It wasn’t always this way. There was a time when his idiosyncrasies were the most appealing things about him; there was a time when she knew how to laugh, how to tell herself that we live in a cruel world but there’s always some kind of a way to make it worth suffering for. Years ago, he wasn’t balding, wasn’t dependent on the tantalizing powers of the bottle, and wasn’t in a sorry state of existential denial; years ago, she was ambitious, an optimistic believer in the idea that she could put her troubled past behind her and start a new life wherein both personal and professional satisfaction would finally stop slipping away from her.
But the days of merriment and possibility are over for Dean (Ryan Gosling) and Cindy (Michelle Williams) — the rapturous bond that once brought them together has effectively disintegrated. They’ve been married for a few years now, and are the mother and father of a little girl (Faith Wladyka). But time has only brought increasing hardship into the relationship — Cindy wants to grow and better herself whereas Dean would prefer to cling to the safeties of his youth and continue denying his emotional immaturities. She wants out; he doesn’t think anything is terribly wrong.
Because 2010’s Blue Valentine, directed by Derek Cianfrance, is a painfully realistic study of the dissolution of a marriage, though, things are hardly going to work out in Dean’s favor. It’s not so much disenchanted by the notion of holy matrimony as much as it is markedly aware that even the slightest disconnect between a romantic pair is certain to cause problems later on. Jumping back and forth between the period during which Dean and Cindy were first starting to get to know one another and the period characterized by its being the last few days of their partnership, the film is a killer brute of a take on a failed relationship, so unforced in its every move that we’re better seen as a fly on a wall impotently witnessing a harshly traumatic break-up.
Since we’re only provided with the introductory snapshots and closing fragments of the focal union, crucial is our deciphering of what came in the middle, how Dean and Cindy, once the kind of couple incapable of keeping their hands off each other, went from being so happy to so godforsakenly miserable. Cianfrance stages their unpleasant last months together with such exceptionally visceral flair that they could have stood alone as the sole basis of the movie. (The moment when Cindy asks for a divorce feels so real that the combination of frustration, sadness, and vulnerability that banded together to make her reach that point of catharsis virtually explodes.)
But seeing Dean and Cindy fall in love makes the knowing of their looming split all the more heartbreaking. How can people who once cared for one another so tenderly suddenly find themselves feeling empty, alone, tired? We’d be skeptical of Cianfrance’s methodologies if we weren’t so positive that maybe this couple wasn’t meant to be. We’re never presented with a pair as perfect a match as Jesse and Céline, as Bogie and Bacall.
We’re instead given a duo of self-doubting young people who like the idea of love too much to truly understand what it is. Perhaps Cindy couldn’t resist Dean’s ticklish sense of humor, his blue-collar masculinity, or his exaggerated ways of trying to woe her. Perhaps Dean couldn’t resist Cindy’s girl-next-door beauty, her interest fueling shyness, or her needing to be saved. Perhaps the sex was too good for either to notice their otherwise superficial connection. When these attributes faded in preference of growing older, nothing much brought them together anymore, and that realization could very well have been the nudger that pushed them in the direction of their unhappiness.
That ambiguity, maddening as it can be, is piquant, if only because the opportunity to decide what really caused Dean and Cindy’s failed jab at marriage thrillingly brings us to the center of the film. Cianfrance’s dedication to dramatic naturalism (much of the dialogue is improvised) pays off, and Gosling and Williams (who prepared for their roles by renting a house together shortly before shooting) create one of the screen’s most riveting couples. Blue Valentine is a wretched experience, but its strong characterizational hold prevents us from breaking out of the intense hypnotic grab that overwhelms