Before this festival actually began, Derek Cianfrance's Blue Valentine was pegged as one of the "hot" acquisition titles of 2010. And then, as so often happens here, the film screened, and the proverbial word on the street changed. Valentine slipped from the center to the margin of the general sales conversation, not because it disappointed--in fact, it's probably the most passionately loved film of the festival amongst the cadre of journalists and indie industry persons with whom I spend my evenings drinking--but even those who love it admit that there's no confusing Blue Valentine with an easy sell, and in fact, there may be no way to sell the film at all at a lower altitude. The initial buzz must have come from an ignorant extrapolation of what little was known about the movie. Blue Valentine may be a flashback-heavy, tear-jerking romance starring Ryan Gosling, but it's sure as shit not The Notebook.
Gosling stars as Dean, a balding housepainter who has a kindergarten-age daughter with unsmiling nurse wife Cindy (Michelle Williams). Cianfrance cuts back and forth between the present (Dean drinks beer throughout the day just to get through it, Cindy uses overwork as her drug of avoidance) and the couple's meet-cute and dramatic but blissful early relationship. In the present, the beloved family dog is hit by a car, and Cindy sends the kid to grandpa's house for the night so mom and dad can bury the body. Dean decides they should take advantage of the rare night off to cash in a gift certificate for a room at a cheesy sex motel a two-hour drive away. Cindy is reluctant, but Dean knows how to woo. "Let's go get drunk and make love," he says. Whether love has ever been in the cards for this couple is up for debate, but they certainly get drunk; stocking up on vodka, Cindy runs into an old boyfriend, and the road trip goes straight to Cassavetesville from there.
As the couple's origin story builds to its romantic peak, in the present day storyline their relationship sinks, and finally Cianfrance's cross-cutting between the two becomes an effective tool for wringing feeling. The climax of this film, a crescendo of tonal contrasts culminating in a perfectly conclusive final image, would be hard to improve on.
Though appreciative of its visual beauty throughout, I was immune to Valentine's attempted emotional assault until its final act, and it took me several days to figure out why I found it such a difficult film to buy into. I was fairly sure it didn't bother me that much that Gosling's Dean, supposedly a working-class high school dropout, rode the buses of Williamsburg strumming a ukulele like the hoariest of hipster clichés. I was annoyed when the cross-cutting would get a little too matchy-matchy (like when a fistfight from five years ago is juxtaposed with a fistfight from today), but I could forgive it. I liked Cianfrance's clear-eyed conception of a couple who seem to be invincible when blinkered by lust, but post-honeymoon turn out to be anything but; I liked the idea of minting tragedy out of something as mundane as a simple bad match. And in its aesthetics, Blue Valentine seems to be tailored specifically to my tastes: a naturalistic anti-romance that acknowledges the evanescence of mutual adoration, performed by vanity-free actors and presented in grainy, deeply saturated imagery that always goes for the painterly over the descriptive. What's not to like?
The problem may be that there's nothing much to Blue Valentine beyond those aesthetics. This is an incredibly surface-oriented film, in which extremely close camera work is mistaken for interiority. Particularly problematic is Cianfrance's documentation of Williams, whose character spends much of the present day strain of the film brickwalling her overly declarative husband. Williams' performance is such a literal translation of Cindy's coldness that the character becomes a cipher of Unfeeling Woman. It's one thing that Dean has no clue who his wife really is; it's another for the filmmaker to share his protagonist's ignorance. Cianfrance's camera just keeps getting closer to his actress, and though we end up getting an excellent view into Williams' pores, they're not exactly the windows into Cindy's soul. Usually an aesthetic so showily invested in "intimacy" is intended as a path into a character's inner life. In this case, there's nowhere for that path to go.
I was so seduced by Valentine's final moments, but the more I think about it, the more my affection sours. Valentine wilts under any attempt to strenuously wrestle with it. Call it a case of blue balls.