Character driven and bleakly realistic, “Blue Valentine” feels like a throwback to the moviemaking of the 1970s, when many stars prided themselves on looking unglamorous on-screen and directors loved un-happy endings.
Pick a 1970s classic and the chances are fairly good the picture had a downbeat ending, whether it was a detective story (“Chinatown”) or a thriller (“The Parallax View”) or a marital drama (“A Woman Under the Influence”).
It’s easy to imagine John Cassavetes putting a film like “Blue Valentine” together in his prime, with wife and artistic collaborator Gena Rowlands playing the role Michelle Williams took on for director Derek Cianfrance.
The story establishes its tragic aura right from the start, when we see a collapsing marriage in its final stages. Williams plays Cindy, a professional woman who has outgrown her unambitious laborer husband Dean (played by Ryan Gosling).
They have a young daughter but their shared love for the child isn’t enough to smooth over the fact that they aren’t really suited for each other anymore. The big problem is that Cindy doesn’t yet have the strength or the guts to make the permanent break she knows is necessary.
“Blue Valentine” then begins flashing back several years to show us how this mismatched couple first met and fell in love in Brooklyn bohemia.
The “happiness” we see in these flashbacks is more ironic than entertaining because we already know how Cindy and Dean will end up.
In the new DVD from Anchor Bay, the excellent extras show us how the film was created over more than five years of (unpaid) work between the two leads and the director. Like Cassavetes, Cianfrance was able to attract top acting talent not with financial rewards but the chance to be equal partners in the creation of a “love story” about how the love drains out of so many youthful passions.
The picture has a rough, improvisational feel that often makes it look more like a documentary than a scripted story. Williams and Gosling take their characters about as far as they can go — in terms of sexual honesty and unattractive behavior — without an audience rejecting what they are seeing.
“Blue Valentine” isn’t a very pleasant experience, and you can’t really call it “entertainment,” but it is a thrilling and largely successful experiment in showing the limits of movie-style love at first sight when it is applied to real life.