Love hurts — on the way up, when you’re in the throes of a new romance and the ache is delirious and exciting and filled with anticipation, and on the way down, when the feeling simply isn’t there anymore, when the pain is corrosive and searing, and you just want it to end. Blue Valentine, director Derek Cianfrance’s insightful, heartrending exploration of the beginning and end of a relationship, shows us the rapturous start and bitter, hurtful fizzle of the relationship of a married couple, Dean (Ryan Gosling) and Cindy (Michelle Williams). The middle portion — six years’ worth of living — is left for you to imagine.
Cianfrance, who also wrote the screenplay with Cami Delavigne and Joey Curtis, doesn’t take sides in this portrayal of a crumbled marriage. Alternating without warning between the past and present (you can tell the time lines apart by Gosling’s hair line), the movie opens as the couple’s young daughter (Faith Wladyka) frets about the family dog’s having run away. Immediately, the disconnected way in which Dean and Cindy relate to each other hints at impending doom: He’s oblivious to her dissatisfaction; she tries to pretend everything is all right. Gosling turns Dean into a most curious creature — a tender, loving father who seems to harbor a potential for great violence: You fear what could happen if he were to lose his temper. Williams keys into Cindy’s emotional and physical exhaustion through sheer body language: This is a woman weary of her life but fighting to find a way to remain engaged. She’s not quite ready to walk away, but she’s oh so close.
In hopes of saving their marriage, Dean comes up with the idea of spending a romantic night at a tacky motel. The hail-Mary desperation of the plan doesn’t become clear until halfway through the date, when the couple has already drunk way too much and started to say too much. The mood in the room becomes suffocating, unnerving: You are witnessing the implosion of a marriage, and it’s a sad, discomfiting thing to behold.
In startling contrast, Blue Valentine periodically cuts away to the past, beginning with the moment Dean and Cindy met. For him, the love came at first sight. She needed some courting and time. But not much. On their first date, when Dean serenades her with an Elvis tune, and she dances for him, the movie captures a beautiful thing: The precise moment when two people connect romantically – the moment when two souls bond as one.
Such flashbacks make Dean and Cindy’s current situation all the sadder. He’s still madly in love with her and doesn’t understand what happened. She’s baffled that he can’t recognize her dissatisfaction and unhappiness. The more fervently they argue their cases, the worse the situation becomes. There are no bad guys in Blue Valentine, no possible solutions to an untenable standoff. Dean and Cindy share the fault for allowing their flame to flicker out, then lashing out with anger and blame. With the exception of one brief, clunky scene (an unnecessary flashback in which we meet Cindy’s boorish dad), there isn’t a moment in the entire film that doesn’t feel genuine — that doesn’t show compassion and empathy for a devoted husband and father who is too easily contented and for a wife and mother who finally decides her disillusionment is too heavy to bear.
Cast: Ryan Gosling, Michelle Williams, Faith Wladyka, John Doman, Mike Vogel.
Director: Derek Cianfrance.
Screenwriters: Derek Cianfrance, Cami Delavigne, Joey Curtis.
Producers: Lynette Howell, Alex Orlovsky, Jamie Patricof.
A Weinstein Co. release. Running time: 112 minutes. Vulgar language, nudity, explicit sex, adult themes. Opens Friday March 4 in Miami-Dade: Coral Gables Art Cinema.