by Matt Fagerholm
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No film in 2010 moved me as deeply as Derek Cianfrance’s mesmerizing heartbreaker. Ryan Gosling and Michelle Williams delivered performances so authentic that they transcended all boundaries of artifice. Many recent pictures have charted the beginning and end of a passionate yet short-lived relationship, yet Cianfrance is one of the only filmmakers who managed to capture a startling level of documentary realism. His approach is not entirely unlike that of micro-budget, highly improvisational auteurs such as Chicago’s own Joe Swanberg, whose bittersweet 2008 romance Nights and Weekends also stages scenes of intimacy and awkwardness that feel downright voyeuristic. And yet neither film is exploitative or pornographic. The NC-17-rating initially slapped on Valentine is solely reflective the MPAA’s allegiance to bigger studio products, such as the R-rated yet equally graphic psychosexual thriller Black Swan.
“Graphic” may in fact be the wrong word to use in the case of Valentine. The film contains no explicit sex or gratuitous nudity. It’s the emotional nakedness of the actors that makes the film so unflinchingly powerful. Like Swanberg, Cianfrance allowed his cast to work as close collaborators. In a 13-minute featurette on Anchor Bay’s excellent Blu-Ray edition of the film, Cianfrance refers to Gosling and Williams as uncredited co-writers (as well as executive producers), while admitting that the label of “independent filmmaker” does not apply to him. “I’m a dependent filmmaker,” Cianfrance said, yet it’s precisely the experimental, liberating relationship he develops with his actors that makes their combined work so extraordinary.
After laboring on a project for over a decade, some directors would be utterly uncompromising in pushing their meticulously prepared vision once they finally arrived onset. Yet Cianfrance was willing to toss out his script on a moment’s notice, allowing his actors to spark off one another in ways that simply couldn’t be planned for. The film juxtaposes the early pangs of love with the descent into disillusionment that occurs five years later, yet the director wisely chose to shoot the film in a linear fashion. Production on the first half was preceded by extensive one-on-one meetings between Cianfrance and his leads. Neither of the stars had the opportunity to interact with each other until the first day of shooting, which allowed the camera to capture the spontaneous energy and electric charge of organically evolving chemistry. Many of the film’s most indelible elements were dreamed up by the actors themselves, such as Gosling’s choice of a song for Williams: Penny and Quarter’s haunting rendition of “You and Me.” His performance of the song, “You Always Hurt the Ones You Love,” accompanied by Williams’ playful tap-dancing, makes for one of the most delicate and sublime cinematic moments in recent memory.
In preparation of the film’s later section, the actors spent a month living together in their characters’ house, accompanied by the actress (Faith Wladyka) who plays their daughter in the film. Over the course of this period, the actors began developing their fractured dynamic as a couple, though Gosling and Williams were both initially hesitant to break down the mutual trust and respect they had built for their characters. Cianfrance describes in the feature-length commentary how he would ask the actors to fight before taking their daughter on an outing, while pretending that all was fine between the two of them. He also had the actors record a series of home movies, one of which is included on the disc. Cinematographer Andrij Parekh (Half Nelson) shot the earlier footage on film, resulting in grains that mirror the dream-like haze of hormonal attraction. In contrast, the brutal clarity of the later scenes (shot on digital) deflate the characters’ mystery, illuminating the pores on their once flawless faces.
Valentine may sound like a downbeat dirge, but Cianfrance’s assured command of the craft makes it exhilarating. Jim Helton and Ron Patane’s editing effortlessly navigates through the time jumps without once losing the narrative momentum (or the viewer). Without clichéd psychoanalysis or pat motivations for the relationship’s derailment, the film instead focuses on subtle nuances that provide clues for how the end was always, in a sense, built into the beginning. The final fade-out intentionally lacks a sense of finality, since Cianfrance ultimately allows the audience to decide about what happens to the couple down the line. Perhaps the most resonant truth lying within the broken heart of Valentine is the inherently enduring nature of life’s meaningful connections, even those that have long since died. Every so often, certain memories of a lost love will burst forth with the same power and intensity, much like the sudden, futile flame of a firework.
Available on DVD and Blu-Ray as of May 10, 2011!
Matt Fagerholm is a freelance writer, film enthusiast and critic in Chicago.
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