Archive for January 28, 2011

“This is how a working class love story should be”, Subrat messaged after watching Blue Valentine. “Wow! Post ?” I replied back. And here it is. If you have seen it, read the post to fall in love with it, all over again. If you haven’t, do watch it. Was also wondering how in the last few years there has been a constant flow of good cinema thats exploring the “couples’ code” – all about man, woman and child. Away We Go, Revolutionary Road, Blue Valentine, Rabbit Hole and The Kids Are All Right. Where’s our code ?

Read on…

You are left stranded at the end. Fireworks go up in the sky. The closing credits come on with a tune that sounds familiar. It takes you a while to figure it’s the same tune that Dean (Ryan Gosling) played on his ukulele years ago while serenading Cindy (Michelle Williams) who dances at the doorway of a shop. And, you return to Apollinaire’s query – does joy always come after pain? Or, as you have just discovered in Blue Valentine, does pain inevitably follow joy? The title places ‘Valentine’ after ‘Blue’ which suggests the filmmaker nodding in assent to Apollinaire. But that’s deceiving.

On the surface, you see two stories in Blue Valentine. These are stories you’ve seen often. Of falling in love and falling out of it. Yet, in examining this over familiar terrain, in twisting and turning it under a steady unemotional gaze, Blue Valentine succeeds in creating compelling cinema.

There’s the present day story of Dean and Cindy. Seemingly, of everyday domesticity on an early summer morning. Their daughter is searching for their pet dog which has run off. You notice the house, the instant breakfast that Cindy rustles up and you sense indifference. Soon, you find the dog dead and Dean doesn’t have the heart to break the truth to his daughter. ‘She must have moved to Hollywood to become a movie dog. She had the looks’, he says.

You are then transported 6 years back in time. There is no reference though to this switching back. With the screen brightening up a touch more, you see a younger Dean looking for a job in a house-moving company. You are in the familiar boy-meets-girl-and-they-fall-in-love territory now. From here on, the film moves back and forth between these two stories of love blossoming and souring, the sweet to the tart without showing us anything that happened in the intervening years.

How does love seep away from a relationship? There’s never a single reason for it. It’s natural erosion. When you see Dean and Cindy falling in love, you might spot the seeds of future discord. Cindy’s desire to study and move up in life is in contrast to the slacker Dean who seems to be good at things but is bereft of ambition. There’s undeniable chemistry between the two but there’s something uncomfortable as you watch them. As the film flips between the two stories, you conclude that all the old adages about love are exactly the reasons why love sours. That love makes you a better person, that love can reform, that love conquers all – each one of them bites the dust. These are all predicated on a colossal lie – of people being made for each other. The film helps you with the benefit of hindsight to see through this lie. But leaves it for the protagonists to discover it as they live through it. That’s the beauty of this script.

As you watch Dean winning his daughter’s love and trust, you see the lie being played all over again. And you can’t help but pity the human impulse. Of deceit forming the premise for all love. We have all lived through it yet when the opportunity presents itself again, we willingly submit ourselves to another lie. Why, come to think of it, even that anthem of first love in Hindi cinema, ‘Pehla Nasha’, is a charade. Nothing is quite as it seems for the three characters in that song.

What aids this clinical exposition of love is the way the characters are etched in Blue Valentine. There’s a visible streak of misogyny that runs through the film. The emotional stack is loaded in favor of Dean. He marries Cindy despite knowing the truth at the abortion clinic. it’s Dean who is shown to be perfectly in sync with his daughter’s hopes and desires. And, he is expressly demonstrative about making the marriage work. You are emotionally invested in Dean from the very beginning. The artless way he admits to not being good enough for Cindy when he proposes to her at her home to his helplessness at the end when he asks Cindy – ‘how should I be’? The story ends too with a definite sense of loss for Dean that tugs at your heartstrings. This is a departure from how a typical marital discord story unspools where the emotional cards are equally dealt to make sure both the protagonists have a good hand (take Kramer vs Kramer as an example). However, if you look closer, you will find the prime mover through the entire film is Cindy. She is the one who makes all the choices in the film. She is willing to live through the consequences of those choices and is unafraid of confronting the truth. While on one hand it’s a subtle inversion of roles, on the other, it’s very clever scripting.

Blue Valentine is a film of deft touches. You almost feel there’s deliberate foolish manner in which love is depicted through the film. The scene of Dean strumming on his ukulele and singing while Cindy dances is not romantic for the viewers. The singing is bad and the dancing pedestrian. You almost feel embarassed to watch the silly couple falling in love there. The motel sequence with its space age suite where Dean and Cindy go to reignite the sparks in their marriage is clumsy and makes you squirm. There’s nothing grand about love and you are constantly reminded about it. The irony of the relationship between Dean and their daughter while you know of Cindy’s backstory is again never once brought up. The playing up of the father-daughter relationship is done so naturally that you forget the truth about their daughter in the last scene of the film.

You will find a similar trick played on you in Rabbit Hole, another film this year that had a beautiful subtle ending. You also sense the way fate mocks at Cindy – from wanting to study medicine, to making that life changing choice at the abortion clinic to ending up as a nurse at a maternity center.

It’s easy to call Blue Valentine a film that’s rich in subtext. That would, however, be simplifying things. Blue Valentine is not an ambitious film. Our ambitions are always an imagined superlative form of what we actually are. Instead, Blue Valentine, is a introspective film. It chooses to pose uncomfortable questions about our normal selves. It shows you the truth once the varnish wears off.

“Love is the longing for the half of ourselves we have lost.” You will find that line in Kundera’s ‘The Unbearable Lightness of Being’. You can read that line many times over today and still not get what he meant there. Then one day you find yourself in a old Mumbai home on Napean Sea Road. You see two sepia tinted photographs of a couple. Both shot at the same location – the now closed Cafe Naaz with the iconic Queen’s Necklace as the backdrop. May be ten years apart. You look closely at the two pictures. And, you understand what Kundera meant.

Or, you can watch Blue Valentine.

(Ed – Click here to read all about the making of the film. It’s a must read!)