Thursday, January 13, 2011

Blue Valentine

BLUE VALENTINE                               C+
USA  (114 mi)  2010  d:  Derek Cianfrance

According to IMDb trivia, the film was originally set to shoot in spring of 2008, but was delayed due to Heath Ledger’s death. The producers and director delayed the film out of respect for Michelle Williams, Ledger's ex-girlfriend and mother of his daughter Matilda, rather than going ahead and shooting the film with another actress in Michelle's role.  This felt more like a sketch, like it was incomplete scenes from an actor's workshop, as if they were still working on it by the time they filmed it because it never feels like they got it right.  Sometimes you can spend too much time on a project.  In this case, the director (and who is he anyway?) had been working to get this film made on and off for 12 years, Michelle Williams for six, and Ryan Gosling for four years.  So one gets the feeling that what was missing was any feeling of immediacy or fresh insight.  By the time it was captured onscreen, this all felt like old news.  Part of the problem is the choice to make both characters so ordinary, so everyday and typically like you and me, that in the end "neither" of the two characters is very interesting and never once is there an epiphany moment that one could essentially call "moving."   In a drama, you need drama. By the end of this movie I couldn't wait to get out of the theater as it was that unpleasant an experience - - and so predictable that I wasn't even watching the screen anymore as they simply weren't finding new territory, instead retreading the same grounds.  There's more energy in the end credit sequence than there is anywhere else in the entire film.  There's nothing wrong with either Gosling or Williams, this just feels poorly written and poorly directed, as there should be some emotional connection with the audience.

This feels like a throwback to a different era of filmmaking, perhaps Cassavetes making SHADOWS in 1959, a time when this kind of raw, emotional intimacy onscreen contrasted against the more conventional mainstream epics that passed for movies, where characters rarely revealed emotional truth on any kind of a regular basis, where Sirkian exaggeration of the 1950’s through melodramatic hysteria subverted and disguised what was really emotional conformity of the era.  With counterculture films like BONNIE AND CLYDE (1967), FIVE EASY PIECES (1970) and THE MOTHER AND THE WHORE (1972), they began to question just what moviemaking was all about, where overly confessional characters could spend the entire movie in turmoil searching for that inner truth that has evaded them.  Over time, action features became less important to leading performances, replaced by indie films sending cameras in search of more soulful representations of our lives, where Terrence Malick and David Gordon Green seemed destined to reduce scenes of our lives to cinematic poetry and art.  In their films, life’s realism is presented so thoroughly and without artifice so that the inner lives onscreen blossomed and became the focus of character development.  In this manner, film became the cinematic expression for emotional realism, which is what indie films were really searching for in the first place.  All of which leads us to this film, lauded by some for revealing such raw emotional truths in the performances of the two lead characters, whose lives are exposed and then literally ripped apart before our eyes, showing only the initial romantic surge told out of time, mixed and interspersed with the falling out of a horrible marriage.  From the viewer’s standpoint, it feels like a sadistic exhibition, the manipulations of a slasher film, a grotesque example of WHO’S AFRAID OF VIRGINIA WOOLF (1966) when placed in the wrong director’s hands, as the abusive Edward Albee language and incendiary emotional fireworks desperately need the human context of what seems on the surface to be a successful marriage, when the claustrophobia of exposed nerves and routine patterns of failed intimacy begin to open wounds of inner rage and disgust.  We’re entering Tennessee Williams territory of sexually repressed and dysfunctional relationships that pretend for all the world to see as if nothing is wrong. 

What’s missing in this film is any sense of theatricality, the interplay of characters, where the audience develops a sense for the people depicted onscreen.  Because the editing is all chopped up and spit out in disconnected pieces, the audience sees the aftereffects of the drama, but not the drama itself.  The focus of the story centers around a married couple on the rocks, Cindy (Michelle Williams) and Dean (Ryan Gosling), where from the outset the audience can sense Dean freely speaks his mind while Cindy doesn’t, as she’s caught up in a motherly role of exclusively doing for others, remaining busy to such an extent that she has no time and no life for herself, which includes any intimacy with her husband, where there is apparently a wall between them that is crushing her, but Dean hasn’t a clue and needs everything explained to him.  Throughout the film he is continually peppering her with questions about what she’s thinking and why, always changing the focus to her, never acknowledging any wrongdoing on his part, always the innocent one placing the blame and the burden on her shoulders, which is a weight she eventually can’t carry anymore.  Dean, however, acts like this is all news to him, as if he’s been on another planet, that somehow the enormity of her unhappiness has escaped him.  Again, what’s missing in this marital deconstruction is theatrical urgency, as it’s missing the eloquence of direction and structured writing.  Instead, much of this feels flatly improvised, where they seem to rely upon repetitious language and similar fallback positions, never really accumulating any power of drama.  The camera is raw and in-your-face, featuring close ups that fill the entire screen, shot on Super 16 mm and Digital giving it a seedy, grainy look that is absent any natural color, but the dialogue and nudity are too tame and the audience has difficulty developing a connection or even an interest in these characters who are simply not memorable, instead they come and they go all too quickly, in the end actually becoming forgettable.  Perhaps we’ll remember the song, “You and Me” by Penny and the Quarters: (3:06). 

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