Ingmar Bergman's superb 1974 release Scenes from a Marriage went beyond allowing the viewer to feel like a fly on the wall: It made the viewer feel like a fly pinned to the wall, privy to everything going on in the room but unable to flee from the scene when things got nasty. A similar sense of uneasy omniscience informs Blue Valentine, a raw look at the ugly disintegration of that hallowed union between a man and a woman.
Moving his story around in nonlinear fashion, writer-director Derek Cianfrance (sharing script duties with Cami Delavigne and Joey Curtis) starts out by showing Dean (Ryan Gosling) and Cindy (Michelle Williams) toward the end of their unhappy time together. Thereafter, he flashes back to the days when they were eager young kids in loopy love -- Dean was the more spontaneous and romantic of the pair, Cindy the more sensible and intelligent.
Jumping back and forth, Cianfrance nails with absolute clarity the opening and closing acts of this doomed romance, but he doesn't always satisfactorily connect the narrative from A to Z, leaving important questions unanswered. Nevertheless, this punishing drama is worth a look thanks to the excellent work by the leads as well as Cianfrance's ability to employ the appropriate mood to help capture his own prickly scenes from a marriage.
One of the best films of 2010, Rabbit Hole features a devastating performance by Nicole Kidman that would deserve every Best Actress prize on tap were it not for the presence of Black Swan's Natalie Portman on the awards scene. Kidman is all coiled tension and seething anger as Becca, who, along with her husband Howie (Aaron Eckhart, also top-grade), is still attempting to cope with the accidental death of their young son eight months earlier.
The loss has caused some distance between the couple, and both handle the tragedy in different ways. Howie, more sentimental than his spouse, wants to again experience closeness with Becca and, after repeated rejections, toys with the idea of an affair with a grieving parent (Sandra Oh) he meets through a support group. Becca, lashing out in anger at everyone around her (including her dithering mom, nicely played by the great Dianne Wiest), finds some measure of comfort in striking up a friendship with the blameless teenager (a fine debut by Miles Teller) who was driving the car that struck her son.
In tackling David Lindsay-Abaire's play (with a script penned by the playwright himself), director John Cameron Mitchell -- incidentally, going 3-for-3 on my year-end 10 Best lists, following Hedwig and the Angry Inch and Shortbus -- makes sure to never betray the material with maudlin melodrama or cheap theatrics. By giving us characters who are sympathetic yet also ofttimes infuriating, the film earns every audience emotion the hard way, not through pandering but by never flinching from its uncomfortable truths. For viewers willing to brave a beautiful bummer, Rabbit Hole proves to be a wonder.