No movie I’ve seen at Sundance this year conjures the possibilities — or the current, gloom-and-doom marketplace environment — of independent film more powerfully than Blue Valentine. A lushly touching, wrenching, and beautifully told story, directed by Derek Cianfrance with a mood of entwined romantic dreams and romantic loss, it stars Ryan Gosling and Michelle Williams as Dean and Cindy, a young, semi-working-class couple who meet, fall in love, get married, raise a little daughter, and lose their spark, though not necessarily in that order. Among other things, the movie fractures time with elegant originality.
There are moments in Blue Valentine that make you melt, like the one where Gosling, on what is basically the couple’s first date, stops at a storefront and does some weird sort of awful/charming Elvis impersonation, singing “You Always Hurt the One You Love” as he accompanies himself on the ukulele, while Williams dances a happy little jig; you can see them locking souls, literally falling in love at that instant. And there are moments that tear you apart, like one set several years later in the doctor’s office where Williams’ Cindy works, with Dean, now a morning drinker with a receding hairline, busting into the place to argue with her, and everyone looking at him like he’s crazy, and us realizing that he’s not crazy but that he may now be a loser, too desperate to stop hurting the one he loves.
This is harrowing yet delicate drama, the portrait of a relationship coming into being and, when the two spend a night at a tacky theme motel, fighting to stay alive. Yet Blue Valentine has a languid and exacting pace, and for a movie that wears its blue heart on its sleeve, it goes to surprisingly dark places. (It’s also a shade too long; some artful trimming would be advised.) In all the conversations I’ve had about the film, even a lot of people who responded to it as I did have said, in essence, “What sort of chance does this movie have in the real world?”
No one, including me, doubts that Blue Valentine will land a distributor. With stars like Ryan Gosling and Michelle Williams giving performances that sear, delight, and break your heart, it would be sheer madness if this movie languished — and, frankly, it won’t happen. But I think what people are really asking is a question about the audience: How many moviegoers today, even those who seek out independent films, are going to want to spend two hours tasting the bittersweet vibe of this sad, troubled marriage?
The movie took me back to a time, three decades ago, when troubled-marriage movies were all the rage, even in Hollywood: searching domestic psychodramas like Shoot the Moon and Kramer vs. Kramer and Smash Palace. I wouldn’t, offhand, say that Blue Valentine is a better film, yet in certain ways it catches the doleful, biting rhythms and smiley-sad sentimental music of a faltering marriage with greater intimacy. There are real demons here: alcohol abuse, a pregnancy wrapped around a lie. Yet there is also an appreciation for how even very imperfect people can lunge for love as if it were air. In this movie, Gosling and Williams act without a net, and Derek Cianfrance proves a filmmaker of rare sensitivity. I predict he’ll go far, and Blue Valentine, whatever the new, handwringing forces of indie marketing decree, deserves to be the movie that takes him a good part of the way there.
More from Owen Gleiberman at Sundance 2010:
Sundance 2010 documentaries: Casino Jack and the United States of Money; Smash His Camera; Restrepo
More from EW at Sundance 2010: