CANNES, France — An intimate, gorgeous and wrenching portrait of a working-class marriage in what may be a state of terminal decay, “Blue Valentine” is not only the breakthrough American film at Cannes this year, but one of the best films here, period. It stars two hot young indie-oriented actors in Ryan Gosling and Michelle Williams, who are extraordinary as Dean and Cindy, a couple who live in rural eastern Pennsylvania with their 5-year-old daughter. “Blue Valentine” shines a spotlight on aspects of American life rarely seen in the movies, and it resulted from a lengthy and intensive period of preparation and discovery.
Director Derek Cianfrance has been working on the film on and off for 12 years, in between collecting unemployment, working odd jobs and making documentaries. Williams has been on board for six years and Gosling for four. To prepare for the roles, Cianfrance made the actors live together for several weeks in the movie couple’s prefab home, buying groceries at the supermarket, baking a birthday cake for Frankie (Faith Wladyka), their fictional daughter, putting up a Christmas tree and wrapping presents. Gosling worked shifts for a moving company, one of Dean’s jobs in the film. Williams gained a fair bit of weight to play her character, a nurse of about 30 in the movie’s present tense.
Sometimes this kind of intense, Method-based character construction — although hardly anyone goes into it this hard or this deep — can seem like phony-baloney actorly pretense. But in “Blue Valentine” the results are on the screen, in compassionate, nuanced performances that are utterly free of condescension or sentimentality. As we move back and forth between Dean and Cindy at the beginning of their relationship, six years earlier, and during the terrible two days that may end it, they never seem like heroes or villains. They are both sympathetic and both at fault, a pair of normal, damaged people who’ve been living together with not enough money and too many broken dreams and a pile of unanswered questions.
Cianfrance and cinematographer Andrij Parekh capture the domestic details of Dean and Cindy’s life — and their ill-fated excursion to the “Future Room,” at a couples-oriented theme motel — in gorgeous, color-saturated close-ups that make the ordinary seem remarkable. In that light, it’s not surprising that “Blue Valentine” has become one of the few movies to premiere at Sundance and then blow up huge at Cannes. (The last example that comes to mind is “An Inconvenient Truth.”) Although the film couldn’t possibly be more American in subject, setting and spirit, it has an intense, almost reverential aesthetic vision that recalls European art-house cinema.
A few days ago, Gosling and Williams greeted a small group of journalists for interviews at the rooftop lounge of their beachfront hotel. That sounds a little more glamorous than it was; the day was blustery and gray, so we huddled around a table in an indoor pavilion. Gosling, 29, is probably best known for his Oscar-nominated leading role in “Half Nelson.” Williams, who is also 29, got her Academy nomination for “Brokeback Mountain” and has also appeared in films ranging from Scorsese’s “Shutter Island” to Charlie Kaufman’s “Synecdoche, New York” to Kelly Reichardt’s ultra-indie “Wendy and Lucy.” She is also known, of course, as the former fiancée of the late Heath Ledger, and the mother of his daughter.
As to the question hotly debated in various languages here this week — are Williams and Gosling a couple, or do they just play one on-screen? — I can’t offer much insight. (Official denials have flowed from P.R. offices over the last few days.) They were warm and relaxed with each other, joking around and finishing each other’s sentences. But then, they’ve been working on the same job site for some time.
Do you guys really pay attention to reviews? At Sundance, this movie got very mixed reviews — some good, some really bad. All of a sudden you get here and it’s a huge sensation.
Ryan Gosling: I mean, obviously good reviews can help. I’ve been a part of movies like “Half Nelson” where the critics liked it and then it got seen. You guys have a lot of power, and if you choose to champion something, people will listen. I’ve been on the receiving end of that in a good way and I’ve been on the receiving end of that in a negative way. You just take the hits when they come.
With this film, we knew it wasn’t something that was test-screened to be a precise, universal experience. It’s left open for your interpretation, and any time you do that you’re leaving it open for people to not like it. When we were in Sundance, we were reading bad reviews, and Derek was more excited about the bad ones than the good ones. He wanted to make a film that polarized people.
Both of you stuck with this project a long time. You could easily have moved on and forgotten about it.
R.G.: Twelve years for Derek, and I’ve been saying six years for you, is that true?
Michelle Williams: Yeah. [Counting to self.] Six or seven.
R.G.: For me, it’s four. Which I thought was a lot. We’ve had a lot of time to think about it and talk about it.
M.W.: I had to find a new way into it, when we finally came back to it. What I responded to most strongly when I was 22 or 23 wasn’t what I responded to later. I had to find something else to love, because I’d already mined that. I didn’t get to make the movie then, so I had to exercise that specific desire in another way. When I reapproached it at 28, I had to find a new way to fall in love with it.
What aspect of the movie did you like most at first?
M.W.: It was actually the future, meaning the time when the couple’s on the outs. That section compelled me the most. That really got my attention. When I came back to it, I just had to find a deeper sense. I couldn’t approach it with the same point of view, the same idea of how to play it. I had to find a new way to play that part, because I had already played it so much in my head. It had gotten boring. All the things that had compelled me about it, all the questions I had about it, I felt like I understood them. They had lost their mystery. So I had to find a new mystery.
Did the script change a lot during all those years of development?
M.W. Yeah. I mean, it changed while we were shooting. [To Gosling.] I was remembering that day that we showed up in Honesdale [Pa.], with nothing planned. It was crazy! We had no idea what we were going to do. We had 12 hours, an entire night, to shoot a walk-and-talk down a main street, with no plan.
R.G. A lot happened that didn’t make it into the movie. One of the scenes that made it is that scene when we play the ukulele and sing and dance. Those things, you can’t plan them. To Derek’s credit, he creates an environment for these things to happen. Weren’t we also throwing up at one point?
M.W.: That didn’t make it! Sticking fingers in each other’s mouths.
R.G.: Gagging each other and throwing up, making out in the rain. There was a lot of stuff. It’s also to Derek’s credit that one reason it lasted so long is his ability to change his mind. A lot of directors have one specific vision, and ultimately Derek had a vision for the film that was grander than the details. It was about the spirit of it, and he was able to change his mind about the details. It was supposed to be set in L.A., it was supposed to be by the ocean, it was supposed to be a million different ways. It’s a wildly different movie, and yet it’s the same. It’s the same scenes, with different lines and different locations.
Do you prefer to work by improvisation that way, rather than with a strict script?
R.G.: I think it depends on who you’re working with. There’s nothing worse than watching actors who are just improv-ing and it’s not going anywhere. We spent so long preparing — six years of thinking about your character, and the same with myself for four — and then when you get into any situation, you’re ready. That’s why it worked. I don’t think it works all the time.
How well did you know each other before you made the film?
R.G.: Derek designed it so that when we were getting to know each other in the beginning, we were getting to know each other in the film. Michelle and I really didn’t know each other well, and he would just throw us into this wildly intimate situation. And then, in the present, when they’re having problems, we spent two weeks, during the days …
M.W.: It was a month. Remember? There was always a planned hiatus for the transition from young to older, and how we were going to do that physically. After being there for a week, Derek decided to stretch it out. I decided I wanted to gain weight and Derek just made the space. We got to be in that house for about a month.
R.G.: Yeah, we did groceries, he put us on a budget. All the things that make couples want to wring each other’s necks. He made sure that we did that.
Ryan, you actually worked some shifts as a mover to prepare for this film?
R.G.: Yeah, exactly. I joined this moving crew and we moved the cinematographer out of his apartment. He was having a baby, and we moved him from the Lower East Side to a place in Brooklyn. He made them double-stack the boxes so it was super-heavy.
It was kind of beautiful, actually. That’s Andrij Parekh, who’s such a talented cinematographer. He co-directed that film “Cold Souls,” he shot “Half Nelson” and “Sugar.” He’s the best. When he moved to New York to be a cinematographer, he moved into that apartment. When he moved out, he was actually making a film of the move. It was a nice completion of the circle.
Were you good at being a mover? Is that your future?
It’s hard to tell, because that was an unfair situation. He double-stacked those boxes and put extra weight in them.
M.W.: Didn’t they say they’d give you a job?
R.G.: They did say they’d give me a job. I mean, we really did the job, and I hung in there. But in reality they would go and do two more jobs after the one that we did. So I’m not sure I was really put to the test.
Have you ever done this kind of intensive preparation for a role before?
R.G.: I thought I had, but I guess I hadn’t. It was total immersion, which I thought I was doing before. This was complete immersion for the entire period of the shoot. We baked a birthday cake, we wrapped presents, we had a birthday party.
M.W.: We had to have fights. We had to spend the whole day fighting and then take our daughter to an amusement park and pretend everything was OK.
R.G.: Michelle just never tired of it! She can just fight and fight.
In most movies about a breakup there’s an inciting incident that explains why it happens: Somebody hits somebody, or somebody cheats. But this movie has nothing like that. It’s more like it’s happening the whole time, in every moment that we see. It’s extraordinary, and much closer to real life, I think.
R.G.: Right. I think Derek didn’t want it to be something that you can pin on one event. For him it was a study of: Where does love go? It’s there and suddenly it’s not, and each person has their own idea of what happened. You can’t really pinpoint it as one specific event. It’s all of these subtleties that you can’t really talk about, and you have to watch and try to understand. He’s asking the audience more than he’s telling them. He’s asking them: Here are these situations, what do you think is going wrong? What’s the communication problem?
M.W.: And then it’s like a poison. Like, it infiltrates everything. The smallest exchange you just can’t get right. You don’t know why, and you didn’t set out to make it that way, but all the small things are wrong.
R.G.: You think everything means something else. You can’t take anything at face value. It’s all loaded.
You remarked earlier that this movie might not be a universal experience. But anybody who’s ever been in a relationship has had those moments.
R.G.: Well, there was one critic who described this film as “when emo-fascists attack.” Some people don’t recognize it as their experience of love. They feel like it’s too dramatic, they find it unrealistic. Personally, I feel like it represents as many of the shades of love as I’ve seen in my 29 years. Some people think it’s totally foreign to them. I want their relationships!
Maybe people should know that this film isn’t all misery. A lot of the story, after all, is about how they Dean and Cindy fell in love in the first place. Do you think it’s ultimately depressing or hopeful?
M.W.: I think it exists on both planes at the same time. Like it does in your mind, when you’re in a relationship. We always sort of thought, maybe the future in the movie is just a dream. Maybe it’s just a bad dream, maybe it’s a premonition or a warning sign.
R.G.: I think there’s tons of hope in the film. There’s lots of positivity, and lots of scenes of people being in love and wallowing in that. I feel like it has balance.
M.W.: I also feel like it’s two bad days. I almost forget that until I see the movie again. It was a long, arduous month of shooting, but what we’re showing is two really bad days in a marriage. Somebody didn’t get enough sleep and somebody drank too much. It’s two days! How many days like that are there in the scope of a long-term marriage?
Tell us about shooting in that horrible motel room, the one that Ryan’s character describes as a “robot’s vagina.”
M.W.: Derek wanted us to shoot us walking into that place for the first time for real, so we did that take and then he called “cut.” And then we had a four-hour meeting about how we couldn’t shoot in there! [Laughter.] “You gotta get us out of here! This is never going to work!”
R.G.: I almost passed out. There was no real light or air, we were on the sixth floor of this hotel in King of Prussia, Pa., surrounded by all these theme rooms. We were right next to the Leather and Lace Room, which was constantly booked the whole time we were shooting. Different couples every night!
Your main co-star is Faith Wladyka, who plays your daughter. She was 5 years old when you shot the film, and she’s on-screen a lot. How difficult is it to work with a little kid?
R.G.: Well, Faith is a really special kid. Every minute she’s on the screen is perfect. I knew that every time we’d do a scene together she’d do something interesting: She’d be singing or dancing, telling a story, doing something funny. There’s never a bad “kid-line” delivery, because she’s never really saying lines. She and I went fishing, we built a doghouse together. We did a lot of things, so by the time we were shooting, it didn’t seem difficult.
Do you guys have an idea about what happens to Dean and Cindy after the movie ends? How does their story continue?
M.W.: Therapy! [Laughter.] Except I’d never get you in that room. No way.