If “Blue Valentine” ever does come to a theater near you, it will be preceded by its own reputation. Given the automatic buzz of indie golden-boy director Derek Cianfrance returning from documentaries to narrative features with a film reportedly a dozen years in the making, the dust-up about its rating — NC-17, until a successful Weinstein Company appeal for R — seems now like a patient PR strategy. While that matter was being settled, the film racked up accolades on many critics’ yearly favorites lists. But did it really deserve them?
Cianfrance has said his two essential boyhood nightmares were of nuclear war and his parents divorcing. A vision of the latter is what “Blue Valentine” explores, with what the filmmaker evidently hopes is all the ominous scorching force of the former.
It begins apocalyptically enough, with a small child wandering alone in a field and worriedly calling for her dog. Maybe it’s telling that she doesn’t even bother calling for her parents, who are played by Ryan Gosling and Michelle Williams. I first laid eyes on “Blue Valentine” a year ago, at the 2010 Sundance Film Festival. At the time, “Wendy and Lucy” was fresh enough in the memory for my notebook to record this first impression: “Indie naturalist Michelle Williams and another lost dog, eh?” And as it unfolded, I revised: “vaguely pretentious portrait of a working-class (yet suspiciously hipsterish) marriage in decay.”
So maybe I could have been a tad more receptive. “Blue Valentine”’s values, after all, are easy to appreciate. Nodding with approval and gratitude to John Cassavetes, Cianfrance and co-writers Joey Curtis and Cami Delavigne want to rebuke standard-issue movie glamour with bracing emotional authenticity. (That a big chunk of his target audience might not know there are precedents for this M.O. only works to its attention-getting advantage.) And the actors very clearly are on board, giving all they’ve got to their many bravely intimate closeups. But of course they are glamorous — quite attractive to us even as their not-quite characters progress from cutesy ukulele-intensive courtship to the savage quagmire of recriminations, a mutually assured destruction. One problem is how much it seems like this progress occurs only because it must in order to have a movie. As charisma increasingly substitutes for character, the bravery of that intimacy seems more and more like falsity.
Not that drama motivated solely by the need for drama is so off base in a film about posturing young people in a troubled relationship. And whether we admit it or not, most of us know how it feels to careen from enamorment into weary disgust. Plus, the surety of Cianfrance’s style is self-validating. It’s all done with a kind of mock-reticent irony that is the fashionable mode of sentimentalism now. It’s just that even after the first impressions have been revised, and the reputation has been built, I’m still left with the hollowness of it all. And if that’s the point, well, it has been noted.
If anything (aside from the hollowness) gives “Blue Valentine” away as a project begun in the late ’90s, it’s the film’s non-linear narrative structure. As usual with that trick, it seems like hedging against a suspicion that the story might not amount to much if played linearly. The end result is a kind of swaggering asceticism, and how authentic is that?