Complicated Relationships: Blue Valentine and Everyone Else
January 12, 2011
The end of any serious relationship brings about a long period of reflection. Where did it go wrong? Who was at fault? What could have been done differently? Questions like these are almost inevitable. Some choose to blame themselves and think only of the times they were at fault, either knowingly or with the benefit of hindsight. Some choose to blame the other party, focusing on their faults, the difficulties they caused, or – perhaps ironically – their inability to see the other perspective. Both points of view are almost inevitably wrong, or at least not totally right, but that’s how memory and emotions work. What bliss it might be to have a film of the key events so they can be replayed and understood for future reference or just plain peace of mind.
Such a thing is not possible at the moment, so for now we can make do with watching someone else’s relationship breakdown in Blue Valentine. Derek Cianfrance’s drama is a relationship post-mortem about two days in the life of married couple Dean (Ryan Gosling) and Cindy (Michelle Williams), and its brutal frankness should be enough for anyone who has gone through a breakup to exorcise their lingering demons and never want to revisit the past again. Those two days are broken up with a series of extended flashbacks to the couple’s first meeting and the events that led to their rather sudden marriage. I don’t use the word “post-mortem” lightly, as the present day scenes act like a mystery to see what’s wrong and how they got to that point. Thankfully the film never answers the question in a straightforward manner, and though the flashbacks are forever pointing towards and reflecting on the present, the intervening years of their marriage are left unexplored.
The flashbacks present a story that is fairly standard indie fare, though for the most part it is believable and well done for what it is. Dean moved to New York having never finished high school. He got a job for a moving company that took him to a retirement home where he saw Cindy with her grandmother. It isn’t a rom-com meet-cute in the Hollywood fantasy sense, but it’s recognizably idealized (perhaps because the past always is). He’s a chancer with gumption; she’s in a relationship with the kind of two-dimensional asshole that almost ruins the credibility of the picture. He charms her on a bus with his honest bravado and then later with his tweeness by playing her a song on an ukelele. These moments are sweet, charming, effortlessly watchable and occasionally informative, but they don’t hold a patch on the work going on in the present day sequences. The dissolution of their marriage is obvious from the beginning, so we spend the time looking for clues and signs as to why it’s all happening. The identifiable problems aren’t particularly excessive (he’s playing the fun dad, drinks and smokes too much, and lacks professional ambition while she has a tendency to overreact to the seemingly small issues), but the quality of the acting brings makes them feel hugely important. The film understands that it is almost always the accumulation of the little things; small mannerisms and asides are magnified considerably when they accumulate over time and at some point every little thing becomes indicative of the larger problems one sees in another. Williams is especially amazing as Cindy is the more mature person and it would be very easy for the character to seem like a shrill stick-in-the-mud, but it never happens. Her pain and despair is not her fault, and though she desperately wants to control it she just can’t. Likewise, Gosling plays Dean as defiantly young to a fault. His dependency on drink and cigarettes is more about suppressing his feelings of dissatisfaction and inadequacy than they are destructive addictions.
The problem with relying so heavily on the subtlety is that even the smallest overreach feels huge. There’s a brief shot of a hand pulling away from another that feels so obvious it is actually quite jarring. On top of all of that, the aforementioned two-dimensional boyfriend of Cindy is so horrendously without redemption it feels as though he’s a leftover from an earlier draft of the screenplay when they might have been considering making major studio picture. He just doesn’t belong and, when every little character trait is so important to understanding the whole of the piece, it does Cindy no favours as far as audience sympathy. Still, despite these quibbles, it’s an extraordinary work for an American indie, a genre that so often forgets that unflinching honesty delivered by extraordinary actors is preferable to ironic distance. When Dean whispers early on, “I told you not to leave the gate open”, you sink in your seat with the despairing familiarity of the wrong thing said. Blue Valentine avoids taking sides, and though it might divide audiences along gender lines like Oleanna, that isn’t its intention. It’s the fault of both of them and neither of them. The despairing notion about this self-proclaimed “love story” is that this is how many of them end, and it’s all the better for it.
It is completely unfair to Blue Valentine that the day after seeing it I watched Everyone Else, directed by Maren Ade and a real gem of film that also explores the intricacies of a relationship. Chris (Lars Eidinger) and Gitti (Birgit Minichmayr) are vacationing in his parent’s home on the island of Sardinia when a shift in the dynamic of their relationship threatens to break them apart. He is an architect struggling to get the kind of work he wants to do and she works for the PR wing of a record company. He’s nervous about his prospects as he’s been unwilling to compromise his brilliant but sometimes complex vision, all the while she optimistically encourages him to strive for his dreams. He’s a playful dreamer (early on he breaks up a piece of ginger to make a little figurine that is ever present throughout) and she’s much the same. He worries about his masculinity, and as he worries about his hair loss and his latest proposal falling through, he feels more and more discontented with his life.
The film works pretty hard to code him as feminine, as early on when he doesn’t feel like going to a disco Gitti convinces him to dance for her. The performance is bizarre and comedic in its faltering femininity, and the gender roles of the relationship are clearly established. Later on, during a hiking expedition, he’s carrying a pink backpack while she carries an earthy brown pack. It is in this scene, as they wander through (return to) nature that gender roles begin to reverse to a more conventional normalcy. He accepts a dinner invitation from a (successful) architect and acquaintance and it is there that his attitude begins to change. Not excessively so, for this is an extremely subtle film, but enough for Gitti to recognize it. She attempts to adhere to a more conventional relationship, and though she buys a dress and has lipstick and makeup applied to her in a store, she’s quick to rub it off.
The low-key nature of Everyone Else makes Blue Valentine seem like a broad melodrama in comparison. Very little in the way of drama happens until the climax. Up until that point Ade is content to let the performances and the writing establish and then contort the characters. The childish playfulness in their relaxation by the pool goes away when he looks into some work remodeling a villa on the island. Once again the film doesn’t really take sides, but note how discontent she becomes once he begins to assert himself when he begins to take measurements. This is not to say that he fulfilling his talent threatens her, rather it’s about the small ways in which he telegraphs his confidence, especially after meeting the rather boisterous architect acquaintance. Of course it’s not as clear cut as that either. She’s as subconsciously resistant to change as he wants subconsciously wants it. As with Blue Valentine, the film never fully takes sides.
In the end, it’s a beautifully small portrait of relationships in the ever-shifting modern world. There are degrees to which we change ourselves to make a relationship work, just as there are points at which we shouldn’t. For Cindy and Dean in Blue Valentine, there’s no more adjusting to do. They’ve run their course. For Chris and Gitti, it isn’t quite finished yet, and the beautiful and somewhat optimistic ending is a welcome relief after the small tensions that have built into something approaching dread. While it’s no surprise that the German film is more intelligent and graceful, it is something of a welcome shock that the American film is the bleaker of the two. They’re both excellent explorations of a similar theme, and though I prefer Everyone Else’s ability to commit to playing the drama out in subtle minutiae, they’re both impressive pieces of work.