“Til Death Do Us Part”– five simple words that strengthen healthy marriages and unhealthy ones often discard; that most have come to associate with a binding love that can only be found within the socially-relegated importance of such a union. Either way you look at it, the phrase is a grim one which equates love with life; unlike the physical body that remains after death, love thrives on physical existence, ultimately ending just as life does. But Derek Cianfrance’s exquisite Blue Valentine flips such a notion entirely on its head in a gloriously depressing fashion. What happens, then, when ‘life’ slips away from the physically existing? When cold, lifeless disinterest and bitter resentment reside where the pulsating breath of love once drew air? In a film that functions as a true testament to editing as the most important tool a filmmaker has, Cianfrance attempts to answer that question through a silky-smooth positioning of chronologically-displaced sequences depicting the destruction of a singular marriage; all to glorious and emotionally-disturbing effect.
What could have been a simple examination of the marital vitality preceding a bitter end essentially becomes a beautifully juxtaposed presentation of the deaths of Dean (Ryan Gosling) and Cindy (Michelle Williams) before their marriage ever had a chance to live. Physical death of the two protagonists is not the focus here, seeing as both Dean and Cindy technically exist throughout the entire narrative, but even the opening sequence is heavily laced with death as its most prominent subject; the search for the family’s lost dog ends with a grim discovery, one that prompts Cindy’s realization that, at least internally, she died long ago. Cianfrance expertly chooses to drop us into a point in their lives that reeks of domestic decay, a family (that now includes a young daughter) with a backstory we assume to be as rocky and troubling as the morose, stagnant existence we’re initially introduced to. But what really drives the film’s emotional impact is what we’re shown next, and how Cianfrance chooses to show it to us.
Scenes of the couple’s innocent courtship proceed what we’ve already come to know as a lifeless union, making the whole thing entirely more depressing; shots of innocent courtship, smitten glances, harmless flirtation (you know…the works of young love) all resonate with a beautiful simplicity and shocking poignancy that legitimizes this relationship as one that we would believe to be entirely perfect if we weren’t already shown what it would lead to, yet the burden of what we already know weighs such charming scenes down like a ton of bricks. Such reverse sequential positioning allows the disturbing emotional pain of this damaged relationshp to manifest itself not when we are observing scenes of marital dysfunction, but rather when we are presented with an uncorrupt, budding relationship as new, pure, and wholesomely innocent. Scenes of happiness are expertly recontextualized to represent something bitter, becoming harbingers of doom in themselves aside from what’s literally presented as melancholic, reminding us that the disturbing bit of what we’ve seen before stemmed from genuine purity and goodness; of coupled bliss tarnished by what we can only assume as marital indifference and personal distraction. The most devastating scene of the film comes towards the middle, when we see Dean sweetly courting Cindy with his talents as a singer and ukulele player; the innocent quirkiness of it all could have registered as saccharine overload in a different film, but here we’re treated to a devastating look at a moment when awkward chemistry turns into a moment of genuine passion, bearing the bad news of what’s to come with its mere implication as a pure foundation for what we already understand to be a dark future.
Stars Gosling and Williams deserve nothing short of monumental praise for their performances; Williams completely detaches herself from, well, herself in every sense of the word to create an entirely original portrait of a character whose repressed internalizations become of too little importance in the face of raising a child with a man she no longer loves; Williams’ shining moment comes in a scene of “passion”, if that’s what you want to call it, where the couple drunkenly engages in sex as an exchange of physical release as a reward for mutual toleration versus the only intoxication they once knew; that which came with the other’s presence. Gosling ages himself 30 years not in physical appearance but by embracing the dark stoicism that only comes with lifelong burdens of personal tragedy, encapsulating all the pain and struggle of a man twice his age within his performance.
But ultimately what pushes the film to the brink of perfection is the wisely-omitted would-be crutch of a concrete reason for the pair’s tragically beautiful demise; typical foundation would have certainly given grounds for such a narrative to exist in the first place, but herein lies the genius of the script’s interplay between juxtaposed narrative perspective and settings; depiction of reason gives credibility to personal projection (and therefore judgment), something the film’s strong ambiguous balance between memory and current occurrence never allows room for. We see happening and we see reaction, yet we’re never endowed with a biased perspective from a character angle; the beauty is that the film plays exactly as we assume such protruding events would personally manifest whether such devastating love has already been experienced or is on our horizon. We don’t have the pleasure of peeking into what our lives may become and as a result can ultimately only look to memory and harp on personal tragedies, thankfully unable to view the pain of the tragically-corrupted before its founding innocence and purity force us to bitterly regret what’s already been destroyed by our own hands.
Cianfrance, along with the help of the gloriously perfect performances by Gosling and Williams, has created a disturbingly beautiful and altogether poignant portrait of one of the messiest situations one can only hope they’ll never experience…outside of this cinematic masterpiece, that is.