Michelle Williams is a movie star who can disappear into the people she plays and the places where they live. Watching her performances, you get the feeling that she has an intense desire to be anonymous merging with an overriding passion to be filmed being anonymous. And it's in that mix of obscurity and fame where the magic of her acting happens: she becomes another person and yet there's an almost silvery Warholian glamor to the whole process. But still it's an overall emotionally satisfying transformation: you ache right along with her. You're actually exalted by that ache.
In Blue Valentine, she outdoes herself.
Williams plays Cindy, a nurse with a young daughter and a husband (played by Ryan Gosling) who paints houses for a living. The movie is a paean to love and the torture and ecstasy it causes, but it's grounded in a lyrical drabness; this love and its downfall take place in a doctor's office, a kitschy "space-age" motel room, a nursing home, a community college campus, a weed-covered backyard with a little girl trying to find her lost dog. In those dreary but poetic spaces, the writer/director Derek Cianfrance allows moments to happen without a lot of push or pull, just a steady intensity that pulls back to catch the landscape and other surroundings, but then goes in for the kill: juicy, nervous close-ups of the faces of his stars as they kiss, yell, laugh, sing. Cianfrance knows that the true pleasures deep inside all movies are those moments when a close-up becomes a whole universe: one face transmutates into a new way to feel.
Williams' face is moony but wan, pale but tinged with a fury of pink, and her eyes carry a loss inside them Cindy the nurse can't express but truly needs to, a truckload of poetry, ambition, and sadness inside each iris. When Cindy is driving to work in their minivan, about to take a big bite of a jelly donut, with Pat Benetar on the radio singing "We Belong," there's an instant when Williams' expression goes from everyday-driving-to-work to Joan-of-Arc. The transition works seamlessly, a pulse of charisma that dislocates both her and the audience watching her. The camera shows us why: her daughter's lost dog is dead at the side of the road. But Williams and Cianfrance do not use that scene to make us cry; it's to show us how beautiful and lost Cindy is, how she was just about ready to go into her work-trance, but then there the dog is, and all that she is capable of feeling unleashes itself in one brief flash. You just want to go into the movie and help her right at that moment. You also want to be wrapped up in Williams' ability to make that pain so glamorous yet real.
The movie is organized in a simple past/present feed: the innocent past and the very tried present bleed into each other. In the expositional scenes, Ryan Gosling gives the young Dean a swagger that lets us know it's Deans finest moment. Right now he is at his peak: rugged, lean young hipster working for a moving company, a smile that is somehow indecent yet boyish, not mischievous as much as trying to find out how to be obedient so he can get what he wants from Cindy. Cloudy eyes, blissful thoughts, just trying to get there. Unlike Williams, Gosling does not disappear into his performances as much as reappear; he merges with Dean, all in, but also is astute enough to give Dean a metrosexual attractiveness in the beginning scenes, a masculine prettiness that calls to mind Brando in Streetcar Named Desire, dirty enough to be "real," preened enough to be sexy.
In another expositional scene, Dean helps an old man unpack all his wares in his new nursing home room. Dean does not treat the process like your average everyday mover. He turns himself into a makeshift interior decorator, trying to please the old man. Gosling's face is lit up like an artist on the verge of finding his true voice. It's in that same scene that he first sees Cindy for the first time. She's there visiting her grandmother. He is automatically smitten, and you can see in Dean's expressions and gestures that he realizes at that moment all he needs to be happy for the rest of his life is to have this girl.
At the end of the movie, when Cindy and Dean are trying to rekindle their relationship in a really cheap-ass "outer-space-themed" motel room called The Future Room, Dean tells Cindy that all he wants is to get drunk, paint houses, and come home to his wife and daughter at the end of the day. This is happiness for him, he says, and yet you can tell it's prison for her. That loop of misunderstanding -- Cindy falling in love with that sensitive swaggering beautiful fool only to end up with a guy with a receding hairline and lowered expectations and 24-hour beer-breath, and Dean falling in love with a girl he thought would be able to save him only to find out she's just plain sick of him -- is what gives Blue Valentine the heft and depth of great literature. There's no way out except the way Dean and Cindy are doing it: haphazardly, violently, blindly. And no one is to blame.
Dean of course has to follow Cindy to her work that last day they are together. He has to be completely drunk and stupid and full of love, barging in and throwing things around. But as he does this, he's sobbing, not wanting to be "a big man," but just her man. He is trying to re-enter that early phase of swagger and masculinity he performed back in the good old days, but this time desperation and hurt turn it all into a sad, awful parody of what he used to be. And then there's Cindy, frustrated, teary-eyed, trying not to remember how much she loved him, just wanting to move on.
This is one of those movies you can't shake out of your head. As soon as it ended, I remembered a scene that happend in the cheesy motel room, when they were trying to revisit who they once were. Cindy is trying to tell Dean all that's wrong with their relationship, and Dean just looks at her, smiling, trying to turn everything into a joke so they can laugh like they used to.
"Shut your beautiful mouth," he says to her.
Cindy does that. She just shuts up. Williams and Gosling are actors who can even make that short exchange seem as meaningful as wedding vows. He playfully grins and tries to turn on the charm, and she just closes her eyes, wanting everything to disappear.