There are many ways a visit to the cinema can make you feel uncomfortable. There are the squirm-inducing comedies such as Borat. The so-unfunny-I'm-embarrassed-to-be-here alleged comedies such as Midgets Vs Mascots. The oh-dear-god-why-did-I-bring-a-date-to-see-a-film-with-this-much-shagging? dramas like Lust, Caution. The confrontational, in your face, shock horror of A Serbian Film.
None of them are a patch on Blue Valentine, where the discomfort comes from two performances that transcend the standard notion of performance. Ryan Gosling and Michelle Williams don't play Dean and Cindy, they ARE Dean and Cindy in this parallel tale of hopeful young love and the unavoidable erosion of their relationship.
This time shifting split is the sort of novelty that can easily destroy a film, an emotional shorthand that could so easily come across as trite. That it doesn't is testament to the leads, the support players — particularly Wladyka as their young daughter Frankie — and writer / director Cianfrance's grasp of his material. It comes across as a fly-on-the-wall documentary about a marriage break-up, in all its painful, intimate detail.
The film starts with Dean and Cindy subtly defining their characters over breakfast. His paint-splattered clothes and easygoing tomfoolery with Frankie are at odds with Cindy's attempts at professionalism and preparation, and her need to be mother to two people. The cracks are obvious but papered over, although that will be stripped slowly away over the next 112 minutes.
In contrast, the Dean that courts Cindy is equally easy going and jokey, but with a sense of potential. He's kind, making up for his lack of academic qualifications with a good heart and a sense of contentment, she's the good student who falls for his solid charms. It's very much a case of opposites attracting but there's a deeper, obvious affection too... and then we flash forward again to see how this may still be in place but, these days, isn't enough.
Arguments contrast with the flirtation of the early relationship, but none of it's obvious, either in the way the stories are paralleled, or the dialogue itself. There are no carefully hewn bon mots or clever lines, just a sense that you're watching a real couple play out the inevitable course of their partnership in everyday terms, repeating old mistakes and shuffling to the unavoidable end of their union. And it's devastating.
Williams and Gosling are faultless and must surely get at least a nomination for every award going. Apparently they and Wladyka lived together as a family for a month, celebrating birthdays and Christmas and improvising petty arguments. That, like the film itself, may sound deeply pretentious and too method for words but the results speak for themselves. Blue Valentine is a difficult film to watch — it's more eavesdropping than watching, in fact — but it's a film of deep, simple truths that will linger in the mind for weeks afterwards. Brutal, bold, brilliant – but mostly just honest.
• Official Site
• Blue Valentine at IMDb