by Chuck Williamson
At its core, Derek Cianfrance’s Blue Valentine is an experiment in teratology: a stripped-down sideshow attraction where the toned, juvenated, hyper-sexualized bodies of movie stars mutate into scuzzed-out white trash grotesqueries. Moving fugue-like in odd atemporal rhythms, the film cruelly alternates between vesuvian post-marital meltdowns and the fumbling flirtations of a new relationship; it deliberately counterpoises every moment of halcyon romanticism with its self-destructive inversion until a final cataclysmic crescendo set against a literal barrage of fireworks.
Unfolding in a series of startling juxtapositions, Blue Valentine relishes in the perverse thrill of using its performers as blank canvases that can be hyperbolized and rendered ghoulish in the service of (over)enunciating its one-note “love stinks” theme. But even as Williams and Gosling exhibit a brutal and implosive intimacy, their transformations into working-class caricatures are symptomatic of the film’s confused oscillation between naturalism and hyperbolization; it continuously sledgehammers its myopically apocalyptic view of romantic ruination, punctuates several scenes with a veritable exclamation mark, and often nullifies the subtle, poignant poetry of moments that capture the minutiae and quiet interactions that form (and fracture) its central relationship.
As a pair of punch-drunk Brooklynites in love, Cindy (Michelle Williams) and Dean (Ryan Gosling) exude a youthful effervescence and raw libidinous energy: scrawny, spontaneous, matching every furtive glance with an act of carnal physicality. As embittered parents, they resemble a corn pone fever-dream of working-class miserablism: doughy, droopy-eyed, abjectified into a grotesque bodily spectacle that feeds our illicit love for the freak-show aesthetic. Little else exists beyond these extreme polarities as the film boils down the messy intricacies of relationships into simple, surface-level dichotomies.
Small, poignant moments of intimacy and despair—the incredulous laughter produced from an off-color joke, the small gestures lovers use to urge one another up a staircase, or the mournful response to the death of a family dog—subside in favor of combative, bare throated histrionics where each performer tediously implores some variant of, “What do you want me to do?” Blue Valentine uses its structural juxtapositions to render context and causality opaque, a potentially radical narrative device that merely makes the downward spiral of its central relationship frustratingly superficial. We never see even a glimpse of the intermediate five-year period where, with apologies to Annie Hall, “love fades,” but are instead disingenuously bounced between two extreme polarities: the idyllic beginnings and the purgatorial breakdown where bodies are dramatically deglamorized. Their relationship is reduced to dueling sound-bites.
As such, Blue Valentine is streamlined to the point of suppressing its contingencies, trading in moments of quiet observation for a collection of eruptive, overplayed, on-the-nose encounters that spell everything out in big, capital letters. Why else would the film so nakedly strain for dramatic irony through Gosling’s full-bodied ukulele rendition of “You Always Hurt the One You Love,” or foreshadow its central dramatic set-piece—set in a sci-fi themed love-motel—with winking one-liners like, “Pack your bags, babe, we’re going to the future?” Why else would it telegraph its marital dissolution with two fussy, overwritten exchanges where Dean and Cindy philosophize on the nature of love with their friends and family? Why else would the characters lack an interior life outside their combative romantic entanglements?
Even its structural conceit hinges on over-explicit juxtapositions that contrast multiple scenes from past and present to the same eye-rolling conclusion: love is easy and marriage is hard. Set against the din of meatloaf-tossing patriarchs, vituperative ex-boyfriends, and sleaze-bag doctors (“I thought you were promoting me because of my talent,” Cindy demurs at one point), Blue Valentine leaves little to the imagination as it repeatedly hammers the same note with a single-minded relentlessness.
But even at its most problematic, Blue Valentine still succeeds as an actor’s showcase for Williams and Gosling, who anchor even the most overblown and preposterous scenes with a bruised and battered humanism. Often transcending the more overheated passages from Cianfrance’s screenplay, the two principle performers make even the most repetitive shout-fests compelling and emerge as a source of pathos that almost makes up for the film’s clumsier solicitations for our sympathy—and that includes its perverse, rubber-necking fetishization of their deglamorization.
Which brings us to the veritable teratogenesis. Williams, for instance, slinks into frame like a haggard, sleep-deprived somnambulist who never seems to physically recover from having been forced out of bed by her shrieking five-year-old daughter; at times, she seems to sink into the cluttered and perpetually dingy mise-en-scene. But it is Ryan Gosling, as a harried, “too-old-for-this-shit” hipster past his sell-by date, who embodies the film’s worst impulses. Bleating out absurd pronouncements like, “Let’s get drunk and make loooove,” Gosling plays Dean as a twitchy, tattooed, balding, chain-smoking, pot-bellied loser, sloppily dressed in paint-smeared cargo pants, a Salvation Army eagle sweatshirt, and a pair of pedotastic tinted aviator glasses; his body, in a sense, is specularized into a ridiculous, pathos-hungry white trash spectacle that visualizes his fall from grace in a blunt, overreaching, semi-comic fashion.
Rendered ghoulish under the auspices of method acting (extolled in celebrity gossip columns in narratives of courage, commitment, and precipitous weight gain), their bodies denote a wild, larger-than-life exhibitionism that, to some degree, disrupts the inherent voyeurism of Blue Valentine’s unhinged emotional fallout—aided by intimate handheld camerawork and extreme close-ups—by privileging hyperbolized exteriors over psychic or emotional interiors. Their broken-down bodies double as objects of a fetishistic display that externalizes (and embellishes) Cianfrance’s contention that, well, “you always hurt the one you love,” and ultimately become hyper-visible in his last-ditch effort to show the literal damage of fading love. At its most poignant, the film opts to decenter corporeal grotesquery as the prime source of spectacle, as in an assaultive sexual encounter where claustrophobic framing and camera movement blur their bodies into a diaphanous tangle of torsos and limbs. But most of Blue Valentine puts us in an odd position where we are asked to empathize and gawk.