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Blue Valentine

Ryan Gosling and Michelle Williams in "Blue Valentine"

Love Must Have a Eulogy

Blue Valentine

Call it the date movie from hell. You’d be hard-pressed to see Blue Valentine, director Derek Cianfrance’s lacerating portrait of a marriage at its terminal point, with someone you care about without comparing your own relationship to what you see on screen. And you would have to be either wholly secure or wholly sociopathic not to draw comparisons.

You should probably not see this if you need to come away from a film knowing exactly why things happened the way they did. (If you’re like that, you should also avoid Mike Leigh’s Another Year, which opens in Buffalo next week.) You can make all kinds of assumptions or guesses about what happened to Dean and Cindy, the young couple here. Odds are your guesses will be different from the person you see it with, which I imagine will lead to post-screening arguments more heated than, say, discussions about exactly what happens at the end of Black Swan.

But they will be just guesses. Cianfrance isn’t interested in the particulars of why a relationship falls apart. We’ve all been in failed relationships, and who can say exactly where they go fatally asunder? What he is after, and has succeeded in capturing, is the impact of realization, when two people understand that their lives have changed irrevocably.

Cianfrance labored for 12 years to get this film made, wanting to capture a part of life that he hadn’t seen elsewhere on the screen. And yet his eventual accomplishment was to provide a basis for performances by two actors, Ryan Gosling, and Michelle Williams, that overshadow his own efforts.

That she has been nominated for an Oscar for her work here and Gosling wasn’t shouldn’t be seen as the Academy’s assessment of their performances: Both are tremendous, but there was more high-profile competition in his category than in hers.

Gosling and Williams have both been involved with the project for years, and Cianfrance put them through an extraordinary amount of preparation. Along with the young actress who plays their daughter, they lived in the drab rural house where the film was shot for a month, subsisting on a budget that equaled what their characters (a nurse and a house painter) would earn. His intention was to give them an emotional history like these people might have. But he also kept certain actual details of the story away from them, so that he would be able to capture spontaneous emotions on camera.

What gives Blue Valentine a special poignancy are sequences showing the early days of Dean and Cindy’s relationship, from their meeting through their wedding. These keep us involved with the characters in a way that the primary scenes (set over the course of 36 hours) probably wouldn’t accomplish. In doing so, they of course make what we watch infinitely sadder.

(Other reviewers have commented on the differences in visual tone between the past and “present” sequences. These were unfortunately not obvious on the DVD screener I viewed, which I note for those of you who prefer to wait for movies to come to a format you can watch in your living room.)

You may have heard that Blue Valentine was originally given an NC-17 rating before Harvey Weinstein (who lives for battles like this) convinced the MPAA to re-rate it without cuts. If that’s an enticement for you to see a film, well, the theater can use your ticket money, so I won’t argue you out of it. The rest of you can rest assured that the nudity here is neither gratuitous nor pandering. I won’t argue that it was necessary, but it gives a layer of emotional depth that it would lack otherwise.

One last note: Don’t leave when the end credits start to roll. You probably won’t, but if you did you would miss one of the most visually compelling parts of the film.

Watch the trailer for Blue Valentine

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