellers in premature love that it is surely happening somewhere, right now, every day in an American metropolis. But that's not for believability. We don't need any more convincing or suspension of disbelief when all the pieces fall so naturally as they do here. What it does is convey a fourth-wall breaking sense of melancholy. In films like this, it's hard to leave your concern for the characters in the theater, as it's too easy to transfer it to some imagined real life parallel. As the credits rolled, I felt sorry for the couple, despite knowing they're essentially fiction. It was the same kind of extended sorrow that usually accompanies very good documentaries.
If Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind told us that all the problems of relationships are worth it in the end, Blue Valentine says: "Hey, this is what you ordered, innit?"
I keep thinking of the plot as a math problem. There is only one solution, one ending to the story given the equation. But it's a harsh reality. It has its moments of light and fireworks, but the sum of all those parts is going to leave the characters scarred. Michelle Williams' character, Cindy, is disillusioned with her wayside dreams and unambitious & content husband. Ryan Gosling as Dean is still in love and still wants things to work - in his own mind and in his words, at least. But his love and desire to please blinds him to the actual problems.
Cindy is obviously drained long before the movie begins, but is still susceptible to being coddled into giving it a fighting chance several times over. Dean's idea of solving arguments is to be stubborn and refuse to leave until he gets the conflict resolution he seeks. It's not simply about people who butt heads and don't get along but, to quote the movie, people for whom there is nothing left. It's not so much broken as it is evaporated.
There's a very painfully real portrait of a guy who thinks he's the good guy because he's the one trying to resolve everything versus a woman who is suffering for something to change. But Dean is content, but for all his talk of compromise and doing whatever it takes to fix everything, he doesn't understand that that includes an upheaval of the things that he is content with. How do you fix a problem that the other person doesn't see? Over 6 years and tumultuous event, Cindy grows into a different person while Dean is the same. How are they supposed to stop that from happening?
I understand that this idea doesn't sell anyone on the movie. It's not everyone's idea of a night out. I know there are many films that are just so dark and depressing that it becomes unbearable to watch because of how relentlessly it goes for your heart strings. But despite how hopeless and dour it gets, the film isn't draining. It doesn't sour you on the idea of love, or marriage, or rob you of your own hope for something more substantial. It doesn't even feel like a cautionary tale. It's a record. You are here to witness two people, the things that thrust them into a relationship with each other, and why they couldn't end any other way.
The theme of the film isn't that love sucks, or that relationships are all doomed, or that happiness is a myth. If it has a message, instead of just being a heady well-made film, it is that the reverse of these Nicholas Sparks-esque true-love-coming-together-in-the-end stories, the flip side is that love can also fall apart no matter what. It's anti-destiny and a document reminding us that people are a lot of work, and you are not owed that ride into the sunset despite all your laboring.