Indie drama feels staged, unconvincing

By Drew Hunt

There is a distinct air of intrigue surrounding “Blue Valentine,” the debut film from director Derek Cianfrance. While a groundswell of anticipation can only be a good thing for an up-and-coming filmmaker, such as Cianfrance, more often than not the buzz can backfire. This is the case with “Blue Valentine,” a film which does very little in delivering on said intrigue and instead feels more like a novelty in its execution.

The film stars Michelle Williams and Ryan Gosling as a young married couple whose relationship is on its last leg, and the tone presented by Cianfrance is intended to be bleak and gritty. However, “Blue Valentine,” is ultimately synthetic—on par with a sappy teenaged love poem with no real relevance to speak of.

The interlocking stories of “Blue Valentine”—the demise of Williams and Gosling’s destructively dysfunctional marriage and their idyllic courtship which took place six years beforehand—fail in revealing anything substantial about the characters. Essentially, the viewer is left to fill in the middle section of this plight as Cianfrance opts to only give us the very beginning and very end of their relationship.

This is virtual suicide in narrative storytelling. With such little investment, it’s near impossible to engage oneself in a film that demands your sympathy as much as “Blue Valentine.” The film is over-written to the point of exasperation, and Williams and Gosling hit every plot point with a sledgehammer-like blatancy—which no doubt stems from the counsel of an overzealous director.

Williams and Gosling have proved themselves to be two of the more gifted young actors working in film today. But Cianfrance’s direction is so narrowing that he leaves little room for the exploration necessary in the kind of character study he was undoubtedly attempting to craft. He shoots for realism, but settles for maudlin scenarios, which feel as staged as a perfume commercial. In being so concerned with constructing characters, he reveals himself to have no interest in people—perhaps the most detrimental defect an artist can posses.

Equally as frustrating are the spots of promise “Blue Valentine” glosses over in lieu of paltry emotionalism. The class differences between the two characters—Williams, the upper-middle class med student with roofless promise; Gosling, the charming but blue collar simpleton—provides avenues of social exploration which could explain the strain on their marriage. But this disparity remains wholly unexplored. When Cianfrance has the opportunity to elevate “Blue Valentine” beyond a mere construct, he instead chugs along to the next scenario and eliminates any room for ambiguity or reflection.

The film has been surrounded by controversy after being given an NC-17, due to its frank depictions of sexual activity. The scenes in question are indeed quite affecting, but the sex is never graphic—just realistic. It may sound crude, but the instances in which Williams and Gosling simulate making love provide the few moments of worth in “Blue Valentine.” Early on, their sex is emotive and even beautiful. But later on, when the couple visits an outer space-themed hotel room—Gosling’s last-ditch attempt to save his crumbling marriage—their physical relationship has clearly deteriorated. One awkward foray devolves into a near rape.

It was this particular scene that irked the ratings board at the Motion Picture Association of America, and rightfully so—it’s a tough scene to watch, but not an exploitive one. In fact, it dexterously surmises the state of the relationship, with Gosling forcing and insisting while Williams protests and avoids. By illustrating this complete lack symbiotic cohesion with a most primal and uncomfortable scene, Cianfrance paints a heartrending portrait of the fragility of human connection.

If every scene had been this visceral, “Blue Valentine” would have made for a far more substantial experience. But then, of course, it would have been 90 minutes worth of Williams and Gosling having sex, and that would have been something else entirely.