Blue Valentine (Blu-ray)
Blue Valentine could have been called “Scenes from a Marriage”, if Ingmar Bergman hadn’t already taken the title. But Bergman is an apt reference. Derek Cianfrance’s film is as American as they come, but it shares the Swedish master’s emotional rawness, his bleak view of human relations and a cinematic technique in which scenes of actors talking to each other, precisely edited, gather enough force to knock you out of your seat.
Studio: Anchor Bay Entertainment/The Weinstein Company
Film Length: 113 min.
Aspect Ratio: 1.66:1 (but see “Video” section below)
HD Encoding: 1080p
HD Codec: AVC
Audio: English DTS-HD MA 5.1
Subtitles: English SDH; Spanish
Disc Format: 1 25GB
Theatrical Release Date: Dec. 29, 2010
Blu-ray Release Date: May 10, 2011
Blue Valentine unfolds in two time periods separated by six years. The two eras alternate without transition. You know where you are by the main characters’ hair styles, by the presence or absence of various supporting players, and by subtle visual cues (discussed in more detail under “Video”). For purposes of this review, I will discuss each era separately, but the film’s essence lies in how they are interwoven. Both the viewer’s and the characters’ memory of the past infuses everything that happens in the present, like a thick cloud of dust settling on something beautiful and broken. For the scenes in the past, the viewer’s knowledge of what’s to come injects a melancholy note that makes the initial blush of love all the more poignant.
In the present, Cindy (Michelle Williams) and Dean (Ryan Gosling) are a married couple with a young daughter, Frankie (Faith Wladyka). They live in a small town in eastern Pennsylvania (the film was shot in Scranton and King of Prussia). Cindy works as a nurse for an obstetrician, Dr. Feinberg (Ben Shenkman), while Dean paints houses. On this particular morning, the household is tense, because the family dog has run off. Dean, who is a doting father, tries to distract Frankie by horsing around at the breakfast table, drawing a rebuke from his wife. “I don’t need to clean up after two kids”, she tells him.
We see Cindy and Dean at work, where Dean drinks on the job, while Cindy hides her cares behind a professionally sunny demeanor. Still trying to distract their daughter from the missing dog, they send her to spend the night with Cindy’s father (veteran character actor John Doman), which gives Dean the idea of taking an evening off for some adult time with his wife. They have a gift certificate for a stay in a “theme hotel” somewhere out of town, and Dean decides to use it. Cindy protests, but goes along anyway. The couple stocks up on booze and checks into the “Future Room”, which Dean describes as looking like “inside a robot’s vagina”. But all the liquor and distractions in the world can’t blot out their problems. Without Frankie to deflect their attention, Dean and Cindy are forced to confront the gulf between them. The experience is so painful that, by the next morning, their marital issues have progressed from a slow simmer to a rolling boil.
Six years in the past, we see Cindy and Dean when they first met and fell for each other. Cindy was pre-med at a local college and dating a jock named Bobby (Mike Vogel), a good-looking jerk. Dean had just relocated from Florida to Brooklyn, where he found work as a mover. Both were seekers with good hearts but grave doubts about finding true love. Dean shared his concerns with a co-worker (Marshall Johnson), while Cindy asked her grandmother (Jen Jones) how you know when you find the right person. When they met by chance, something happened between them. It may have been nothing more than the recognition of a common yearning, but it was enough to entice Cindy and Dean to explore what they might mean to each other.
In an iconic moment, Dean and Cindy walk down the street late at night, when Dean begins to play the ukelele and sings “You Always Hurt the One You Love” in a cartoonish voice, while Cindy dances. The sequence was used in the film’s trailer, and it was beautiful, mysterious and charming. In its full context, it is all those things – and also very sad.
The events that lead Dean and Cindy to marry are neither straightforward nor compulsory in any traditional sense. (I am being deliberately vague to avoid spoilers.) It was entirely possible, from the vantage point of that moment in time, that these two were right for each other. Unfortunately, six years later, it’s clear that either they never were or they no longer are. That both of them are products of troubled marriages makes their own marital failure all the more tragic.
Blue Valentine is distinguished by two qualities that can work against each other if not handled with finesse. The first is the raw emotion of the performances by Gosling and Williams. There is no distance between the viewer and the couple on screen. At numerous points in the film, you have the sense of witnessing privileged, intimate moments, where Dean and Cindy have no privacy and everything is laid bare. It’s not always a comfortable sensation, because the truth isn’t always pleasant (if you have a judgmental streak, be prepared for a field day). Even the frank sex scenes that initially earned the film an NC-17 rating have little erotic appeal, because the emotions coursing through them are so genuine and complex. (The current R rating was obtained on appeal and without any trims.)
But intense emotion alone doesn’t make for an engaging movie. To hold an audience’s interest, you need the narrative machinery whose artificiality is so often the enemy of emotional truth. This is where Blue Valentine’s other major quality comes in. Cianfrance may have gone to extraordinary lengths to capture a sense of reality, but he never forgot his obligations as a storyteller. He and his two editors spent a year sifting through their footage and crafting a narrative that drives relentlessly forward, telling the story of two people and their relationship. The brilliance of alternating the two time periods is that it allows Cianfrance to dispense with most of the traditional framework of exposition and build his narrative out of the most intense moments: those at the beginning and those at the end. Your imagination fills in the middle. Indeed, as the film flips back and forth, you get to know Dean and Cindy more deeply than you are likely to know (or would want to know) most people you meet. Even within the safety zone of a home theater, the experience may be more unsettling than some viewers are prepared to accept.
One might describe Cianfrance’s technique in Blue Valentine as “method directing”, with equal emphasis on both the “method” approach to acting and the director’s watchful eye on the final product. He worked hard with his cast to strip away anything that felt false, “actorly” or movie-ish, so that only authentic feeling remained. Thus, even though he had rewritten the script continuously for almost twelve years, often in consultation with Gosling and Williams, he frequently told the actors to throw out the lines they’d learned in favor of something spontaneous, guided by a simple directive (“Don’t let him leave.” “Make her tell you her secret.”). The director didn’t let his two leads work together until they began shooting the scenes set in the past, so that they were learning how to act as a team at the same time that Cindy and Dean were getting acquainted. Then he shut down production for a month, while Gosling and Williams lived in the house where the scenes set in the present would be filmed, along with young Faith Wladyka, who plays Frankie. After they’d learned to be a family, Cianfrance shot the contemporary scenes. The result of this fanatical devotion to authenticity is that you always feel like you’re watching real people reacting to and interacting with each other. And, as if by chance (but really by design), they tell you their story.
According to both the disc jacket and the release notes, Blue Valentine is presented with an aspect ratio of 1.66:1. On my system I was unable to detect the “windowboxing” necessary to achieve this AR on a 1.78:1 display. However, I have seen screen captures on which the windowboxing is clearly evident, though it is very slight. Depending on your display, you may or may not notice it.
The film was shot by Andrij Parekh, the indie cinematographer whose credits include Half Nelson, Sugar and It’s Kind of a Funny Story. Parekh trained with Harris Savides and learned his style of, in Cianfrance’s phrase, “lighting spaces, not people”. This approach has a distinct impact on the look of Blue Valentine, which was photographed entirely in real locations with the objective of giving the actors maximum freedom to move. (They never had “marks” to hit.)
Scenes in the present were shot with the Red One digital camera, while scenes in the past were shot in Super16. The two formats were then harmonized and color-corrected via a digital intermediate to make the transitions between them subtler and more subliminal. Your eye registers the difference, but you can’t exactly point to it. Among the various adjustments that help create continuity is the accentuation of the color blue in both time periods. This becomes immediately obvious when one compares the deleted scenes, which are not color-corrected; the color blue is almost absent.
Detail is generally excellent in both the digital and film scenes, but shadow detail is not always as good as might be expected with a different approach to lighting the scene. This is in the original material, however, and is not a fault of the transfer. Similarly, black levels sometimes suffer slightly in night scenes in the Super16 sections, but this too is in the source material. Grain has been carefully controlled throughout, and I saw no sign of digital artifacting caused by excess noise reduction or other such manipulation.
The film’s color pallette is remarkably varied and interesting without being so saturated or intense as to be unnatural. The one exception is the “theme” hotel room, which is unnatural by design.
The sound mix for Blue Valentine is an excellent demonstration of how to use the surround channels to immerse the viewer in a realistic experience. The various environments in which the film takes place are richly and fully represented, but the rear channels blend seamlessly into the sound field and never call attention to themselves. As we cut from Cindy and Dean’s front yard to their respective workplaces to their car interiors, the sound field changes with the scene, and it changes all around the viewer. This is naturalistic sound in the most literal sense, and it’s done with a light touch. The soundtrack, which consists of familiar pop tunes from on-screen sources and original music by Grizzly Bear, is perfectly suited to the film’s shifting tones.
Almost no dialogue was replaced in post-production, because Cianfrance wanted the original performance retained wherever possible. As a result, an occasional line of dialogue is less distinct than is typical of a major studio production, but in all such cases, the meaning is always plain from the context. (And if you really need them, there are subtitles.)
As with The King’s Speech, Anchor Bay has again mastered a disc using BD-Java, while omitting the ability to set bookmarks. No BDJ-encoded disc should ever lack this capability. BDJ prevents the user from stopping playback and starting from the same position, and bookmarking is the only workaround. Its omission is inexcusable.
Commentary with Director Derek Cianfrance and Co-Editor Jim Helton. Although Cianfrance provides some background on the film’s twelve-year development, he focuses mostly on the experience of working with Williams and Gosling and the manifold strategies that all of them used to get fresh and unrehearsed performances blurring the line between acting and “being”. Some of the moments may strike some viewers as too much. For example, the scene in which Gosling, as Dean, climbs the fence of the Manhattan Bridge’s pedestrian walkway was spontaneous and unscripted; there was neither safety equipment nor stunt personnel on site and, according to Cianfrance, one of the film’s producers started running from the end of the bridge to stop the shoot when she saw what was happening. The actors finished the scene before the producer arrived, and the take is in the movie.
As previously noted, Helton and his co-editor, Ron Patane, spent a year editing the movie, because Cianfrance shot it in long, multiple takes, allowing (sometimes even forcing) the actors to improvise. Helton stresses that they looked at and considered every frame. The precision with which the finished film unfolds is a testament to the editors’ craft.
Deleted Scenes (SD; 1.66:1, centered in 4:3) (19:45). There are four scenes, three of which are set in the past, one in the present. The commentary suggests that many more could have been included. The scenes are interesting chiefly as a suggestion of the kinds of material that Cianfrance and his editors considered and ultimately rejected. In addition, one of the scenes supplied the image that became the one-sheet and now the cover for the blu-ray and DVD.
The Making of Blue Valentine (SD; 1.78:1, enhanced for 16:9) (13:50). Although this featurette covers some of the same ground as the commentary, it provides more extensive background on the film’s origins. More importantly, it includes interviews with Williams and Gosling, both of whom are thoughtful and articulate.
“Frankie and the Unicorn” (Home Movie) (SD; 4:3, stretched) (3:04). Excerpts from this home-made video appear in the film. Williams, Gosling and young Faith Wladyka made it during the month they spent living together building memories of family life on which they could draw for the scenes set in the present.
Trailers. The film’s trailer is not included, although it is available on other Anchor Bay titles, such as The King’s Speech. At startup, the disc plays a trailer for The Company Men, which can be skipped with the chapter forward button.
Directors of large-scale epics like Titanic or The Lord of the Rings trilogy are justly respected for hewing to their vision through the rigors and logistics of pre-production, filming and editing, so that they don’t get knocked off course and lose the spark that inspired them in the first place. A film like Blue Valentine may cost less, but it requires no less devotion and commitment, as its twelve-year gestation suggests. Only a passionately determined filmmaker could stay the course through dozens of drafts, years of planning, hundreds of takes, months of editing – all in service of showing us, in a way we don’t usually get to see, something that happens all around us every day: love beginning, love ending, a family breaking up. Talking about it is easy. Putting it on screen with the hard slap of reality – now that’s an achievement.
Equipment used for this review:
Panasonic BDP-BD50 Blu-ray player (DTS-HD MA decoded internally and output as analog)
Samsung HL-T7288W DLP display (connected via HDMI)
Lexicon MC-8 connected via 5.1 passthrough
Sunfire Cinema Grand amplifier
Monitor Audio floor-standing fronts and MA FX-2 rears
Boston Acoustics VR-MC center
SVS SB12-Plus sub