Blue Valentine Directed by Derek Cianfrance Alamar Directed by Pedro González-Rubio Films about unraveling families

The Best Part of Breaking Up: Derek Cianfrance’s art house portrait of a dying marriage is painful and exquisite.

There’s a scene in Blue Valentine that just about pinpoints the moment a young couple falls in love. They’re hanging around outside, he with a ukulele, she occasionally shuffling her feet. He then challenges her to tap-dance to a song he’ll play. That song is “You Always Hurt the One You Love.” He sings it goofily; she dances sweetly.

It’s excruciating.

In any other film—or even at the beginning of this one—the scene would be lovely. But writer-director Derek Cianfrance crafted his feature debut (500) Days of Summer-style, so we know that Cindy (Michelle Williams) and Dean (Ryan Gosling) are doomed. With the story continually (but seamlessly) hopping between past and present, we find out that they’re currently married with a daughter. Their dog was just killed because she left the fence open. And that’s merely one more source of tension in a household now filled with it—tension, and bitterness, and resentment, all byproducts of a life that didn’t turn out quite how they expected, wounds that it’s increasingly clear no Band-Aid can cover.

But they try. Though, as often happens with faded love, one tries a lot harder than the other. In this case it’s Dean, an arguable man-child who thinks it’s great that his contractor-painter job allows him to crack a beer at 8 a.m. He sees nothing wrong with wanting no more out of his life than being a good husband and dad. Cindy, however, is ambitious. Originally hoping to become a doctor, she settled for nursing after she had the baby. She’s trying to move up at work and can’t understand Dean’s contentment with being a laborer when he has real talents. Cindy tries to keep the peace—she gets flustered, for instance, when she mentions running into an old boyfriend and Dean freaks—but more often looks at Dean with cold eyes and an obvious lack of respect. Their union is a time bomb.

Blue Valentine is a quiet film that’s hypnotic in its way-too-relatable portrait of heartbreak. Williams and Gosling are wrenching, boasting a beautiful chemistry when Cindy and Dean are falling in love and realistic desperation when they’re falling out. Each have stellar moments on both sides: Williams gives an unforgettable look of tender shock when Dean tells Cindy he wants her to have the baby, while Gosling displays a rakish charm that answers why Cindy would fall for a high-school dropout in the first place. And when their relationship is disintegrating, Cindy’s tears after a failed seduction will rip your heart out, but not as much as a late scene in which she tells Dean she’s had enough. (“Tell me how I should be!” he pleads. “I’ll do it!”) Watching them gasp for their lost love is both painful and exquisite, a fitting experience considering their relationship has been the same.

Alamar Directed by Pedro González-Rubio

The couple in Alamar is much more Zen about its breakup. The man, Jorge (Jorge Machado), admits to having felt “lost” after he split from Roberta (Roberta Palombini). But both realized not only that their feelings had changed, but that their preferred ways of life were irreconcilable: Jorge, a Mexican, loved a simple existence “in the jungle,” spending his time on the beach and the sea. Roberta, meanwhile, is Italian, and needs an urban environment.

She doesn’t regret their union, however, because she believes they were fated to meet and have their son, 5-year-old Natan (Natan Machado Palombini), “this specific boy with a specific story.” Roberta intends to move back to Italy with Natan, but before they leave, Jorge wants to take Natan on a trip to show him his Mayan roots.

You’ll notice that the boy’s real name is a combination of the couple’s. The Machado-Palombinis are indeed a family and Alamar (“to the sea”) a quasi-documentary. (The film’s director, Pedro González-Rubio, is also credited as a screenwriter.) Like the recent Somewhere, the focus of the film is the relationship between father and child, and there’s not so much a story to be told as experiences to be witnessed.

Jorge takes Natan over choppy seas to the Chinchorro reef, where they spend most of their time on the water with the boy’s grandfather (Nestór Marín). They fish, they cook, they wrestle, they lie around. At nearly every step, Natan learns something: We see him snorkeling, very hesitantly, for the first time. He watches his father scale fish and helps him and granddad remove shells. He’s taught to be gentle with birds (a cattle egret makes a lovely cameo) and make tortillas. Throughout, Natan’s eyes are ours, and the world we see—clear waters, lush vegetation, a high sun whose warmth we can practically feel—is a bit magical.

Although the 73-minute film is aimless, it’s lulling in its intimate and quiet portrait of this family’s day-to-day activities. González-Rubio keeps the camera close, tight on the characters’ faces or feet or hands as they go about their physical and relaxing journey. With soothing waves almost always filling the background, Alamar is the opposite of stimulating storytelling: It’s a pseudo-vacation.

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