When I first saw Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind way back in 2004 it felt fresh and sincere—Jim Carrey’s struggle to “give up” Clementine’s memory spoke to the emotionally needy nineteen year old inside me, while the sci-fi “mind erasure” aesthetic appealed to my nerdy tendencies. It’s been a long time since 2004, and though the movie no longer means the same to me—maybe because I’ve grown up, maybe because I’ve hardened into a sadder person—I still can’t deny its freshness and originality. The only film that’s come close to creating the same sensation of heartfelt vulnerability since is Derek Cianfrance’s Blue Valentine, a movie that sidesteps Sunshine’s need for sci-fi artifice in favor of simple, well-written dialogue and characters. Blue Valentine doesn’t aspire to elevate the common man’s relationship to the epics of Greek tragedy—is instead a story of polarities. For every kiss there’s a slap, every compromise a betrayal, and every beginning an end. The story doesn’t have a clear start-point or linear narrative, yet despite this, its hodgepodge of scenes craft a genuine love that feels at once familiar and striking.
Dean (Ryan Gosling) and Cindy (Michelle Williams) are a couple who never should have been. They meet outside Cindy’s Grandma’s apartment after Dean moves an old man into the room across from her, and despite Cindy’s relationship with pretty-boy wrestler and college heart-throb Bobby (Mike Vogel), the two fall in love, cradled in one another’s arms after long chases through Manhattan streets and tap dancing sessions in front of shoe stores. After Michelle discovers she’s pregnant with Bobby’s baby, she and Dean head to the abortion clinic, where Cindy abruptly calls off the process midway. During the bus-ride home, Dean decides to settle down with his newfound love and raise Bobby and Cindy’s baby as his own. Love overcomes all and the couple walks off into the sunset, surely to live a life happily ever after.
Flash to today. Dean’s become an alcoholic handyman for hire, Cindy’s grown cold to his touch, and their girl, Frankie, unknowingly sits under the weight of a house about to fall. The honeymoon is over, so to speak, just a scant six years after it began. Begrudgingly and without much expectation, they drop Frankie off at Cindy’s father’s and head to a “love hotel” three hours outside town with the hope of patching up their marriage.
The majority of the film is told both through flashback and from within the “future room” of the love motel. The couple quabble and reconcile, kiss and fall asleep alone on the floor. Their story is formed through juxtaposition of fights and memories of a passion long dead, etching out how simple actions like a hug can act as both an eternal embrace and a goodbye. Blue Valentine isn’t a movie concerned with showing you what the couple does to one another—rather, it gets under your skin, forcing you to feel what they feel, undeniably linking intent, rather than action, with emotion. I’m not entirely sure why this film resonated with me more than Eternal Sunshine. It’s true Sunshine’s sci-fi mechanism was unnecessary—Quentin Tarantino brought non-linearity to the mainstream about a decade before Gondry’s work ever hit the screen, so there was no need for such a device—but it also didn’t hurt the movie. And it’s also true that both Blue Valentine and Eternal Sunshine take cheap swings, favoring the highlights of a relationship—first kisses, long nights in bed, play-fights, and quirky dates—while avoiding the trappings of a linear narrative. But unlike Blue Valentine, Eternal Sunshine wanted to have its cake and eat it too—sought to construct a realistic relationship history through elements of “movie-magic” sci-fi. Cianfrance’s film feels like a restless night in bed spent raking over photo albums, remembering people only recently pushed to the background of our lives—is both endearing and nostalgic, delightful and tragic. You may not walk out with any great philosophical questions answered, but you’ll feel like you’ve remembered someone recently forgotten—someone close to your heart whom you dearly need back—and that’s more than we can ask of any movie.