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Blue Valentine

A relationship falls apart on screen--and so does the movie, a little

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Ryan Gosling and Michelle Williams pay homage to The Jerk in Blue Valentine.

Blue Valentine

Directed by Derek Cianfrance

Opens Jan. 14

Anybody who has endured the glacial disintegration of a relationship knows the following feelings. Cindy (Michelle Williams) is in the shower; her husband Dean (Ryan Gosling) pops in to ask if she wants anything to eat. Eyes closed while washing her hair, she tells him he knows what she likes; he starts to retreat, but then steps into the room, disrobes, and invites himself in with her. There’s a brief second when they look into each other’s eyes that feels like a beautifully candid moment between two lovers and best friends, but it’s fleeting and precarious. Soon, that casual intimacy is intruded upon by his efforts to kiss and touch her, causing her to look away and withdraw. It’s not the rejection of his sexual advance that stings the most, it’s the awareness that they’re completely out of synch. And this scene that started off as a very ordinary couple snapshot involving a dinner question has become a slide-mounted example of a couple’s problems as viewed under a microscope.

It’s also a prime example of what’s so frustrating about Derek Cianfrance’s Blue Valentine, a nearly two-hour portrait of a relationship’s beginning and end. Cianfrance has an uncanny gift for realizing and capturing the unvarnished slivers of everyday life, and in Gosling and Williams he has two performers who possess the subtle intelligence and controlled bravery to realize these two characters as utterly fallible human beings. Cindy and Dean met six years previously when she was dating wannabe alpha-male Bobby (Mike Vogel), living at home with an overbearing father (John Doman), and considering going to medical school. He was a high school dropout living in Brooklyn and working for a moving company when he happened to come across her at the small-town Pennsylvania nursing home where his grandmother lived. In the movie’s present, they’re married and have a roughly 5-year-old daughter named Frankie (Faith Wladyka), Cindy works as a nurse for a local doctor in that same rural Pennsylvania hometown, and Dean paints houses. Cianfrance cuts between a day or so in the life of Cindy and Dean today, a time period during which all their relationship’s problems come to a head, and their head-over-heels courtship six years earlier. The strategy is meant to contrast love at its beginning and end, but all this juxtaposition illuminates is the blunt given that people grow and change over time, and not always at the same pace or in the same directions.

Not that it’s not a sly and at times disarmingly frank strategy, as the only hints of these temporal shifts are visual. Cianfrance and cinematographer Andrij Parekh give the present and their past distinct looks—colors in the courtship past are bright and intense, faded and washed-out in the problematic present—and Gosling and Williams look entirely different. She’s an earthy beauty in the past; he’s a clean-shaven, handsome, and conversationally charming young man. In the present Cindy’s eyes are puffy from lack of sleep and her face beginning to worry-line under stress, while Dean looks straight out of My Name is Earl. He’s not the sort of underachiever who works a job that has him cracking a beer first thing in the morning as Cindy claims; he works the sort of job that permits him to drink.

Gosling’s and Williams’ finely tuned detailing sustains Valentine for as long as it can, even when the movie doesn’t entirely earn their commitment. Surprisingly for a long-gestating project—Cianfrance reports he first wrote the script in 1998 (he shares screenwriting credit with Joey Curtis and Cami Delavigne)—the dialogue moves with an effortless economy and personable clumsiness. Dean is witty but silly when first flirting with Cindy; when they retreat to a novelty theme hotel for a relationship-repairing night with the kid, they verbally needle each other with knowing precision, all too aware of how and where to strike.

This Cassavetes nakedness powers some genuinely magical moments. Dean singing and playing the ukulele while Cindy dances is one of recent cinema’s most pitch-perfect romantic moments, just as a failed sexual encounter in the hotel is an uncomfortable reminder how easily loveless domestic sex can become disgustingly misogynistic. Gosling and Williams know these two people precisely, and their performances are minutely calibrated. Dean and Frankie waking Cindy up as the movie opens isn’t just a slice-of-life scene but an emotional autopsy.

The problem is that while Gosling and Williams have clear ideas who these people are, what makes it to the screen doesn’t always articulate the individual characters’—or their relationship’s—complexity. For all the interpersonal depth Dean and Cindy share with each other, on screen they’re superficial when not in each other’s company. He’s the product of a broken home with soap-opera notions of love; she’s basically a small-town girl living in a lonely world. Cianfrance’s desire to treat a working-class relationship with honesty and respect is such a refreshing intoxicant that it’s easy to overlook that his movie’s central concern is rather immature. At its best, Blue Valentine is a ferociously sincere meditation on why young love doesn’t last; at worst, it’s a self-consciously Bressonian variation on John Cougar Mellencamp’s “Jack and Diane.”

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