Light on plot and heavy on expression, Derek Cianfrance's "Blue Valentine" is a study in extremes. Essentially the anatomy of a break-up, it places exclusive focus on a young couple (Ryan Gosling and Michelle Williams) as their marriage disintegrates. Cianfrance, whose directorial debut "Brother Tied" premiered at Sundance in 1998, spent over a decade working on this lyrical follow-up; his efforts come through in every artfully composed frame. Aided by Andrij Parekh's bright, complex photography, images trump story in the best of ways.
[This review of Derek Cianfrance's "Blue Valentine" was first published following its premiere at the 2010 Sundance Film Festival. The Weinstein Company opens the film theatrically beginning Wednesday, December 29.]
The narrative follows a two-pronged approach, shifting back and forth from the birth of their relationship to its inevitable demise. As Williams and Gosling repeatedly clash and embrace, their ritual becomes a hypnotic process on which viewers can project their own experiences. It's an all-inclusive portrait.
Nevertheless, the ping pong effect that serves as Cianfrance's principle framing device often grows tedious, as does the virtual absence of any salient plot. It's easier to see what the director wants to show than to fully accept his modus operandi: The medium is a mess, his collage of angry and impassioned moments putting despair in an evolving close-up. But it never goes anywhere. Unlike "Punch-Drunk Love," the quintessential visual ode to romanticism of the last ten years, the waves of feeling lingering over every scene have no larger purpose beyond their specific context.
Such a blank slate creates an actor's playground. Gosling and Williams put on some of the best performances of their careers, conveying a series of complex sentiments with subtle movements and gestures. These are raw performances, at times enhanced by their vulgarity: Williams, in particular, seems to unleash her understated tendencies in many scenes where her body and hesitant sexuality take center stage.
All that tension and power, however, fails to overcome a larger need for story. Call it the "Avatar" issue gone indie: As utterly gorgeous as each fractured moment of "Blue Valentine" appears, the underlying tension has a hollow base. Cianfrance buries this problem with sheer audio-visual power, including a score by Grizzly Bear that only plays during the couple's halcyon days, but such efforts seem transparent in retrospect. Many extended sequences, including a slow-build scene in which the couple spends the night in a seedy motel, feel as if they might work as short films. The sum total is a different story. Early on, a major plot twist involves the death of the couple's dog, which forces deeper tensions to come to the surface. By the end, those tensions remain virtually unchanged.
Tonally, "Blue Valentine" is markedly similar to Bradley Rust Gray's "The Exploding Girl," in which Zoe Kazan plays a college student prone to epileptic seizures. In both films, the directors express less concern for story than concept, and mutual attraction plays out with furtive glances. The two projects could also share a title: Cianfrance invests heavily in the power of Williams's ability to express her discontent. The result at turns dazzles and frustrates, but the images retain their allure. You could hang this movie on your wall, but it would really bring down the mood.
criticWIRE grade: B