As someone who was weaned on the relationship disintegration masterpieces La Maman et la Putain, Scenes from a Marriage, et al., it was easy to get excited about the thought of a ‘raw’ relationship drama coming out of Hollywood. Especially considering Michelle Williams is the most interesting actor working in Hollywood at the moment, and the hype accompanying the film has exaggerated the lengths she, and her co-star, Ryan Gosling, have gone to in their roles as would-be lovers. And yet, it’s hard not to feel disappointed by Blue Valentine, given its lazy narrative and unconvincing break-up: things end on an overly climactic note, when what was really called for was something a bit more banal.
The film is told across two intercutting time periods. The first is when high-school drop-out Dean (Gosling) woos Cindy (Williams), a trainee doctor, and who is feeling the effects of a previous relationship. The second takes place a few years later, when their marriage is falling apart. In the space of a few years, the couple move from puppy love to downright contempt (at least from Cindy’s viewpoint) and overly comfortable routine (from Dean’s perspective). Its fatal flaw is the break-up. Dean’s transformation from hipster to hillbilly never quite rang true, and his character transformation appeared either too convenient or too contrived—it seemed forced in order to justify the falling out of love. As a result, the film’s eventual descent into violence and recrimination didn’t hold up. It was almost as if the writers were too scared to reveal simple banality as a sufficient cause for the couple’s split—something even a film like the Jennifer Aniston/Vince Vaughan vehicle, The Break-Up, was happy enough to settle for. An either/or narrative such as Blue Valentine’s was a risky undertaking—if just one part failed to resonate with the audience, then it was unlikely to convince—and director Derek Cianfrance doesn’t deliver on a number of fronts.
That said, the acting is impressive and energetic, and Williams in particular manages to exude sympathy in a role that is otherwise shallowly drawn. The story is compelling enough too: it’s rare to see a Hollywood feature attempt gritty naturalism through non-linear storytelling. But whether it actually achieves a believable rawness is another matter entirely, and the film’s surface level theatrics are a dead giveaway, if only for the actors’ bravura performances to disguise its shortcomings.