What happens in a marriage that goes awry seems — dare I say it — similar to what goes down at a stricken nuclear power plant. A thousand experts may be called in, engineers may work around the clock, but in the end, the damage will prove to be beyond repair. And in both cases, dissection and analysis don’t offer any real answers to the question: What could have been done to stop the yuck from happening?
“Blue Valentine” says simply that such a question shouldn’t even be asked. In his beautifully shot, masterful portrayal of a marriage gone bad, writer/director Derek Cianfrance concentrates on the anatomy of intimacy, and how it can both nurture and destroy love.
When Dean (Ryan Gosling) spies Cindy (Michelle Williams), he’s a house painter and she’s a premed student. He becomes immediately obsessed — or, rather, possessed. She’s more or less on the same page, though Dean’s fervor is as frightening to her as it is a turn-on. They marry, have an adorable daughter named Frankie (Faith Wladyka) and retain — , for the first year, anyway the charged, hectic eroticism that defined their courtship before tying the knot. But then the relationship seems to stall and stagnate, at least in Cindy’s eyes. She wants Dean and her, as a couple, to move forward and evolve.
This sounds like a story right off some therapist’s couch, but Cindy’s conviction that life should be about more than having a beer at eight in the morning deserves some sympathy. After all, when Frankie wakes her parents, Mom is sleeping off work exhaustion in bed while Dad is sprawled on the living room couch with a can in his hand. Dean lives by a series of “feelings” that come and go — but he can’t really understand why this would upset his wife, or the reason she acts jaded all the time. In Dean’s eyes, they’re fine. He loves her, he’s hot for her and they’re fine.
“Blue Valentine” was in the works for 12 long years, and during that time, Cianfrance made documentaries, worked at odd jobs (at one point he was a mover and a house painter, like Dean) and collected unemployment benefits. The screenplay was rewritten eight times and the location changed from an ocean-view house in Los Angeles to a trailer home in Pennsylvania.
What didn’t change, though, were the principals in the cast: Both Williams and Gosling signed on years ago, and stood by their contracts when the project was finally good to go. Cianfrance put them through a month of cohabitation in the trailer house, shopping for groceries on $20 a day, baking a birthday cake for “Frankie,” bickering and making up. To play Cindy, who works long hours as a hospital nurse, Williams put on weight and changed the way she moved. Gosling pulled shifts as a mover and painted fences.
According to the film’s production notes, Cianfrance was adamant that the two leads make “Blue Valentine” as real and painful as possible, and his insistence on thorough prepping paid off. By the time shooting began, the pair felt like they’d been married for years, and they became pretty picky about whose turn it was to take out the trash.
The eros in the movie is raw and disturbing, much less about love or comfort than consuming desire and the will (on Dean’s part) to keep the marriage right where it is. Women in the audience may prefer to leave the theater rather than witness the intense, almost hysterical aversion to anything physical that Cindy develops for her husband. Her barely contained rage and subsequent despairing resignation takes you out of any sort of comfort zone — and the feeling of sitting on thorns may be doubly prickly for dating couples.
What went wrong, and whose fault is it? Again, the wrong questions to ask, as Cindy looks at Dean with an expression that registers both agony and the wonderment of being there, with this man, at this time, and how far they have both strayed from the bright, hopeful individuals they were on that amazing first date. And all Dean wants to do is to take his wife to a themed love hotel where the rooms resemble bad sci-fi movie sets, supposedly representing “the future.”
Neither of them has a clue as to how to start over, or even if the effort is worth it. Which brings us to the conclusion — old as it may be — that in the movies, love and sex will always be the final frontier.