There's not a whole lot happening with the relationship film. From annual Jennifer Aniston comedies to requisite art house dramas, there hasn't been a real innovation in far too long. "Blue Valentine" takes a crack at it, employing a unique combination of techniques and a back and forth bittersweet narrative, but it still falls squarely into the latter camp.
Tremendous credit is owned first and foremost to its cast. Ryan Gosling and Michelle Williams play characters at the beginning and end of a relationship, and the difference couldn't be more stark. The pair is essentially pulling double duty, and the juxtaposition between past and present is what makes "Blue Valentine" unique. We meet the pair now: Gosling with a cigarette crutch and Williams with a defunct imagination. The spontaneous and affectionate couple of years past are unrecognizable at first glance.
Perhaps the most interesting byproduct of the flashback gimmick is that it exists solely for the benefit of the viewer. The irony of its implementation is that the characters themselves are incapable of retrieving the euphoric memories. Resultantly, the further we dip into the past, the more poignant their present unhappiness becomes.
To conclude analysis there, "Blue Valentine" would be just about perfect. The problem is the filmmaking doesn't live up to the premise and performances. I can't overstate how good Gosling and Williams are, but they're getting no help from the camera department. The single most irksome quality of the film is that it's shot often in extreme close up, at times overusing and even cheapening the otherwise effective cinematic tool. Of course "Blue Valentine" is meant to be an intimate portrayal of two strong characters, but shooting entire sequences as dueling heads seems like the easiest and most obvious way to communicate that. Gosling and Williams sell the naked intimacy of their relationship on a performance level alone; the jarring directorial decision to focus solely on their faces is not only superfluous, but it robs the audience of their peripheral nuance.
A minor gripe, maybe. Director Derek Cianfrance clearly understands that the movie is about a relationship, first and foremost. The script he wrote with Cami Delavigne and Joey Curtis is a good one, and is brought to cathartic life by his actors. His impulse is correct that the film is about them, not him, but the technique backfires by drawing attention to itself with its on-the-nose minimalism. The result is that "Blue Valentine" feels like a small picture. Admittedly, it is a small picture, budgeted at a paltry million dollars—but be it a function of the time constraints or a carefully calculated creative choice, the claustrophobic ambience imbued by the tight shooting style plain didn't work for me.
The feeling that eventually seeps in amid the warm, ephemeral glimpses of the past and the shipwrecked future is that much like its characters, "Blue Valentine" is spoiling its potential. Admirable in many ways, and I'd still venture to say the film ranks somewhere among 2010's best. Compared to storytellers like David Fincher, Darren Aronofsky, and the Coen brothers, however, what Cianfrance communicates with his visuals is muddled at best.
Fortunately for him, he got everything else right. In a way it's revealing that the greatest complaint I can leverage against his film is that it's ugly. "Blue Valentine" certainly shakes out better than average in the greater spectrum of romance films, and though it may not be the innovation the genre sorely needs, it does shake off some of the cobwebs. Beneath the grime, there really is something.