This review originally ran during the Cannes Film Festival.
The hot ticket of Sundance debuted on the Croisette at Cannes yesterday and if the audience reaction is any indication Derek Cianfrance's "Blue Valentine" is wowing international critics as much as it did their U.S. counterparts in Park City last January. The Cannes screening was the first opportunity The Playlist had to see the film and we are heartily in agreement. "Blue Valentine" is worthy of every accolade it's getting and if there was any doubt that Ryan Gosling and Michelle Williams weren't already the hottest young actors in Hollywood, this film seals the deal and marks one helluva sophomore effort by writer (along with Joey Curtis and Cami Delavigne) and director Derek Cianfrance.
The premise is deceptively simple: we follow Dean (Gosling) and Cindy (Williams) over the course of thirty-six hours as they try and face the reality that their relationship is not working any more. Cutting between present and past, Cianfrance sets up the broad outline and then slowly shades it in. From the outset of the film, we know something is not right between Dean and Cindy. As the film opens, Dean is playing with their daughter Frankie (Faith Wladkya) and Cindy looms in the background, visibly tensed at nearly everything Dean does, but remains silent. Almost as if they can feel the tension building, they decide to drop Frankie off at Cindy's father's (John Doman) house for the night. Not quite sure of what to do with themselves, Dean uses a gift certificate to book them a night at a theme-hotel and make their way out there. On the way out to the hotel, Cindy stops to pick up liquor and runs into an ex-boyfriend, Bobby (Mike Vogel) and when she later mentions it in the car, it starts the first wedge of the following twenty-four hours that will finally cause the couple to disintegrate.
Contrasting the breakdown are the film's flashback sequences, showing the fairy tale-like development of their relationship when they first meet in Brooklyn. Dean works for a moving company and Cindy is a student eyeing medical school. They happen to cross paths at an old folks home where Cindy's grandmother is stationed, and where Dean helped move an elderly man who moves out of his home. Dean boldly gives her his number, but she doesn't call. Another chance meeting finally allows Dean a bit more room to introduce himself and playfully rib/flirt with Cindy who, according to his experience, must be crazy and unfunny because most beautiful women are. She responds to his statement in turn, telling a joke that we won't spoil here but provides one of the biggest laughs of the film (in fact, the entire courtship/flashback portions of the film are utterly charming without being cutesy). From there, the couple are off and when a revelation by Cindy puts their nascent relationship is put to an early test, Dean throws himself at her, setting them on a path eventually leading to where they unfortunately, ultimately end up.
The film had extensive pre-production work and rehearsals with Gosling and Williams and it shows. The strength of the film and what prevents it from being an overwrought melodrama are the actors' familiarity with each other and how they embody and live within these characters. They get everything right: from the gestures, mannerisms, longing and body language of courtship and love to the silence, tension and confusion of a relationship gone cold. There is a palpable authenticity here that is realized to a startlingly accurate degree. The writers thankfully keep the histrionics at bay, with an understanding that romance often blooms in a quickfire fashion, and disintegrates slowly, almost unknowingly, revealing the depths of damage almost too late. Also commendable is that the reasoning behind the couple's breakup isn't elaborated. Again, the script speaks truthfully to these situations in that the reason is known and unknown, and difficult to elaborate. When Dean asks what he can do to change or what Cindy wants from him, her answer of "I don't know" isn't cagey, but tragic.
"Blue Valentine" doesn't pull any punches and when the last ten minutes finally confirm where it's heading, the larger questions the film poses come into play. Is "for better or for worse" too much of an expectation? Does love triumph the economic and adult responsibilities that must be undertaken to raise a child? Can youthful idealism and love sustain itself long into adulthood? Is it fair to even expect it to? "Blue Valentine" asks, but is smart enough to know there isn't an answer. And as the last scene fades and the fireworks explode over the brilliant closing credit sequence, Cianfrance has presented us with a film valentine that while prickly, raw and devastatingly real, is one to be treasured. [A]