In Blue Valentine we witness both the birth and decay of a relationship. One half of the film is buoyed by the burgeoning passion of two young lovers, the other sags under the weight of a marriage that has gone stale. The film's director Derek Cianfrance, who spent over a decade trying to bring this story to the screen, cuts back and forth across the six-year time span his movie covers, creating a compelling dialogue between the past and the present. We see how the characters have changed in that period, both physically and (more powerfully) on an emotional level. Showing us both the initial joy and ultimate despair of this couple's relationship gives Blue Valentine a vivid sense of the messy, emotional complications of real relationships. We can tell that Dean (Ryan Gosling) and Cindy (Michelle Williams) really did love each other once. They have just reached a point where there's no love left.
The six-year gap that lies out of sight between Blue Valentine's two halves leaves us with a lot of room to draw a line between the happy young couple and their older, disillusioned counterparts. The rift that is gradually growing between them is not the result of any one incident, but instead it is an accumulation of details, frustrations and petty resentments that have been allowed to fester over time. We can see how the things that made Dean such a charming proposition when he and Cindy first met – his carefree attitude, his immature demeanour – are exactly the same things that now make him so insufferable as a husband. There's a hovering tension in their opening scenes together, as Cindy tries to get ready for work while Dean joins their daughter Frankie in playing with her cereal. "I don't need to clean up after two kids," she complains.
This is only the start of the movie, and things will get much worse between them. An argument is sparked when Cindy runs into an old flame, the death of the family dog stirs the increasingly tumultuous emotions between them, and things reach a nadir during a misguided attempt to rekindle that old spark. Dean checks them into a cheap and tacky motel, suggesting they should, "get drunk and make love" but there's very little love on display as they get under each other's skin and eventually wind up fucking in a scene of aggression and resentment that's painful to watch. Despite the controversy over Blue Valentine's (stupid and indefensible) NC-17 rating in the US, the sex in the film is no more explicit than you'd find in many other pictures. Instead, it's the frankness with which Cianfrance depicts these encounters, combined with the strong emotional undercurrents, that makes them such uncomfortable viewing. The director's camera is always positioned for maximum perception and impact, and while he sometimes threatens to push the drama a little too hard, his unflinching observation of his troubled characters is absorbing.
Wallowing in such misery might be too much, however, were it not for the moments of lightness that occasionally break through the gloom. Most of these occur in the film's flashback scenes, where we see Dean and Cindy at their best. She's a bright and funny medical student; he's a sincerely romantic removal man. There's a wonderful tenderness and playfulness in their initial scenes together, most memorably when he prompts her to dance on the pavement for him while he strums a tune on his ukulele. The scene has a natural spontaneity about it, and after seeing the older Cindy wearing such a look of resignation and disappointment, it's a joy to see the smile that breaks out across her face at this moment. Does she think of these memories later on when she looks at her husband and wonders why she ever married him?
Blue Valentine doesn't take sides and it doesn't apportion blame. It simply observes a pair of complicated individuals as they fall in and out of love and negotiate the stormy waters of their relationship. Cianfrance has two of the best actors in America at his disposal here and he gives them everything they need to give the most detailed, believable performances possible. Gosling is marvellous at capturing Dean's arrested emotional state and still-strong love for his wife and daughter, but Williams is simply astonishing, expressing so many unstated emotions through her expressions and gestures. They are incredible together, and by closely observing their performances we can understand both why their characters are right for each other and why they're not. Blue Valentine charts a relationship in seemingly terminal decline, but it doesn't quite sound the death knell, always leaving the door ajar for possible change and reconciliation. One of my favourite moments occurs towards the end of the film, after a particularly blazing row, when an angry Dean tosses his wedding ring out of the car window. After a brief pause, he gets out and forlornly starts searching for it in the grass, hoping he hasn't thrown his last chance away.