POSTED ON FEBRUARY 2, 2011:
Blue Valentine and The Illusionist offer unique forms of heartbreak
An opportunity to see one of the best female lead performances of 2010 is in town, though you probably wouldn't know it. I didn't even know it. You'd think a film riding on the news of an Academy Award nomination and the publicity gold of an MPAA controversy would have a little more visibility.
I don't think I've seen a single television ad for Blue Valentine. And that's too bad because, aside from boasting two amazing performances from Michelle Williams and Ryan Gosling, Blue Valentine is also one of the best films of 2010.
Told in a non-liner timeline, Blue Valentine captures, with sometimes documentary-like realism, the idyllic beginnings and precipitous fall of the marriage of an East coast couple, Dean (Gosling) and Cindy (Williams). In the beginning, Cindy is living in Pennsylvania with her unhappily married parents, her demanding and curmudgeonly father, Jerry (John Dorman), being the source of his wife and daughter's discontent. Enrolled in premed studies, and dating a horny, jock douchebag named Bobby Ontario (Mike Vogel), Cindy spends time with her grandmother in a nursing home where she meets Dean, a charming, handsome and thoughtful New Yorker whose job as a mover compelled him to visit the elderly man he helped move into the home. On a subsequent visit, a few well-placed questions to Cindy's gammy put the two together and the ukulele-toting Dean's blitzkrieg of charm quickly captures Cindy's heart.
When Cindy learns she's pregnant, Dean steps up and marries her.
But a few years later, the giddy optimism of newborn love has worn away. Cindy has gone on to become a nurse, while Dean works as a housepainter, content to be a good father because he loves their daughter, Frankie (Faith Wladkya) but also because that provides him with an excuse to remain a kid himself. He hasn't grown. Cindy, laboring under the weight of taking care of two kids, and suffering the pangs of what might have been, doesn't quite realize that that's she's fallen out of love with her husband. Sensing that something is amiss, Dean books a room at a sleazy erotic hotel in an ill-conceived attempt to reignite the spark they once had, setting in motion a night that changes them forever.
Written by Derek Cianfrance, Cami Delavigne and Joey Curtis (and directed by Cianfrance, his second feature since 1998's Brother Tied) it is the strength of Blue Valentine's script and the assuredness of its direction that provide such a tight canvas for Gosling and Williams to shine on. Dean and Cindy's arcs are both genuine and heartbreaking in their raw naturalism and the script imbues them with plenty of details, which, due to the narrative structure, reveal themselves with exponential dramatic weight that packs a powerful emotional punch. From the beginning, there are things about Dean that are clues to his destructive, if unintentional, selfishness; flaws that the story's uncompromising maturity brings to bear with devastating consequences. Sculpted into a stirring whole by Cianfrance's confident direction and his fine visual sense, Blue Valentine is as charming, sad and engaging as the stellar performances delivered by its two leads.
Michelle Williams is simply flawless here and though the conventional wisdom says Natalie Portman will be claiming the golden statue this year -- which would be deserved -- it could easily be Williams' for the taking based on this performance. It's controlled and detailed but utterly transparent. She goes from exuding teenaged sexiness to bleeding adult desperation and because she gives us enough with the subtlest of gestures and inflections, she illuminates the clear path Cindy took from happiness to corrosive despondence.
Gosling is equally adept at breathing life into Dean, adding shades and depth to a character that is equally charming and misguided in his flaws. His good intentions can't overcome his arrested development, but his inherent drive to do the right thing leaves you pulling for him in the same way Cindy must be, deep down, despite the accumulating emotional scar tissue. Love doesn't die all at once and Dean's obliviousness to the many superficial wounds he's inflicted to his marriage only adds to the gravity and realism of their twilight. Gosling delivers here and his absence from this year's nominations is baffling.
John Dorman (one of those "that guy" character actors you see in everything from NYPD Blue to Starship Troopers) delivers fine supporting work as Cindy's father, from his cantankerous beginnings to the mellow resignation of grand-fatherhood. The guy has a face made of granite and Gene Hackman.
It's touchingly genuine, raw, sometimes sexy and sometimes mournful and by the end you feel more like you've seen a work of non-fiction than an expertly written and performed work of feature filmmaking; a testament to the depth of talent involved. Blue Valentine is dramatic cinema at its finest.
It's been seven years since French animation director Sylvain Chomet's quirky and charming feature debut The Triplets of Belleville landed on American shores and delighted with its farcical tale of grandmother who embarks on an adventure with a goofy dog and a trio of geriatric singers to rescue her kidnapped grandson--one brought to life with Chomet's uniquely designed characters and hand-drawn animation style. A product of his vision, Belleville portended good things to come from Chomet.
With The Illusionist, Chomet switches gears from silly to whimsical, apparently not without critical backlash though not due to his branching out, but instead because of the revered material, which he chose to adapt. Based on an unproduced script by French film legend Jacques Tati, one that was meant as a conciliatory olive branch to his estranged daughter, Chomet has taken some heat for watering down, and perhaps purposefully misinterpreting, Tati's intent. As someone who hasn't read the script and knows not enough of Tati to say whether or not Chomet adapts the script with the same skill Tati might have, all I can really do is take The Illusionist for what it is.
Set in the 1950's, The Illusionist tells the story of a nameless French magician (voiced by Jean-Claude Donda) who, after an uninspired performance at a Paris theater, receives his pink slip. Nearly vagabond, he takes a trip across the channel to England where he scrapes together what meager gigs he can but garners little interest in the onset of the rise of rock and roll. With the prestige of his venues waning -- he gets upstaged by a drunk Scotsman at a wedding reception -- he travels further north to a small Scottish fishing village where he meets a young girl named Alice (Eilidh Rankin) toiling away at a seaside inn.
His tricks go over better in the sticks -- he's actually deft despite an innate clumsiness -- so much so that Alice becomes convinced that he is a real magician, that he can actually make pennies appear or double the mass of her overworked, undersized sponge which she uses to gruelingly clean the floors of the inn. Rapt by the far older man, she stows away with him when he leaves for lower England.
Alice suggests that the magician look for work in Edinburgh instead of returning to London and the two take residence in a hotel that caters to antiquated stage acts (his neighbors are a suicidal clown and a mad ventriloquist). The magician has been replacing Alice's serf wardrobe with new shoes and dresses, and his desire to please Alice soon has him looking for any kind of work, regardless of his experience, in order to make the money to shower Alice in the niceties of life. The skilled but lethargically motivated magician finds that keeping a girl happy is a lot of work.
Directed by Chomet, who adapted the script by Tati, The Illusionist is deliberately paced, in part because the story is told largely on a visual level. Chomet eschews most dialogue, and what dialogue there is used almost as a form of sound design, an indistinct mish-mash of French, Gaelic and English that gives you an idea of what it's getting across. As such, most of the narrative beats are derived from the animation of the characters and their actions. One scene, that finds Alice yearning to eat at a gourmet restaurant, lets you know it's out of the magician's price range by the worried reading of his ledger, and a stuffy couples mistaking him for the doorman. His dejected acquiescence to open the door for them anyway communicates his financial straits more memorably than exposition would.
The Illusionist is gorgeously animated, a pure joy to look at not just in terms of character design but also the sheer artistic skill which renders scenic landscapes and the architecture of Edinburgh in all their beautifully hand-drawn glory. There is only the barest reliance on CG, and the level of detail packed into every corner of the frame is a feast for the eyes. They don't make animated films like this enough anymore and 80 minutes of having that itch scratched only highlighted the pixel-generated, anthropomorphized sameness of even the best the era of CG animation has had to offer.
But the whimsical lightness of The Illusionist is also its biggest flaw, no matter how pretty a package it's wrapped up in. As an allegory for an absentee father's regret it is, at best, nebulously defined because its reliance on conveying its narrative visually leaves a lot open to interpretation -- I was mostly unsure if the magician was acting as a father figure or if he was just a perverted old French guy -- while the gossamer narrative is made even more weightless by Chomet's comfortingly fairy tale aesthetic, one that isn't as relentlessly entertaining as Belleville. That would be fine if The Illusionist achieved the poignancy it was aiming for, but only brushes against.
Lovely but inconsequential. Maybe that's what the Tati evangelists were bitching about.
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