Dean (Ryan Gosling) and Cindy (Michelle Williams) are a working-class married couple with a very young daughter named Frankie (Faith Wladyka). The marriage is falling apart. Dean is a house painter, who drinks too much. Cindy works in pre-natal care, and is tired of being the responsible one in the family. The two of them argue constantly, and in the course of a bad weekend find themselves coming inevitably to the end of their relationship. The story is intercut with the relationship's beginning, the whirlwind romance that brought Dean and Cindy together, back when he was working as a mover, and she was still in college with a different boyfriend, Bobby (Mike Vogel).
Written and directed by Derek Cianfrance, "Blue Valentine" is one of the more intense dramas of last year. This is due in large part to the performances of the two leads, especially Michelle Williams. Though Gosling and Williams share the screen and the narrative about equally, she is the more prominent and active of the pair in the breakup segments, where her misery is palpable practically from the first moment we see her. There are few actresses who can summon such frustration and mental weariness as Williams, while hardly raising her voice. When civilities strain and the situation finally does erupt, the depths of her anguish are painful to witness. Physically, she changes less than Gosling between the two versions of her character, but the impact of the marriage on her emotional state is far more dramatic.
Gosling is no slouch either. Dean is the more complacent of the pair, but also more invested in the relationship than his wife. Gosling's best scenes are during the romance, where Dean woos Cindy with boyish charm, and conveys the touching extent of his affection and attachment to her. During the breakup, his performance becomes showier, playing up Dean's sorry state as a serial inebriate with a tendency to ramble. It's only in rare moments that his desperation to hold the family together fully comes through, but often enough to gain our sympathies. It would initially seem easy to place all the blame on Dean, the less responsible and successful one, but Cindy is the decision maker in both stories, and perhaps the one who should have known better from the start.
"Blue Valentine" is a small, low-budget film, and Cianfrance's directing style is distinctly indie. The frame wobbles, the lighting is often murky, and dialogue can be nearly inaudible. However, the editing is precise, and he certainly knows what to do with the camera. One shot in particular that stuck with me was the moment Dean first spies Cindy across the hallway of a nursing facility, that teases breaking the fourth wall. Cianfrance achieves a wonderful intimacy with the actors, catching small reactions in close ups and telling body language in wide shots. None of the scenes feel staged, and there's a refreshing lack of filters on the film's reality. Cindy and Dean have sex, in mostly innocuous, non-explicit scenes that nonetheless caused a lot of ruckus with the MPAA for including a brief depiction of cunnilingus. It's a moment of private, tender happiness, so utterly devoid of prurience that you have to wonder how the hell the MPAA could find it remotely dangerous or damaging to anyone.
The way the film is intercut between the end and the beginning of the relationship makes the story especially poignant, mirroring a joyful sexual encounter with a failed one, and one incidence of jealous violence with another in different circumstances. The newborn romance plays out like so many film romances do, with the couple reaching an emotional crescendo in the final reel that seems to signal they'll surely live happily ever after. But coupled with the certainty of their traumatic separation, even the happiest moments suddenly seem terribly ephemeral and fleeting. One tense scene involves Dean meeting Cindy's parents and discussing his background, revealing several troubling truths about himself for the first time. The audience already knows that though these problems seem so trivial at first, they will eventually come to define the relationship.
There's an irresistible urge to search for the portents of future unhappiness in Cindy and Dean's early days together, to try and puzzle out how two people who seem so incompatible in the present could have connected in the past. Some potential answers do emerge for those who are looking for them. But perhaps, this is simply a cautionary tale that warns that love, no matter how strong, can evaporate as quickly as it arrives. It's a sad story, yes, but an honest one that examines difficult material without flinching.