Blue Valentine charts the course of a doomed relationship from blooming euphoria to baffled collapse, and is so suggestive of real life in its eccentric particulars that by the movie's end, you feel you might almost run your fingers over the spiritual scars incurred by its two protagonists. The picture is somber but not entirely bleak, and in the performances of Ryan Gosling and Michelle Williams, doing some of the finest work of their careers, it's enthralling.
Gosling is Dean, an amiable but aimless young man who's perfectly content knocking around in the world of manual labor—moving furniture, painting houses. Dean may be light in the intellectual-depth department, but he's a soulful romantic. This at first appeals to Cindy (Williams), a fellow New Yorker with a scuffed and drifting heart. Cindy once dreamed of going to med school, but has wound up working as an assistant in the office of an oily doctor (and fending off a callous ex-boyfriend). Upon a chance encounter, Dean instantly decides that Cindy is the girl of his dreams; he has to have her, pursues her, and before long wins her. Soon she announces that she's pregnant; and even though she's unsure if the baby is his ("Probably not," she says, blankly), Dean is exultant: A home and family would make his uncomplicated life complete. Cindy's dreams are blurrier. Would a simple future with Dean really do?
The script, written by director Derek Cianfrance with Joey Curtis and Cami Delavigne, conveys this story in contrapuntal layers that illuminate the characters without schematically explaining them. It interweaves sweetly offbeat scenes from the couple's beginnings with raw vignettes from their bitter end, and in doing so it stirs unusually complex emotional responses. At one point, during an early nighttime walk down a city street, Cindy and Dean duck into a storefront entryway where he serenades her, on a ukulele he's been carrying, with an impromptu rendition of "You Always Hurt the One You Love." Cianfrance presents this glowing episode in a detached medium shot, with Gosling's back to the camera, and the lack of manipulative close-ups allows us to enter into the scene on our own initiative. Later, when Cindy, conflicted about her pregnancy, decides to have an abortion, we accompany her to a (real) Planned Parenthood clinic. There we listen as she recounts her melancholy sexual history, then watch as a doctor prepares her for the procedure. This extraordinary sequence has the shifting shape of life being lived, in all of its awkward ambivalence, and Williams' precise command of behavioral detail gives it a heart-clenching power.
The movie was given an initial MPAA rating of NC-17—a commercial death sentence. The objection was to an oral-sex scene that was no more graphic than a similar interlude in last summer's The Girl Who Played with Fire, which was rated R. After strong pushback by distributor Harvey Weinstein, the MPAA relented, and Blue Valentine, too, now carries an R rating. This industry command-and-control exercise was more-than-usually silly: The movie offers nothing that might attract the coveted young-male box-office demographic. It's an adult film in the most admirable way, dealing with the mysteries of love and personality with level-eyed candor. Michelle Williams is fearless in the film's most intimate moments, and superb throughout; and Ryan Gosling's portrayal of a small-timer with a large heart but not much else is a thrilling accomplishment. His Dean is a heedless optimist confronted by an obstacle he never imagined to exist. In the end, he can't keep Cindy because he never had her—and because of who he is, he never could have. "Tell me what to do," he implores her in one of the film's most grievous moments. "Tell me how I should be."
Kurt Loder is a writer, among other things, embedded in New York.