Fully embracing its title, Blue Valentine opens with a lost dog before moving on to the lost marriage. En route, along life's bumpy road, a dissatisfied woman vies with her contented man, love eroded duels with love sustained, happier moments in the past contend with suffocating hours in the present, and two superb actors etch an unflinching portrait of a young marriage doomed never to grow old.
The portrait is painful to watch because it refuses to do what fiction (including the fiction we all concoct) typically does to fact: create a soap opera and assign blame. Here, everyone is flawed but no one is culpable; here, chaotic drama never makes that reassuring leap into instructive melodrama.
So, if life is not a lesson to be learned, what is it? In this version, the answer is harrowingly simple: It's the passage of time amid a swirl of changing circumstances. To an essential romantic like Dean (Ryan Gosling), that answer is impossible to accept, a pill far too bitter to swallow.
Not that he looks like your stock movie romantic, not with his tattooed arms and perpetual cigarette and fondness for a wake-up beer. Still, this high-school dropout doesn't lack intelligence or sensitivity or a steady job. Dean is a good father to a daughter he adores and a devoted husband whose feelings for his wife are the same as the instant six years ago when his eyes lit up. He loved Cindy at first sight; he loves her still. His is the "ever-fixed" love of the sonnet, that does not "alter when it alteration finds."
Hers isn't. The love that Cindy (Michelle Williams) felt for him was just as real but not as deep. It was a product of circumstance, and circumstances change. The film is structured to measure that change, repeatedly flashing back and forth from the past to the present, from romance's bloom to its current state.
During that interval, Cindy has grown out of her teenage confusion, away from her abusive father, and into a successful career as a nurse. That meaningful work allows her, for the first time, to define herself as something other than a pretty face and a pert body. By contrast, Dean still toils at a menial job that is just a means to the day's blissful end – when he comes home to that pretty face and pert body. For him, they're a large part of who she is and what he loves.
For her, his love once felt comforting and childlike in its purity; now, it seems childish and limited and blind to ambition. Consequently, the scenes in the past, filmed by director Derek Cianfrance in expansive medium shots, drip into the present through a pair of vastly different filters. The couple share the same fond memories – his wooing her with a ukulele, her tap-dancing in delight – but, to Dean, they are a hopeful continuation and, to Cindy, a sad study in contrasts.
These differing perspectives collide dramatically when he invites her on that most desperate of marriage-saving forays – a night's getaway at a motel. As Cianfrance works his camera in claustrophobic close-up, they gather in the tacky "Future Room" (yes, the symbolism creaks a bit) where a reluctant Cindy infuriates Dean not by depriving him of sex but by separating it so mechanically from love. This sequence is electric in its emotional charge and, rare in film, the explicit nudity is crucial – it speaks powerfully to the naked divide between them.
The performances are as raw as the characters. As the figure of constancy, Gosling has the more sympathetic role and takes full advantage, underscoring everything that's likeable about Dean – his loopy humour, his kind heart, his failed but sincere efforts to understand his wife's discontent. Yet Gosling refuses to play the guy as a simple victim; instead, he lets us see how constancy can also be a case of stunted growth, of an inability to explore or evolve.
Of course, it's Cindy who's the force of transformation here, which gives Williams the much harder task of depicting a good woman who does right by herself by doing wrong to a good man. That's quite a challenge, but she rises to it brilliantly, especially in the segments set in the troubled present, where Williams keeps two antithetical emotions in precarious balance – a tender empathy and a steely resolve.
But that inner balance is bound to topple – the heart can't maintain it. In this marriage, as in so many others, it's the internal battle, the struggle with one's own warring emotions, that exacts the greatest toll, and prompts those famously resigned words that leave victory indistinguishable from defeat: "I can't do this. I can't do this any more."
- Directed by Derek Cianfrance
- Written by Derek Cianfrance, Joey Curtis, Cami Delavigne
- Starring Ryan Gosling and Michelle Williams
- Classification: 18A