It’s a scene that’s as weird as it is eerily fitting. It’s dusk at a park, and Cindy (Michelle Williams) gets on one of those old-school metallic merry-go-rounds. Shortly thereafter, Dean (Ryan Gosling) starts to spin it, the camera mounted inside the merry-go-round so all we see is Cindy holding on as Dean spins by in flashes. This goes on for a moment, Cindy initially laughing, before she has to get off, feeling sick.
Dean follows her, and asks if she needs to throw up. He then asks if she’d feel better if he saw him throw up. He sticks his finger down his throat and does so, which Cindy seems at least somewhat mildly amused by. He then asks Cindy if she’d feel better if he stuck his finger down her throat. She agrees, and he tries. She retracts and coughs a bit, but nothing turns up. They do this again. And again. Then, as they head back to the fences that outline the park, they kiss, timidly at first and then very passionately.
This, in essence, sums up the symbiotic relationship of Cindy and Dean, and it’s not even in the movie.
Blue Valentine is the second full-length feature from Derek Cianfrance, who spent a majority of his career doing TV documentaries. As such, he knows the importance of capturing a genuine moment, and the more you watch the bonus material on the DVD for Blue Valentine, the more you realize just how well these moments of honest discovery pay off.
The film follows the courtship and demise of the Dean and Cindy’s relationship, and it’s hauntingly, frighteningly affecting, due to these honest moments. In the “Making of Blue Valentine“ featurette, Cianfrance notes how he asked each actor what their character’s “talent” would be. For Gosling, he thought Dean could play ukulele, and for Williams, she thought that Cindy was good at tap-dancing. Cianfrance told the actors to keep these aspects secret to themselves, and during an all-night shoot wherein the characters were essentially on a first date, instructed them that as soon as they got in front of the bridal shop, they’d ask if the other person had any talents.
The very real, fun, and honest song-and-dance moment that emerges — and was used prominently in the trailer — feels gloriously real. It’s this kind of emotional honesty that ultimately drives the film, which makes the humorous moments all the more humorous and the devastating scenes all the more ugly and brutal.
As the story jumps towards the end of their relationship (it mixes up its chronology a lot, sometimes even jarringly so), there are some painful moments that hurt just because said moments could’ve only emerged from characters that had not only lived with each other, but were genuinely sick of each other. At one point, in a desperate move to reignite some passion and spend just one night away from their daughter Frankie, the couple check into a fantasy hotel suite with a gaudy sci-fi “theme” to it. Dean immediately loves the rotating bed while Cindy immediately checks to see where the bar is.
The evening has moments of forced passion, and ultimately comes to a grinding halt when, right as they’re about to have sex, Dean is asking Cindy if she wants him to hit her and, feeling like she’s at the bottom of the barrel, asks him to, which he stubbornly refuses and proceeds to verbally antagonize her about it, saying he won’t do it ‘cos he loves her too much. She goes into the bathroom and begins crying against a big fake metal door, vaguely hearing Dean’s voice through the door. It’s haunting.
Credit should be given to both actors for truly going all-out on this film, delivering evocative, powerful performances. Gosling has played loverboys and burnouts, but never someone so pig-headed as Dean. His character is sweet, charming, and talented, but always says what’s on his mind, and acts immediately on what he says. During an early courtship scene on a bus, Cindy marvels at his ability to both flatter and insult someone at the exact same time, and that sums up Dean perfectly.
Cindy, meanwhile, is smart and playful, but tends to drift off on occasional whims. After spurning the continuing advances of a cocky college wrestler following a session of graphic sex, she one day gets home and plays her messages, wherein he promises that he is going to seriously injure her husband. Her response to the speaker-shattering message? She lies in bed and laughs. Even as this guy threatens physical harm to her husband, she can’t help but find the situation genuinely humorous. Does this paint her character as somewhat insensitive? Certainly, but when, at the tail end of her relationship with Dean, she begins to dread his presence more than she looks forward to it, a threat like may very well inspire inappropriate giggles.
It’s moments like these — as weird as they are slightly introverted — that regardless feel very weird. It may be easy for some to write these characters off as introverted to an almost cruel degree, but the reason why we ultimately identify with them is because their actions are very human, which, in turn, can be very cruel. No one said Blue Valentine was easy to watch, but that doesn’t mean it’s not incredibly worthwhile.
Although the special features on the DVD are pretty basic, it’s the quality of these extras that make them worthwhile. The deleted scenes — like the park vomit scene — are quite evocative, but it is understood why they were cut (they are pretty darn long). The “Making Of” featurette is very insightful (save for the moments where Williams and Gosling prattle on about how great the other is), but it’s the commentary that is a wonder to behold. Although a commentary with the writer/director and co-editor may sound like a slog, it’s actually rich with detail, as Cianfrance guides us through every scene and major decision he makes, while co-editor Jim Helton lets us know about how scenes were constructed, which scenes were cut, and which takes were used, which for a movie wherein the director would want to spend around seven hours filming a late-night courtship, proves to be far more interesting than it sounds.
Between filming the “courtship” and “demise” portions of the film, Cianfrance initially wanted to simulate the six years between those portions by literally waiting six years before revisiting the material. The film’s financiers disagreed, and so it was compromised that Gosling and Williams would spend a month living in a house together with their “daughter” Frankie (played well by the young Faith Wladyka). What Cianfrance learned later was that during this time, the “family” made some home movies, one of which is on the DVD: a short “film” about a unicorn (Williams) that takes Frankie and her sick stuffed dog to the musical animal doctor (Gosling) for healing. What’s amazing is that even during this short, as Dean is setting up multiple takes to refilm his character asking questions of the increasingly-confused Frankie, a sense of distance can be felt (note the looks Williams flashes at Gosling during this).
Keep in mind, this home movie was made without any idea it’d be included in the film, and the actors were all completely in character during it — and this was fun for them. It’s a hell of a thing to view as a DVD extra, and it’s this kind of dedication to the material that ultimately makes Dean and Cindy resonate in the way that they do. Ultimately, Blue Valentine isn’t something you merely watch: it’s something that you have to feel, and even though it proves to be one hell of a devastating experience, it’s worth the pain. Movies haven’t been this affecting in a good while …