Andrew Neylon Recommends Blue Valentine directed by Derek Cianfrance

In the latest installment of our “Recommended Reads” series, Andrew Neylon, a senior literature major, recommends Blue Valentine, a film directed by Derek Cianfrance.

When I was a kindergartner in the mid 1990s, only one boy in our class had divorced parents. We were all made aware of this through monthly parent nights, and in the way that children often do, we summarily ostracized the boy for being, well, different.

Divorce seems to be ubiquitous in American culture these days. As independent cinema began to gain more mainstream footing in the early 2000s, audiences were graced with a new kind of movie, the so-called “Big Messed-Up Family” drama. And while family strife has been a literary concern for millennia, the relational anxiety of the country ballooned with the release of quirky domestic fare like Little Miss Sunshine, Rachel Getting Married, and Garden State.

It was on the crest of this wave that director Derek Cianfrance quietly released Blue Valentine in 2010. Mired in production problems, budget issues, and casting difficulties, the film premiered at Sundance, and it contains a bit of that ephemeral quality associated with the independent film circuit.

To be clear, you don’t want to watch Blue Valentine right after a break-up. The story, which centers on the birth and dissolution of a young marriage, walks a fine balance between hipster-kitsch and an honest – often brutally so – depiction of post-nuptial ennui.

The visually dynamic quality of the film will likely snag the eye of young viewers. Shot on hand-held Super 16mm film, the movie has a gauzy, instragrammy quality that sets it apart from typical Hollywood fare. Elsewhere, the focus on minimal sets and detailed lighting makes everything feel particularly picked out and elaborately tailored.

Famously, much of the dialogue in the film was improvised. You’d be hard pressed to tell, however, as main stars Ryan Gosling and Michelle Williams (who duly received her second Oscar nomination for the role) spent months preparing and improvising their characters only to begin filming sans-script. It’s one of the most enchanting elements of the film to see two people genuinely get to know each other for the first time, and the film harkens back to the fun and spontaneity of the French new-wave in its willingness to abandon comfort in a search for emotional authenticity.

All of these elements contribute to a whole much greater than its parts. As Ryan Gosling and Michelle Williams embark on their relationship, the audience is forced to question the nature of choice and destiny. Beyond that, the film asks poignant questions about the reality of deferred dreams and the erosion of the honeymoon period every long-term couple is destined to encounter.

Whether in its raw, open depictions of sexual or marital dysfunction, the film probes one other crucial aspect of marriage – mutual goals. Ultimately, whether the couple wants to survive or not is almost irrelevant. Both partners have needs and grapple with life decisions in roles they never expected to play. Focusing, in its climactic moments, on their young child, the film reminds us of the often-silent victims in adult romance. By book-ending the beginning and end of the relationship, it’s vividly clear that both partners were seeking something different from the marriage, and that their indecision has consequences.

It would be almost impossible to watch the film without having experienced divorce somehow – be it as participant or observer. And what elevates Blue Valentine among similar films that tackle the subject is a clarity, honesty, and insight that is both gripping and powerful. Never less than a reminder that romance need not be ideal to be affecting, powerful, and bittersweet – Blue Valentine stings like an all-too-brief kiss.

Blue Valentine. Dir. Derek Cianfrance. The Weinstein Company, 2010. DVD.

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