There is a rare but certain pleasure in watching actors—or anyone, for that matter—practicing their craft for the pure, primal joy of it. Sadly, movies are a frequently adulterated art form; the creators of which spend most of their time worrying about box office results, People magazine cover stories and the crucial 15-year-old male demographic. Only on very special occasions (Oscar nomination season, for example) are actors allowed to come out of the makeup trailer and actually exercise their abilities.
The Weinstein Company, an American film distributor with a notorious love for gold statuettes, has been conspicuously silent for the last 12 months. Now, just in time for the Academy Award and Golden Globe nominations, comes the one-two punch of The King’s Speech and Blue Valentine—dual showcases for outsized actorly talent. While The King’s Speech has got light, inspirational comedy well in hand, Blue Valentine goes straight for the heartrending drama.
Blue Valentine isn’t a plot-centric kind of film. Structured a bit like last year’s (500) Days of Summer, we are offered random snapshots from throughout the couple’s tumultuous relationship. Early on, it’s great. Later on, not so much. The bulk of the film spins off from the couple’s embarrassing, last-ditch effort to rekindle their romance at a tacky, space-themed love motel. We’re witness to their first sweet meeting in an old-age home. (He’s a furniture mover. She’s visiting her grandmother.) At the same time, we’re privilege to the long-term effects of that meeting—a lovely young daughter, a couple of unspectacular careers and a life lived on pins and needles.
The film doesn’t try to manufacture any artificial melodrama. This isn’t a story of grand infidelities, terminal illnesses or other faux romantic drama fodder. Sad as it is, it isn’t the soul-crushing domestic combat of Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? or War of the Roses, either. Dean and Cindy’s relationship is simply undone by the dreary, melancholic, everyday details that tear many couples apart: incompatibility, ennui, diverging goals and a nagging realization that love don’t pay the bills. Director Cianfrance—clearly an expert at dealing with actors—gives Gosling and Williams the opportunity not to act, but to inhabit these characters. This is the result of some meticulous planning and a good deal of structured improvisation on the part of the cast. Everything feels natural and organic, not scripted or forced. Cianfrance’s skills also show through in the judicious use of young Faith Wladyka as the couple’s 5-year-old daughter. Her scenes with Gosling and Williams are indistinguishable from home movies of a little girl hanging out with her actual parents.
In fact, much of Blue Valentine has a home-movie feel. Not in its cinematography or composition, which is quite subtle and elegant, but in its tone. It’s hard not to get an uncomfortable voyeuristic twinge looking in on this couple’s most intimate moments—both painful and pleasurable. I should mention that the film stirred up a bit of controversy late last year, landing an NC-17 rating from the MPAA for its explicit sex scenes. Raw and honest as these moments might be, they’re the tiniest portion of the film and hardly played for titillation value. Seriously, if you’re in the market for naked stars, you’re better off checking out Love and Other Drugs.
Intimate, naturalistic, raw: Blue Valentine is an achingly real romance. One that, counter to a lot of people’s tastes, doesn’t exactly believe in happy endings. As a showcase for the talents of two of Hollywood’s hottest thespians and one of its up-and-coming directors, though, Blue Valentine is worthy of some serious love.
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