The final shot of a film can be an interesting starting point for a thematic discussion of that film. Being the final lingering image a movie communicates to its audience, it ideally has to connect with the core themes of the movie. Take, for example, my OneShot from The Godfather, where the shutting out of Kay Adams via the closing of the door signifies the larger theme of Michael Corleone’s dissolving relationship with the honest and regular world.
But the last image before the credits roll isn’t always the final image of a movie. And in this particular instance, it’s the images that appear after the credits start to roll which are my favorite images of the whole movie.
So this blog will end up describing the credit sequence of Blue Valentine (2010), but lets backtrack a bit and explore the style and themes of the movie itself.
Blue Valentine is both sweetly romantic and harrowingly destructive in its portrayal of the falling in- and out-of-love of a young couple. The basic concept is pretty simple and effective. We switch back and forth in time between scenes in which Dean (Ryan Gosling) and Cindy (Michelle Williams) fall in love and scenes several years later, when their marriage breaks down.
And its a predictably wonderful and tough watch, as we switch back and forth between the warm, gentle vibe of falling in love, and the suffocating destruction of communication, intimacy and honesty.
Blue Valentine is first and foremost build around the mesmerizing performances of its two lead actors, Ryan Gosling and Michelle Williams. And the direction of Derek Cianfrance provides them with the proper guidance in their performance. But from the get-go it’s very clear that the cinematography also plays an extremely big part in communicating not just the performances, but also the main themes of the film.
Cianfrance has said that he and cinematographer Andrij Parekh deliberately used different methods of filming for the different timeframes. 16mm film was used for the falling-in-love parts and digital RED cameras were used for the falling-out-of-love parts. It’s a clever way of using the various film-technologies and building upon their individual strengths.
16mm film invites you to move, play and improvise because of the small and portable size of the camera. And film naturally has this warm and organic feel to it. Things feel more alive and inviting. And Blue Valentine uses these strengths in abundance during the happy scenes. Cianfrance and Parekh create this documentary style that feels very free-flowing and easy going. They also favor wider lenses to create compositions where more often than not Dean and Cindy share the same space within the frame.
In contrast, the later scenes, filmed with digital cameras, are colder, sharper, less flattering. Which are more or less the characteristics of modern digital cameras; being ultra-sharp and clear, full of definition. And to add to this effect, Cianfrance and Parekh decided to use longer tele-lenses to create much tighter compositions in which depth is compressed and often only one character can be fit. Dean and Cindy are therefore often separated from each other in the image, and because of the narrower depth of field of the longer lenses, they’re also separated more from their environment. This creates most of the claustrophobic feeling that permeates the later scenes.
What works so well in Blue Valentine is that Cianfrance constantly cuts between these two time periods. Especially because of how tough and dreary the latter day scenes are, its good that we jump back occasionally to happier times. It makes the movie more easily watchable, and it also makes sure that the happier moments for Dean and Cindy are not gone from our memories at the end.
We’re constantly reminded of how pure and innocent their love can feel, just as much as we’re constantly reminded of how poisonous and destructive their relationship turns out to be.
This juggling act of keeping us invested in both timeframes eventually helps us to get into the proper state of mind for the effect of the final scenes to effectively come through. When Cindy definitively decides to divorce Dean after a painful conversation in her kitchen, we’re left with the shot of Dean walking away from her, defeated and alone. Their daughter briefly chases him, but he sends her back and walks on. As his silhouette slowly fades into the background, around him we see people lighting off fireworks, celebrating the 4th of July. The sounds of the howling fireworks seem to melt together with the cries of Dean’s daughter, and we’re left with the final image of defeat as the relationship fully breaks down.
Then, just as we’ve sort of given up and the image fades to black, Cianfrance delivers a final sort of pay-off to the audience as he shows us images of exploding fireworks, and in those explosions he frames images of the young Dean and Cindy, still in love, embracing and loving each other. It turns into an animated collage of astonishing beauty, in which we’re reminded of the beauty between the two characters.
And yet, like the fireworks that provide the illumination, the images are constantly fleeting, almost impossible to linger our gaze on. They flash in front of us and then fade out. It’s such a visually overwhelming metaphor for the fleeting beauty of Dean and Cindy’s romance. How they (in the words of Jack Kerouac) ‘Burn, burn, burn, like fabulous roman candles exploding like spiders across the stars….’.
The shot is at once our impossible happy end and it is an emotional encapsulation of the whole movie. Derek Cianfrance succeeded in bookending his movie with the perfect bittersweet image of love which cannot last.