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Blue Valentine is the love story antidote for all the romantic comedies that flood movie theaters every year. It’s a look at what comes after the credits role. Do Vivian and Edward make it last after he climbs her balcony in Pretty Woman or do their differences slowly tear them apart as he brings up her hooker past in petty moments of fighting? Perhaps Claire from The Breakfast Club demands her earring back on Monday or The Proposal‘s Andrew finds a new cougar to hunt.
Blue Valentine begins long after the blush of a new relationship has faded, tracking a couple’s story backward to examine how love and hope can be replaced by resentment and regret. Dean (Ryan Gosling) seems to stagger under the weight of his life. He holds his daughter in one hand and a cigarette in the other. He drinks on the way to work, a go-nowhere job painting houses. And at times he is just as immature as the young girl. His wife Cindy (Michelle Williams) is barely holding it all together because she feels like she’s being dragged down by Dean’s suffocating presence.
But the story, written by Derek Cianfrance, Joey Curtis and Cami Delavigne, is not as simple as bad male loser taking advantage of sweet, innocent woman. Dean is simply amazing to watch with Frankie (painfully cute Faith Wladyka), and he obviously lives for her. Even when she’s most exasperated with Dean, Cindy can’t resist his humor and completely transforms while laughing. That’s the beauty of Blue Valentine – it reveals the layers that comprise not only individuals, but the layers of a relationship.
In addition to writing the screenplay, Cianfrance also directs, and takes a very slow, methodical approach to laying bare the couple’s past. To paraphrase one of those inspirational Hallmark cards, it’s not the moments in life that count, but the life in moments. Cianfrance juxtaposes moments in Dean and Cindy’s life together, pairing youthful exuberance with jaded matrimony. He cuts back and forth in time with nearly flawless execution, varying the length of each scene to sometimes lull the audience into a rhythm and other times jar them back to reality. Initially, this time jump device seems like it’s going to be a little too precious, as scenes are shown from another perspective or the meaning of a scene is altered as more information is shared. However, gimmicky uses of the structure quickly fade as the story takes hold.
The performances of Williams and Gosling are truly the heart of the film. (Speaking of hearts, yours will feel like it has been ripped out of your chest by the end.) They give their all to the roles and shine even under the tarnish of a failing relationship. Williams has the more restrained performance, providing Cindy the thinnest of facades that allows the pain to shine through when she’s most vulnerable. Gosling’s performance is much showier; behind tinted glasses and thinning hair, Gosling is able to make Dean both the problem and the victim at the same time. Williams and Gosling are truly magnificent together and bring combustible chemistry to each of their scenes.
In an already emotionally wrought story, the screenwriters go out of their way to include every emotional sucker punch possible. Some plot developments cross the line to melodrama, and other moments are too heavy-handed and obvious, such as Dean’s soliloquy about the difference between men and women in relationships. In a film that’s otherwise highly nuanced, these moments – however brief – stick out for their lack of finesse.
Much of the early buzz around Blue Valentine centered on the decision of the MPAA to slap a dreaded NC-17 rating on the film. Fortunately, the filmmakers refused to make edits and appealed vehemently until they got an R rating. While the film is certainly graphic in its depictions of sex – oral and otherwise – it’s nothing that isn’t seen regularly on cable on shows like True Blood. The most offensive part might just be a joke that Cindy tells, which will either have you clutching your pearls or rolling in the aisle.
For all the charm and heartache that Blue Valentine provides, the heavy, heavy material is going to be its biggest challenge. There are moments of humor in the story, but they are so completely overshadowed by the weight of Cindy and Dean’s history that it’s like giving a starving man a Tic Tac for nourishment. But even though tears may be drying on your face as you leave the theater, there is a haunting beauty to Blue Valentine. If it’s better to have loved and lost than never to have loved at all, then it’s better to have seen Blue Valentine and cried than never to have seen it.