Wednesday, February 23, 2011

Acting Heaven: Blue Valentine

For a movie to succeed, usually all its most important elements, from the direction to the screenplay to the acting have to gel. A weak screenplay can sink a good concept, indifferent direction can undermine a strong story and problematic or bad acting can ruin a movie that might otherwise have been a fine effort. Yet sometimes superb performances can either enhance an otherwise mediocre film or occasionally bring an ordinary movie to heights that it would otherwise not scale. In the former category, Lucy Punch’s work in both Woody Allen’s You Will Meet a Tall Dark Stranger and in Dinner for Schmucks, the American remake of the French film Le Diner de Cons, is an exemplar of that dictum. As an avaricious British prostitute in Allen’s lame film and as Steve Carrell's crazy American stalker in the uninspired remake, Punch, who is English, ran the gamut from drama to comedy and did it successfully and memorably in two accents. (The same compliment can be laid at the foot of James Franco for his diverse performances in 127 Hours and Howl; he’s the only reason to check out 127 Hours, the slight but fact based tale of a man driven to a desperate act when pinned under a rock in a deserted mountain area and he commands the screen in Howl, an otherwise uneven recreation of the 1950s obscenity trial of avant garde poet Allen Ginsberg.) In the latter category, Ryan Gosling and Michelle Williams are so amazing in Blue Valentine that they elevate the film to many moments of greatness, particularly in the half dozen or so scenes where they’re at their rawest or most vulnerable.

Blue Valentine, the second film from writer – director Derek Cianfrance (his debut was
Brother Tied (1998), which I have not seen) tells the story, jumping back and forth from the present to the past, of a married couple, Dean Pereira (Gosling) and Cindy Heller (Williams). As the film begins, it’s apparent that their relationship is collapsing, despite their having a little girl who will be affected by their divorcing. In a bid to save their marriage, Dean convinces Cindy to leave their daughter with her father and check into a motel for a romantic idyll, which does not come off as expected. In the sequences set in the past, five years or so earlier, we see the genesis of their marriage, when they were still in love and where everything seemed promising vis a vis a happy future for the couple.

Michelle Williams and Ryan Gosling
The concept of Blue Valentine isn’t especially original -- the effective 1983 film adaptation of Harold Pinter’s Betrayal, wherein the movie went backwards from the end of the relationship to its beginning is similar in structure -- but the remarkable acting of its leads is what makes this movie work. What Gosling and Williams are called upon to do in Blue Valentine, is display their deepest feelings, of anger, pain, anguish, fear, to such a degree that their emotions seem to actually leap off the screen so palpable is their effect. From the beautiful sweetness of their budding, and explicitly carnal, love to Cindy’s spit out confession that she feels nothing anymore for Dean; the duo’s impact on the viewer is extraordinary. These actors aren’t afraid to cry, wound or hurl insults at each other and, even, on the part of Dean, to resort to sudden, scary violence. Rarely, in fact, have actors displayed such naked emotion on screen, something that seems only to occur with any regularity in the movies created by British filmmaker Mike Leigh (Naked, Happy-Go-Lucky, Another Year). Not surprisingly, Cianfrance used Leigh’s filmic techniques for his movie, which was first proposed to Williams nine years ago. (Gosling signed on to the project two years after that.) He had Gosling and Williams rent a house together, outfitted with their own personal possessions, shop on a budget they prepared themselves and even sent Gosling into William’s room to make love to her, only for him to be soundly rejected by the actress. (Actually the latter action goes further than anything Leigh has ever done with his cast.) He did deviate from Leigh’s tight scripting in that some of the pair’s scenes, such as a New York City walkabout, were improvised. That deep involvement in their characters' story is likely one reason Gosling and Williams are so good together. It also makes me wonder, since the results are so spectacular why so few other directors prepare their movies that way. Oddly enough, only Williams received an Oscar nomination for her work; without Gosling, she would never have been able to make the impact that she does in the film.
Michelle Williams
Of course, Williams and Gosling have given great performances before but not always in movies worthy of their talents. Williams was terrific in the underrated comedy Dick (1999) and impressive in the overly chaste Brokeback Mountain (2005) but, otherwise, she has generally wasted her talent in minor or disappointing movies like Wendy and Lucy (2008), Synecdoche, New York (2008) and Shutter Island (2010). Gosling has scored the odd unqualified success, notably as a disturbed man in love with a sex doll in Lars and the Real Girl (2007), but mostly he’s essayed edgy and unforgettable characters, such as the Jewish-born Neo-Nazi in The Believer (2001), or the crack addicted schoolteacher in Half Nelson (2006), in films that were otherwise negligible. Blue Valentine, however, allows them to create something that is backed up by a solid foundation. One of the movie's smartest aspects is that it deliberately leaves out the middle part of Dean and Cindy’s on screen lives so we only get hints of why she’s fallen out of love with him or why his frustration with her boils over so often. Those omissions force the actors to fill in the blanks and allow the film-goer to intuit why their characters do what they do. There's no need to spell everything out; Gosling and Williams make sure we get what’s going on.

Derek Cianfrance doesn’t entirely pull the film off, though.
Blue Valentine betrays too much of his other major directorial influence, John Cassavetes (Husbands (1970), The Killing of a Chinese Bookie (1976)), a so–called realistic filmmaker whose movies were chock full of the dull bits that Alfred Hitchcock famously decried in his quote that, “drama is life with the dull bits cut out." The early part of the film is tough slogging before the characters begin to dominate and rivet us. Cianfrance is also not very adept at delineating the varying time frames and places (New York, rural Pennsylvania) that the film covers, even though he uses different film stock for the past and present sequences. (He does provide some apt connections between the time sequences, with specific songs or actions having different meanings depending upon when they occur.) Normally its weaknesses might matter more, but in this case Gosling and Williams’ unforgettable performances ensure that the movie’s flaws can be easily overlooked.

Shlomo Schwartzberg is a film critic, teacher and arts journalist based in Toronto. He is currently teaching a course on film genre this winter at Ryerson University 's LIFE Institute. For more information click on to the Ryerson catalogue

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