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The disintegration of relationships has been a perennial source of acute cinematic drama for decades, from Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? to Scenes From a Marriage to Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind. Most conspicuously, Derek Cianfrance’s entry into the “breakup melodrama” subgenre, Blue Valentine, has some structural similarities to Sam Mendes’ 2008 adaptation of David Yates’ blistering novel of gangrenous matrimony, Revolutionary Road. Both films cut between contemporary scenes of a marriage stretched to its breaking point and flashbacks depicting the relationship’s sweet, promising beginnings. There the similarities end, however, for where Mendes’ film roils with lusciously photographed screaming matches and emotionally repulsive speeches, Blue Valentine is assiduously lo-fi in its aesthetics and dramatic sensibility. While there are ghastly confrontations and flashes of violence in Cianfrance’s film, the sudden (but long-time-in-coming) unraveling of the marriage between Dean (Ryan Gosling) and Cindy (Michelle Williams) is presented in a naturalistic style that echoes Ingmar Bergman’s Scenes, an approach that underlines the film’s ambiguous, blended tone of sentiment and fatalism. Helming his first theatrical feature since 1998’s Brother Tied, Cianfrance uses Blue Valentine as a vehicle to survey the challenges of accommodation in human relationships: the inevitable adjustment to our priorities, expectations, and tolerances. Despite commendable, aching performances from Williams and Gosling, the film is less a character study of these people than of the relationship itself. Dean and Cindy remain somewhat confounding and remote from the viewer, but the anguished potency of the film stems from the clarity with which Cianfrance and his performers draw the parameters of this rotten marriage, with all its compromises, cruelties, and old, remembered joys. Ultimately, Blue Valentine reveals itself as a bitter rumination on the sheer difficulty of sustaining love over time.
Currently playing at the Landmark Theaters Tivoli.
St. Louis native Andrew Wyatt is the founder of the film aficionado website Gateway Cinephiles, where he has been an editor and contributor since 2007, authoring reviews, essays, and coverage of the St. Louis International Film Festival and Webster Film Series.