This film is a clean example of when a creator takes a leap of faith and entrusts his collaborative partners with bringing his dream to life. Director Derek Cianfrance spent almost a third of his life attempting to get Blue Valentine (2010), a deeply personal project, onto the silver screen. After 12 years, 66 drafts, nearly 1500 storyboards, and countless roadblocks, Cianfrance finally secured financiers to back his film. Considering how close the director/co-writer was to the material and how long he fought for it to be made, it’s astonishing how selfless and open he was in the production process. Derek Cianfrance entrusted his crew and two lead actors, Ryan Gosling and Michelle Williams (whom he credits as co-writers), to breathe life into the characters on the page. One would think that a director who has envisioned his film countless times in his head for over a decade would be rigid, uncompromising, and deeply protective of his brainchild—but not Cianfrance. In fact, he was kindly inviting to new ideas, repeatedly asserting to his leads that he would be “bored” if the performances were a direct regurgitation of the script. The director had the clarity and foresight to realize the need to distance himself from what he held so close for so long. Self-described as having an allergy to “fakeness,” Cianfrance insisted that the concept remained fluid throughout all stages of the creative process. He maintained a rough outline of story points and simply allowed the actors to “fill in the dots” with improvisation.
The director refers to Blue Valentine as a duet in every sense of the word; thematically, aesthetically, and structurally. Much like a relationship, the film is a sum of its parts. Told in a series of vignettes, the film juxtaposes the present-day maladies of the now-married Dean (Gosling) and Cindy’s (Williams) relationship with flashbacks of the couple’s courtship six years prior. Cianfrance offers the blossoming of their love and the wilting of their marriage, intentionally omitting the goings-on that fill the gap. Here the director poses Valentine’s most glaring question, “How does love erode over time?”
Dean and Cindy’s personal struggles are both distinctively personal and undeniably universal. Viewers will be hard pressed to disassociate themselves from the all-too-familiar quarrels that strain the couple’s marriage. Dean struggles with Cindy’s growing indifference towards him, as well as his own ideas of masculinity. Cindy’s obvious discontentment and sense of entrapment slowly suffocates the relationship. Dean’s lack of professional ambition irritates her, as she believes he is not living up to his potential. Each cold expression and passive-aggressive remark signals her impatience with Dean, and the sense that her window of opportunity to reinvent a new life for herself is closing. Neither Dean nor Cindy lives up to each other’s expectations. They do not become what each had promised the other during their courtship. The sole thinning thread that still binds Cindy to her marriage to Dean is their six-year-old daughter.
Derek Cianfrance modeled the form of his debut feature film, Brother Tied (1998), in direct response to his contempt for the mid-90’s independent wave. The budding filmmaker felt this group of films lacked filmic ingenuity, so he emphasized the use of cinematic techniques in nearly every shot of his first go-around in the director’s chair. As a result, his heavy reliance on these tools overweighed the content of Brother Tied. Cautious of repeating this mistake with Blue Valentine, Cianfrance carefully strategized how to create a form that supported the story and its players. What evolved was a manifesto he had written detailing how both parts of the film would be shot. The flashback sequences of Dean and Cindy would be shot handheld on Super-16mm film with a 25mm lens. In juxtaposition, the present-day sequences would be recorded on two RED One digital cameras mounted on tripods with long lenses. This choice is largely responsible for the unique aesthetic look of Blue Valentine.
The visual design of the film is breathtaking and Cianfrance’s implementation of his stylistic manifesto bolsters the dichotomous nature of the story. In the flashbacks the handheld camera moves with the characters, giving a visceral feeling to the shots. The normal angle 25mm lens expresses a sense of opportunity and spontaneity within the frames. Filmed mostly in master shots, either Dean or Cindy initially occupies the composition, and then the other enters to symbolically fill the frame. These perceptive cinematographic choices elegantly evoke the freedom that the characters’ young love promised. The Super-16mm film brilliantly brings out the lush saturated colors and deep spaces, lending a magically romantic quality to the print.
In contrast to their honeymoon phase, Cianfrance observes the dissolution of the marriage with two mounted RED cameras. Using digital video, the director was able to shoot extended takes of the characters through their struggle. The REDs were positioned as far away as the sets permitted, often tucked in corners of the rooms, and were strapped with telephoto lenses. This choice allowed the actors to move freely within the limited space. Cianfrance directed one camera to relentlessly follow Gosling and the other Williams. The telephoto lenses keep the characters in separate close-ups at all times, so the two rarely share the frame. The tight compositions lend a claustrophobic quality to the shots, emphasizing the emotional distance between the forsaken lovers. Another aesthetic benefit of the digital medium is the ability to provide extremely sharp focus with a narrow depth of field, which also underlines the suffocating, stagnant atmosphere of the sequences. The cameras in these scenes skillfully watch the two characters like surveillance technology. Similar to Robert Altman, Cianfrance sits back and observes his characters in their space, as if he’s a member of the audience. As a result, what transpires onscreen doesn’t feel forced or manipulated, but realistic. The director’s documentarian background informs his filmmaking process. Like a wild cat, he patiently watches, allowing his instinct and intuition to alert him to pounce and capture the perfect moments as they present themselves.
Derek Cianfrance’s deft cinematographic decisions pay dividends in the final cut, brilliantly contrasting the characters’ subjective emotional states. His intentions to make the couple appear like “fish in the ocean” in the flashbacks and “fish in a bucket” in present-day sequences are successfully realized. The director strategically fills his compositions with symbolism to support the story arc. The theme of time, specifically how time deteriorates love, is a constant presence throughout the film. Dean and Cindy’s wristwatches are noticeably visible in almost every scene, along with several wall clocks. Time as a theme manifests itself in other forms as well. Take, for instance, the nursing home where Dean and Cindy first meet. Cindy cares for her frail grandmother across the hall as Dean moves an elderly man into his new living space. When Dean returns a few days later in an attempt to locate Cindy, he finds out the elderly man has since passed away. Both Cindy’s grandmother and the elderly man die alone, without their spouses. Similarly, the film opens with Dean burying the family dog, who was hit by a car after Cindy forgot to lock the gate. In a last-ditch attempt to rekindle their romance, Dean convinces Cindy to spend a night with him at an adult-themed motel. Ironically, the room he reserves is “The Future Room,” which interestingly has no windows. Their troubled overnight stay at the motel serves as a catalyst for their apparent break up.
There are also other reappearing motifs, such as American iconography. Blue Valentine’s color palette revolves around hues of red, white, and blue. In the idealistic courtship phase of their relationship, deep, saturated reds dominate the frames. As their marriage disintegrates, the once sensuous colors lose their punch. The reds turn to pink, the whites become milkier, and the blues recede their power as well. This may serve as metaphor for the American institution of marriage. Just as these pastels are watered down forms of their original hue, increasing divorce rates have watered down our nation’s family values. Other patriotic symbols decorate Cianfrance’s compositions as well. The elderly man’s military service uniform, Dean’s bald eagle sweatshirt, the courthouse where Dean and Cindy marry, and several U.S. flags appear in the film. Interestingly, when the director asked Ryan Gosling how he envisioned his character, the actor described him as a flag. Gosling imagined Dean as a tattered flag whose colors have become muted over time. In the past, Dean was a luminous, flapping flag, but the wind slowly frayed its edges. In yet another symbolic gesture, Cianfrance’s final shot of the film shows a heartbroken Dean walking away from Cindy’s parent’s house, with his crying daughter chasing after him, as the neighborhood block residents shoot off fireworks in celebration of Independence Day.
It may be hard to convince others to view the film due to its bleak themes, but those willing to shoulder the blow will come to appreciate its tell-it-like-it-is attitude. Blue Valentine has been inaccurately described as a “tragic love story,” but it is quite the opposite. Romeo & Juliet would fall better under that category, and this film is the antithesis of Shakespeare’s melodrama. No star-crossed lovers will have the cosmos assisting their fortune to die in each other’s arms. Director Derek Cianfrance purposely stripped this narrative of any fantasy, and instead opted to present an honest, realistic, at times raw, and thoroughly engaging account of a flawed relationship. Blue Valentine dares to explore what so few modern films do– exposing real human beings in all their terrible beauty and ugly love.