Blue Valentine Review: Heartbreak Hotel
“It’s the little things that kill” sang Bush’s Gavin Rossdale in 1994. That couldn’t be truer than in Blue Valentine which charts the slow decline and eventual implosion of a relationship. Cindy and Dean are a working class couple from Pennsylvania with a six year old daughter Frankie. Cindy’s a nurse, Dean’s a housepainter and their marriage is falling apart. They’re unaccountably snappy with each other, they never have sex, and their relationship is decaying.
Realising this, Dean books a weekend away at a motel in order to try to revitalise their flagging marriage but it only serves to bring to a head the unvocalised emotions that they’ve both been suppressing for years.
Blue Valentine flits without warning between the past and the present, effectively juxtaposing how they met with the deterioration of their present day relationship. While this could have easily been used as an emotionally manipulative device, writer and director Derek Cianfrance instead presents a mystery – something will occur between then and now which will undermine their seemingly happy lives and we’re alert to the tiny cracks and imperfections that already exist at the very beginning which will gradually widen to unbridgeable chasms.
But it’s not a film which presents one catastrophic event as the cause of their breakdown – no one gets a disease, or has an accident – it’s just an accumulation of everyday events; the persistence of water dripping on a stone that over time can erode an entire mountain.
Gosling and Williams are quite simply astounding and are never for one minute less than completely believable. Dean is optimistic but unambitious, content to simply be a good husband and father but his unquestioning devotion to Cindy borders on overbearing. Cindy by turn is frustrated by Dean’s lack of drive – she’s trying to get ahead in her career and while Dean’s complacency never bothered her before, it’s starting to now – she can no longer hold back the tide of dammed up disillusionment. She wants things to be better in the future, Dean’s happy with things staying as they are. Blue Valentine faultlessly illustrates how people’s priorities change over time and how it’s possible to outgrow one another without even noticing.
It’s a very simple story elegantly told. In any other film Dean’s serenading of Cindy in a shop doorway with You Always Hurt The One You Love on a ukulele would seem trite but their sincerity is so utterly convincing that it’s simply a manifestation of Dean’s clumsy but charming tenderness. It’s touching but it’s also excruciating because we know that it can’t last, that eventually that sweetness will sour and their relationship will crumble.
There’s a Russian word “Razbliuto” which means “the feeling you have for someone you once loved”. Blue Valentine exemplifies this perfectly: that old cliché “I love you but I’m not in love with you” couldn’t be more apparent but while the flames of passion have died for Cindy and Dean, there are glimpses of the love they once shared – here a telling glance, there a fond word – but mainly it’s a love formed out of familiarity and habit, not of adoration and desire as it once was.
Anyone that’s ever been in a long-term relationship may find themselves staring into space for a long time afterwards; Blue Valentine is if anything psychologically exhausting, a movie which will make you assess whether your own relationship has any chance at all. Rarely has there been a film so raw, so real and so unflinchingly honest.
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