Film of the Week

Blue Valentine (15)

3.00

Starring: Michelle Williams, Ryan Gosling, Faith Wladyka

There are scenes of such exquisite sadness and performances of such raw pain in Blue Valentine that you may wonder by the end why it isn't quite the satisfying movie it ought to be. Writer-director Derek Cianfrance brings great delicacy to this portrait of a marriage, preferring to nudge the audience along rather than semaphore every last message, and at times you could almost swear you're watching two people fall out of love, instead of just a brilliant impersonation of it. Yet still, there's something undernourished in it.

It begins with the disappearance of the family dog: a bad omen. Dean (Ryan Gosling) asks his six-year-old daughter Frankie (Faith Wladyka) to check the kennel, to no avail; it's only later in the day that his wife Cindy (Michelle Williams) tearfully whispers to him that the dog's dead, and it's her fault. She forgot to lock the gate, not for the first time. Slowly, in sequences of quotidian domesticity, we realise that all is not well in this marriage, and Dean's plea for a child-free night out to restore some romance looks like a last desperate roll of the dice. That the room he chooses in a tacky themed hotel is called "The Future" seems a particularly crushing irony.

The narrative trick of the film is simple but effective. Cianfrance gives us scenes of the couple's breakdown intercut with scenes of their courtship, six years earlier. The extra twist is a complete absence of title cards or dates to indicate which timeframe we're watching. The Dean of the present-day is a house painter, balding, and drinking, though we sense still a boyish playfulness when he's around their daughter (he spins her a sweet yarn that their lost canine has gone off to Hollywood to become "a movie dog"). Cindy, a hospital nurse, is more brusque and impatient, a little martyrish, though it's a subtlety of the film that our sympathies keep shifting between husband and wife as the fissures in their relationship broaden.



The jolt comes when the story takes its first unannounced step back in time. This Dean is a happy-go-lucky removals man in Brooklyn, the sort who puts himself out by decorating the room of an old man, a complete stranger, just to make him feel welcome in his new care home. Across the corridor he happens to catch sight of a young woman visiting her grandmother. This would be Cindy, who's had it up to here with difficult men – her dad (John Doman) a dinner-table shouter, her boyfriend (Mike Vogel) a jerk – and responds to the quirky, attentive Dean, improvising a little tap dance while he serenades her on ukulele with "You Always Hurt the One You Love" (those ironies keep coming). He's more romantic than she is, and makes her the centre of his life, so that when she tells him she's pregnant – and that it might not be his – he comes to her aid in a way that perhaps not many men would.

Of course to witness love in its first bloom of hopefulness, and simultaneously to know what sorrow lies ahead, could not be anything other than poignant. Back and forth the film shuttles, watching, listening, trying to work out what went wrong between these two. It doesn't supply a definitive answer, because the key middle years of their relationship are left unexplored. But it does give us clues, notably in Cindy's ambition to be a doctor, which falters once she decides to have a child. And at the first meet-the-parents dinner we discover that the amiable Dean rather lacks drive (no high-school diploma) and is slightly compulsive in his joking – if indeed the name "Dr Comstock" really qualifies as a joke. Their attitude to marriage reveals itself as fundamentally at odds – he sees it as something static, she as something dynamic. When she gently complains that he could be so much more if he used his "potential", he doesn't understand her: he's got exactly what he wants, which is her, them, together.

The bleakness of this is partly offset by the committed performances of the leads. Michelle Williams, who delayed taking the role in the wake of Heath Ledger's tragic death, projects a mater dolorosa whose passive-aggressive victimhood isn't always attractive but never feels inauthentic (she has done variations on it before in Wendy and Lucy and Brokeback Mountain). Ryan Gosling is a livewire as the blue-collar working guy, not dim but not quite smart either, too ready to put his feelings on show. In one of their final flailing arguments he quotes their wedding vows, and begs her, "Please, tell me what I should do." ("Get yourself a shave," muttered my wife – be careful about choosing who watches this with you). But however admirable the acting and Cianfrance's willingness to leave things unspoken, it remains a draggy experience, with too little for the eye and the mind to feed on. Reticence is both its strength and its weakness. The couple's expectations are different, but not so different as to make them irreconcilable. Many marriages (one suspects) have survived on much less. The film does not yield enough dramatic incident to back up its emotional meaning, namely: this marriage cannot go on.

It may turn out to be one of those films men and women have terrible rows about afterwards; or it could be so dispiriting that they'll come out of the cinema and not want to say anything at all. The image I'll take away is one towards the end, when, following a furious bust-up, he yanks the wedding ring off his finger and throws it away. Cut to the next scene, and he's scouring the bushes in search of it. Rancour and remorse are wrapped that close in Blue Valentine.

Suggested Topics
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment

ebooksNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment

ebooks
Arts and Entertainment
Taylor Swift won Best International Solo Female (Getty)

Brits 2015
Arts and Entertainment
Shining star: Maika Monroe, with Jake Weary, in ‘It Follows’
film review
Arts and Entertainment

Brits 2015
Arts and Entertainment
Paloma Faith arrives at the Brit Awards (Getty)

Brits 2015
Arts and Entertainment
Anne Boleyn's beheading in BBC Two's Wolf Hall

TV review
Arts and Entertainment
Follow every rainbow: Julie Andrews in 'The Sound of Music'
film Elizabeth Von Trapp reveals why the musical is so timeless
Arts and Entertainment
Bytes, camera, action: Leehom Wang in ‘Blackhat’
film
Arts and Entertainment
The Libertines will headline this year's festival
music
Arts and Entertainment
Richard Dean Anderson in the original TV series, which ran for seven seasons from 1985-1992
tv
Arts and Entertainment
Muscling in: Noah Stewart and Julia Bullock in 'The Indian Queen'

opera
Arts and Entertainment
Olivia Colman and David Tennant star in 'Broadchurch'

TVViewers predict what will happen to Miller and Hardy
Arts and Entertainment
Kevin Spacey and Robin Wright in season two of the series

Watch the new House of Cards series three trailer

TV
Arts and Entertainment
An extract from the sequel to Fight Club

books
Arts and Entertainment
David Tennant, Eve Myles and Olivia Colman in Broadchurch series two

TV Review
Arts and Entertainment
Old dogs are still learning in 'New Tricks'

TV
Arts and Entertainment
'Tonight we honour Hollywood’s best and whitest – sorry, brightest' - and other Neil Patrick Harris Oscars jokes

Oscars 2015It was the first time Barney has compered the Academy Awards

Arts and Entertainment
Patricia Arquette making her acceptance speech for winning Best Actress Award

Oscars 2015 From Meryl Streep whooping Patricia Arquette's equality speech to Chris Pine in tears

Arts and Entertainment

Oscars 2015 Mexican filmmaker uses speech to urge 'respect' for immigrants

Arts and Entertainment
Lloyd-Hughes takes the leading role as Ralph Whelan in Channel 4's epic new 10-part drama, Indian Summers

TV Review

The intrigue deepens as we delve further but don't expect any answers just yet
Arts and Entertainment
Jason Segal and Cameron Diaz star in Sex Tape

Razzies 2015 Golden Raspberry Awards 'honours' Cameron Diaz and Kirk Cameron

Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating
    and  

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    Syrian conflict is the world's first 'climate change war', say scientists, but it won't be the last one

    Climate change key in Syrian conflict

    And it will trigger more war in future
    How I outwitted the Gestapo

    How I outwitted the Gestapo

    My life as a Jew in wartime Berlin
    The nation's favourite animal revealed

    The nation's favourite animal revealed

    Women like cuddly creatures whilst men like creepy-crawlies
    Is this the way to get young people to vote?

    Getting young people to vote

    From #VOTESELFISH to Bite the Ballot
    Poldark star Heida Reed: 'I don't think a single bodice gets ripped'

    Poldark star Heida Reed

    'I don't think a single bodice gets ripped'
    The difference between America and Israel? There isn’t one

    The difference between America and Israel? There isn’t one

    Netanyahu knows he can get away with anything in America, says Robert Fisk
    Families clubbing together to build their own affordable accommodation

    Do It Yourself approach to securing a new house

    Community land trusts marking a new trend for taking the initiative away from developers
    Head of WWF UK: We didn’t send Cameron to the Arctic to see green ideas freeze

    David Nussbaum: We didn’t send Cameron to the Arctic to see green ideas freeze

    The head of WWF UK remains sanguine despite the Government’s failure to live up to its pledges on the environment
    Author Kazuo Ishiguro on being inspired by shoot-outs and samurai

    Author Kazuo Ishiguro on being inspired by shoot-outs and samurai

    Set in a mythologised 5th-century Britain, ‘The Buried Giant’ is a strange beast
    With money, corruption and drugs, this monk fears Buddhism in Thailand is a ‘poisoned fruit’

    Money, corruption and drugs

    The monk who fears Buddhism in Thailand is a ‘poisoned fruit’
    America's first slavery museum established at Django Unchained plantation - 150 years after slavery outlawed

    150 years after it was outlawed...

    ... America's first slavery museum is established in Louisiana
    Kelly Clarkson: How I snubbed Simon Cowell and become a Grammy-winning superstar

    Kelly Clarkson: How I snubbed Simon Cowell and become a Grammy-winning superstar

    The first 'American Idol' winner on how she manages to remain her own woman – Jane Austen fascination and all
    Tony Oursler on exploring our uneasy relationship with technology with his new show

    You won't believe your eyes

    Tony Oursler's new show explores our uneasy relationship with technology. He's one of a growing number of artists with that preoccupation
    Ian Herbert: Peter Moores must go. He should never have been brought back to fail again

    Moores must go. He should never have been brought back to fail again

    The England coach leaves players to find solutions - which makes you wonder where he adds value, says Ian Herbert
    War with Isis: Fears that the looming battle for Mosul will unleash 'a million refugees'

    The battle for Mosul will unleash 'a million refugees'

    Aid agencies prepare for vast exodus following planned Iraqi offensive against the Isis-held city, reports Patrick Cockburn