Monday, April 2, 2012

Catch-up Review: Blue Valentine: the turn on a microscope slide

I once went out with a girl who was perfect for me. Beautiful, outgoing, intelligent, widely-read and eager to strengthen her contract with the world around her. An expert joke and story teller, there wasn't a moment I spent with her that didn't leave me feeling enriched. It was lived in the predawn: wintry closing-time cafes, streets silver with street light, blankets, alcohol, candlelight, personal ghost tales, crescent moons in the window, secondhand books and the big black night. And then it ended. Not all at once, that never happens, but the energy drained like bathwater and suddenly it was over and every conversation was like murmurs at an autopsy, each one taking a long time to repeat the verdict: it's dead now. As in every case, for breakups are never mutual (despite the quavering lies ex couples tell), one party shuts all communication down as though the other is in genuine physical quarrantine. Well, all's fair....

But before that happened she gave me one indicator that should have been more visible in real time than I allowed it to be. This is the kind of thing we always say. "If only I'd paid attention to that when it was happening..." The fact is that we're usually so blinded by fear and self-absorption that we never notice anything that doesn't either flatter us or deliver sheer terror in the form of jealousy. What we don't get is the saddening and often eerie transformation of someone we have loved turning themself into a stranger.

One thing this girl started doing did worry me and I was right to be worried but too vain to examine it. In the lull of a conversation she would look away and say in a kind of resigned cartoon voice:

"You know so much and I know so little."

This stopped me. Every time. It gave me the creeps.

She didn't believe it to be true. It shocked me to think it was how she saw me. There was nothing I could come back with. She was neither doubting her own intelligence nor praising mine. The phrase was the first in a series of full stops that she came to use to build a barrier between us and signal that she was ready to extract herself from a mistake. She was turning herself into a stranger.

It's that moment, more than the point of definite rejection (which is, at least, a relief), that hurts the most in any failed relationship. When you witness it, even if you don't admit that you have, you understand that nothing you do or say is going to alter the silent decision that is at that moment being formed never to change. Because this can only feel like rejection (and is never admitted to be so) the perrennial suggestion by ther person doing it that you remodel the relationship as friendship is a loathsome one that I never allow to the table. This causes offence. It's meant to. It's a childish but highly satisfying response to an unfair offer. Anyway ...

The film Blue Valentine is centred on this moment. Because it keeps its eye unflinchingly upon this process the timeline-shaking progress of the narrative is not just permissible but impressive. The two lovers are visited in memory by everything they think is significant from their time together.Taken by itself, each series of recollections tells a story increasingly divergent from the other. The momentum created by this leads us to the alarming certainty that their time was really only a series of bad decisions and their pain is a result of a solid sense of self-betrayal, the type that hurts the most.

Dean and Cindy are played by Ryan Gosling and Michelle Williams respectively who bring every item of evidence that they are among their generation's finest. Scenes that were improvised feel natural rather than workshopped and the faces they present to us in moments like the ones I describe above are forged by experience.

While some of the dialogue and action were improvised, the director instructed his actors variously to attempt to leave the scene of an argument or try persuasion to resolve it. This has a genuinely unsettling effect and at the point where Dean holds Cindy to the floor he whispers a steadily more pathetic plea for affection for all he has done for her. Her response is to peel her knickers off and fling them to one side. It's not an invitation. It's a disruption. He backs off and frees her. This happens during an arranged dirty weekend together which is shown in fragmented form as a kind of centrepiece to the film. It is the moment when Cindy makes herself a stranger.

The visual cue to telling the difference between flashback and current time is given by different stock. The warmer moments of courtship are shot on film and the disintegration is examined in plain gelid video. Dean's hairline changes between now and then, also. Overall, things look more uncomfortably real as the certainty of the divide progresses.

That's pretty much the whole movie but if it sounds like swallowing a smog cloud then be aware that although this is a serious examination of a grim subject it's treasures lie in the candour of its performances and the sure hand at the helm. It is serious rather than earnest. It is cinema, not transposed grim tv. The elements are from a filmmaker's palette and the result even stands outside of its ethnic origins : this piece could as easily have come from Seoul or Copenhagen as New York.

After the dirty weekend gone wrong goes wrong Dean confronts Cindy in her workplace which ends disastrously and messily. I did a milder version of this with the girl I was talking about before. There was none of the violence of the scene in the movie but the effect was the same. However lightly, I had cornered her and she responded the only way she could in final rejection.

We shared our social life and there was no question of dividing friends up and that wasn't even attempted. But it meant that we still went to the same parties and nights out. I spent too long moping until the mist of it cleared and it did when I started seeing how much of a narcissistic goose she was. She would easily have thought about the same of me. It'd had only been a couple of months but we were young and that kind of thing needs to hurt when you're young. So it did and then it didn't.

There's a shot in the movie of the couple moving backwards and holding a sign that reads: IS THIS YOU?

Yeah. Well, it was.


  1. Hi Peter,
    Heartfelt confession and film review in one! nicely written. Went to see this film on new years eve 2010/2011, and was very impressed. Don't think gosling has done anything better since. Worth mentioning the music too (by Grizzly Bear). ewan

  2. Thanks, Ewan. I did like the music, too but was just so impressed by the truth in the film as a whole. There is so much in the performances of the two leads that rings true for me, sometimes very uncomfortably but veracity often is uncomfortable.

  3. "that kind of thing needs to hurt when you're young."

    Well thought and said.