Blue Valentine is an incredible new film starring Michelle Williams and Ryan Gosling that simultaneously portrays the honeymoon period and twilight of a married couple’s relationship.
Williams and Gosling play Cindy and Dean, who first meet when Cindy is visiting her grandmother in an elderly care facility and across the hall, Dean is helping an old man move in. They have what Roger Ebert would call a ‘meetcute’ and from there, Dean pursues Cindy in what will blossom into a whirlwind romance and ultimately, marriage.
What gives Blue Valentine its rare and affecting quality is the level of intimacy that we see in Cindy and Dean’s relationship, both emotionally and physically. Both are utterly convincing in their roles and for the requirements of this film, they have to be. It is shot in a way that captures microdetail obsessively. How they hold hands. How they look at one another when they laugh. How they avoid eye contact when they fight. There is an intense hyperrealistic level of focus on Cindy and Dean throughout the entirety of the film.
You become so invested in the characters that you feel jubilant when they do, smile when they smile and feel shattered when they fight and begin to fall apart. As the film bounces chronologically between the relationship’s formative years and the ailing marriage, your emotional trajectory when watching their story unfold hit similar peaks and troughs.
Their courtship is not a smooth one. When Dean first meets Cindy, he uses his boundless enthusiasm to charm her but she is still emotionally guarded after a disasterous relationship with a meathead named Bobby Ontario. Once Dean forms a bond with Cindy he still has to contend with her disapproving father, her jealous ex-boyfriend and then ultimately, an unplanned pregnancy. I don’t think I’ve ever witnessed a scene as intense as when Cindy visits the abortion clinic. Even though the film’s timeline is laid out in a way in which we know the outcome, the scene is still unbearable.
Ultimately, surviving all of these challenges actually help bring Dean and Cindy closer together. What brings their relationship apart occurs years later and stems from their differing ambitions in life. Cindy aspires to be a doctor, working long and hard hours at a clinic to the detriment of their physical relationship. From the first moment we see her in the film, she is constantly exhausted and on call. The phone can ring at any time to call her back to work. In a cruel twist, we learn that her potential career changing promotion is actually a carrot on a stick from a colleague who wants to sleep with her.
Comparatively, Dean is more or less in the same position as when Cindy first met him. Although a man of many talents, he is content to work nine to five. He argues that he is happy to have a job that doesn’t carry much responsibility so he can clock off each day to spend time with his wife and child. He feels its a perk of the job that he can drink a beer in the morning before heading into work. In truth, its a sign of his alcoholism which is is having a ruinous effect on their marriage.
What’s so sad about the failings in their relationship is that many of the qualities that Dean has which made him an emotional pillar of strength when they were younger become the same traits that burden their relationship as they got older. When Cindy was in college and had to deal with an unhappy homelife with her parents and a wayward relationship with Bobby, it is Dean’s optimistic outlook on life that gives her the support she needs. However it is also Dean’s unwaivering satisfaction with what he has and complete disinterest in applying himself further in his career that becomes a major source of disfunction in their later years.
Blue Valentine offers no easy answers by the time the credits roll. It captures two snapshots of a relationship, during the best of times and during their worst. The film is an unqualified success in what it sets out to accomplish and both Gosling and Williams deliver career best performances. There is such an incredible level of finesse shown here that it beggars belief that this is director Derek Cianfrance’s first feature film. Blue Valentine is one of those films that has your attention from the opening minute and will stay with you long after you’ve left the cinema.