Tuesday, November 16, 2010

Love: Blue Valentine

Film is an odd reflection of our lives, the prettier, whiter smiled version of who we are, a concept beautifully articulated in Microsoft’s recent Windows commercials. But even when equipped with Avatar level motion capture or the most inexperienced unknowns, filmmakers rarely make an attempt to sincerely look us in the eyes, let alone succeed with realistic intentions even in the most indie of dramas. That is what we ask for. We don’t want to be reminded of the horrors and boredom of everyday life, content instead to watch the reimagining of our pain in the sawed off leg of a character in Saw or the end of a 20-something, artfully dressed hipster’s love of a pixie dream girl, *cough* (500) Days of Summer. We rely on that escapism to give us those familiar feelings in a fresh box, relatable yet detached enough to keep us interested. But Derek Cianfrance's Blue Valentine somehow undermines this whole Indie drama format, throwing its normally beautiful and darling actors in the midst of raw pain, unafraid to make them ugly, regular, and really believable (and I’m not talking about the level of transformation seen on Jennifer Aniston in The Good Girl with her mom jeans).

It’s not a particularly tense film (although it does have its moments), nor does it rely on a specific plot to drive the story forward. Nothing is tied-up in a nice bow, nor is it really explained. Instead it’s simply a snapshot of a relationship and the lives that fused to create it. Unburdened by the need to create action and emotion, Cianfrance simply allows it to grow organically, and in turn delivers a unique emotional sincerity. Cindy (Michelle Williams) and Dean (Ryan Gosling) are not beautiful actors given a nice make-up job and a bad wardrobe. Nor are they a caricature, playing out what it means to be lower class with smashed dreams with near Vaudevillian melodramatics. Dean is a blue collar guy, a mover, painter, and later a drunk with 80’s glasses and thinning hair. But he’s not uneducated. He’s creative, charming, and beguiling, making it easy to understand the once intensity of the connection they once had. Cindy herself is not just the frumpy lost mother figure that in a better environment might have proved to be the first female president, but a full human being, as rounded out as Dean even when she expresses the common problems that many women experience on a daily basis.

Both Cindy and Dean are connected by their free-spirit natures without pandering to the audience. There’s no drunken karaoke, or watching airplanes, no bursting into song and terrorizing a gas station attendant, or any number of the clich├ęd, giddy love montages that grace every romantic drama out there (including even the more serious high-browed Sundance favorites ). Instead, what passes between them is entirely familiar to anyone that’s been in love, the small moments that play out on screen realistic yet full of the magic that you cultivate in your own mind from experience, not the magic conjured up in a cool film studio.

When their marriage does fall apart, the effect is equally stunning and engaging, like peeking in the opened window of a neighbor or looking in on your own fallen relationships. Gosling deserves the most credit here, as he never plays Dean with an open hand, expertly balancing his immaturity and frustration without making the audience forget why they’re bothering with him in the first place. Williams is subdued, but actively so, the peak of her emotion building throughout the film until it’s released with a simple, “I can’t take this anymore,” a line that in the hands of most would have come off as ridiculous and false. If the two of them don’t win Oscars this year, I swear, I’m giving up on the whole damn thing.

Blue Valentine is depressing and harrowing because of its lack of artifice. There is no detachment here, no escape, only an expert blend of memory and collective understanding, brilliantly translated for the audience by Gosling and Williams. It’s not fun, it’s not enjoyable, but it is comforting, the perfect film to watch during tough times,to remind you that you’re not alone, a true emotional connection instead of a way to forget it.

The 19th Annual Stella Artois St. Louis International Film Festival is still on! Check it out.

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