There’s nothing more predictable going into Sundance than the fact that there will be some heavy drama. Someone is bound to have family problems, someone is destined to be abused and at least one or two families will be ripped apart. It’s par for the course. Then, there are the special ones. Within the first ten minutes of Derek Cianfrance’s Blue Valentine, we know that it is among this elite club of heavy, but special dramatic entries into the Sundance fray.
The film tells the story of a married couple (played by Ryan Gosling and Michelle Williams) at two stages of their relationship. We see them as wide-eyed youths finding each other and falling in love with New York City as a beautiful backdrop. Concurrently we see them after seven years of marriage, with a darling little girl, a mortgage and the wear and tear of a life that hasn’t gone as planned. And as they attempt to hold on to their marriage as it burns away, we are constantly reminded of the bright and shiny love that they once had.
As with any great piece of dramatic storytelling, the performances are central to driving home the emotional attachment of the audience. We have to feel a part of the lives of this couple, and their happiness and pain must both feel intensely real. To his credit, Cianfrance did something remarkable in assembling the Gosling/Williams team, as they are individually phenomenal. Better yet, they work very well in every stage of the couple’s relationship. We buy them, making their tough moments hard to watch. Gosling’s performance is the most engrossing though, as he absolutely inhabits his character. it’s not a performance that is simply good — as is the case with so many of his performances in the past — but one that is truly, indisputably great. As his partner in breaking our hearts, Williams is equally up to the task.
The most striking thing about this rapturous tale of a disintegrating marriage is the level of intimacy that is achieved between the audience and the main characters. Cinematographer Andrij Parekh shoots much of the movie very tight, and we’re privied to this couple’s most intimate moments in a way that is so real you can feel the heat from their bodies, whether it be generated by passion or anger. And the story has been constructed with a level of authenticity that is hard to ignore. It has a grit that is hard to face. And it has an emotional energy that grabs you and throws you down.
This is what special films do, they affect you. Blue Valentine uses its duality of setting — young and old, vibrant and cold, optimistic and tragic — to unleash wave after wave of emotion. It is brought to life by the keen eye of young storyteller Derek Cianfrance and the powerfully honest performances from Gosling and Williams. There’s no denying its power, no denying the fact that this tale will get inside you, taking control and forcing you to watch as its characters are pulled apart and pushed together in the most tumultuous of ways. To say that this gripping film is a must see would be an understatement, clearly.