Love is a strange religion. While the west has given up on God, belief in love is thriving. The divorce rate is thriving too, but that doesn’t seem to worry the faithful. It helps that love’s most devout believers are mainly young, and, like all pious people, convinced they know better than the rest of us. Love looks more robust, too, when its disciples are at their physical peak. Scepticism about love is a sure sign of aging. We all age, so we all succumb. But that doesn’t mean that love doesn’t exist, or that we’re wrong to fall in love: we’re only wrong to worship love, as if it was the answer to everything. Blue Valentine is a beleaguered love story, but it only says: love’s fallible. The message might be frank, but it’s not heresy.
Marrying a man who plays the ukulele is always a risk. There’s a lot of wistfulness in that instrument. No-one with ambition plays a miniature guitar. Still, despite these obvious warning signs, Michelle Williams marries Ryan Gosling. They meet in a retirement home, where they’re both visiting. Williams has a grandmother in care, whom she likes to read to. Gosling is a guy who moves furniture for a living. Shifting between their happy past and the miserable present, the movie charts the disintegration of their relationship. There’s no attempt to fill in all the blanks: we don’t see every day of their married life – just the hallowed hours that brought them together, and the hellish fights that make them strangers once again.
Ryan Gosling is so charming in this movie, you forget that he’s a bum. He doesn’t commit any of the usual “bad husband” sins. He doesn’t cheat on his wife, or neglect his child. He has what he wants. No other choice interests him. But that’s where his problem lies: what he sees as perfect – looks stalled, to anyone but him. His acceptance of his life is also a refusal to change. He drinks to obscure difficulties. His job is something he can do while he’s drunk. When his wife confronts him with her unhappiness, he thinks she’s betrayed him. It never occurs to him that he’s betrayed her with a stagnant love. This man has such natural bravado; you don’t recognise him for a sad sack. His daughter certainly won’t see him that way, until she’s older. For his wife, the choice is either to hold him while they drown, or to save herself. She can’t be happy with him.
Michelle Williams has the more challenging role, because she’s the one who wants to leave. This is dangerous territory. Ryan Gosling will get to climb guardrails and punch a doctor, but Williams has to be angry – and not the fecund anger that rights injustice, but the parched anger that makes a woman look like a bitch. She hates her husband for losing sight of her. She’s only a bitch around him. His juvenile blinkeredness has her squeezed into the role of nagging wife. All the blame for their inertia gets put on her, as if she had ruined their idyll. Michelle’s torment at being the accused is tangible; she argues like she’s been on trial for years. Love harries her. She doesn’t want to be harried for the rest of her life.
If I make this movie sound dreary – as if it was written by Arthur Miller -I apologise. There’s a lot of light in the film to mitigate the dark. Gosling’s ukulele serenade is one high point; Williams’ despicably funny paedophile joke is another. The writer/director, Derek Cianfrance, seems to be a fan of 70s cinema (John Cassavetes et al) and, even in the worst circumstances, everyone on screen is wonderfully human. The dialogue has a loose, improvised feel and beauty is uncovered, even in the tackiest hotel room. This couple isn’t solely tragic. When Cianfrance intercuts the wedding day with the end of the marriage, he isn’t saying they were doomed from the start – he’s reminding us: they made each other happy. It was love.
We all know love is irresistible. There’s a quote from Flaubert: “With my burned hand, I write about the nature of fire.” What better way to sum up love’s hazardous appeal? You get to know so much through love; you’re half-schooled without it. Love breaks and burns and makes you new (to paraphrase John Donne). There’s no sense in shielding yourself. To remain encased, unknown, without intimacy – is suicide. You might live a thousand years, but it would be a sham. Our purpose in life is discovery. We long to be explored. Love fades when we stop searching. Love compels you to stay awake. This movie isn’t a warning to married couples; it’s a firework display. Love is like this:
a boisterous smack to the heart.