Blue Valentine, writer-director Derek Cianfrance’s remarkably honest examination of a marriage blown apart, is essentially two excellent films in one: A sweet, passionate romance and a blistering, nasty break-up picture.
In one part of the film, we see Dean and Cindy (Ryan Gosling and Michelle Williams) magically falling in love and moving toward marriage. This part of the film is shot with a beautiful romantic grace and is full of promise.
In the other phase, we see Dean and Cindy a few years down the road, married and raising a child, their marriage a terrible mess. Each of them possesses only slight hints of the joy and happiness depicted in the earlier years, and the scenes are appropriately shot with a grainy, gritty realism.
Rather than showing them chronologically, Cianfrance interweaves the two periods—the past alternating scenes with the future—and the effect is heartbreaking.
When Dean and Cindy meet, he works for a moving company. He doesn’t have much in the way of future prospects, but he’s ultra charming and looks like Ryan Gosling, so he’s got that going for him. Cindy is a med student currently in a relationship, where she is less than impressed. The two meet up by chance, and sparks fly.
Cut to a few years later, when Dean has graduated to painting houses and drinking all day, while Cindy is a nurse at a practice where the doctor might have nefarious intentions. Life isn’t going as planned, Dean’s hairline is beginning to show the signs of stress, and Cindy has lost patience.
In one of the more memorable scenes, Dean warbles a tune and strums a ukulele while Cindy tap dances during their first date. The movie then cuts to a drunken Cindy in the future interrogating Dean about his lack of creative and vocational success.
The ukulele dance is one of the more joyful and romantic scenes I’ve seen in the last decade, while the drunken interrogation that immediately follows is one of the more brutally potent examples of a rotten human relationship ever put to film.
Blue Valentine was initially branded with the dreaded NC-17 rating by the MPAA for its sexual content, and that doesn’t surprise me. The sex scenes in this movie are explicit, emotionally and physically. The sex depicted during the happy phase is shocking in its enthusiasm and energy, while the bad phase raises an eyebrow due to its hateful, emotionally violent content. The film managed to get the NC-17 overturned without any cuts or re-edits, an impressive feat.
The realism doesn’t stop with the sex scenes. During an argument on a bridge walk in Manhattan, Gosling’s Dean—in an unscripted move—climbs a barrier fence and threatens to go over into the river while Williams frantically pleads for him to come down. No safety harnesses or nets for Gosling.
He’s an actor unafraid to take chances, something evident in nearly every film he’s in. His Dean is the epitome of full characterization, a sad man with a big heart fueling emotional instability. He’s equally charming and pathetic. Williams’ Cindy is a well-meaning woman who has made more than a few mistakes. The role requires Williams to go all in, physically and psychologically. It’s the sort of raw performance most actresses aren’t willing to undertake.
Cianfrance’s film is the ultimate depiction of how most relationships deteriorate from unabashed joy and dancing to arguments about how oatmeal is cooked. You could view the film as Dean and Cindy’s need to look for the pleasures of their past to work through the hardships of their present.
Or you could see it as a depiction of a toxic couple, who had no business ever getting together, with some hints for potential discord evident in their seemingly sunny early days. Cianfrance and his performers leave this entirely up to the viewer.
For the end credits, beautiful stills of younger and happier Dean and Cindy play over fireworks, and the nicely chosen musical track “Alligator” by Grizzly Bear. It’s like a memorial video for a once beautiful couple that has spiritually died.