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“Blue Valentine”: Breaking up is hard to do

Blue Valentine

Directed by Derek Cianfrance

Written by Derek Cianfrance, Joey Curtis and Cami Delavigne

Possibly the natural result of having a gestation period longer than some directors’ entire careers, Derek Cianfrance’s Blue Valentine manages to feel tortured but not labored. Written and workshopped over half a decade, and conceived considerably longer ago, Cianfrance’s film works both as a master class in onscreen chemistry and as a forensic examination of the psychic damage human beings are capable of inflicting on each other when circumstances conspire in unexpected ways, even if it suffers mildly from a few instances of writer-itis.

Two of America’s best working actors, Ryan Gosling and Michelle Williams, play Dean and Cindy, in two parallel timelines that are intercut sequentially throughout the film. We first meet them on the morning of what will emerge as their relationship’s darkest period. They take their three-year-old daughter to school. They bicker, with Dean acting out like a child and Cindy brooding and dissatisfied. Every exchange, no matter how innocent, seems to result in confrontation. In an attempt to rekindle their physical connection, Dean arranges for a romantic evening at a motel, in what’s ominously dubbed the “Future Room.” In the film’s other timeline, we meet them separately before their initial meeting, with Dean as a restless day-laborer with an idealized vision of love and romance, and Cindy as an ambitious med student caught in a less-than-thrilling courtship with a boorish peer (Mike Vogel).

The whiplash effect caused by the constant crosscutting of the glory days of Dean and Cindy’s relationship with their crushing endpoint is not a subtle one, but it works, mostly because it makes clear how the seeds of their mutually assured destruction are sown early on. On occasion, Cianfrance and his writing partners belabor certain parallels and thematic currents – the family dog as relationship proxy, or the way in which two male characters’ potential for violence is brought to the surface in very similar circumstances – but for the most part, Cianfrance is able to balance credibility and a sense that there is something universal in the proceedings without resorting to cheap sentimentality.

Williams and Gosling are essential to the film’s success. They share the screen for much of the film’s runtime, and are required to embody not just love and hate, but many notes in between – boredom, lust, bewilderment, disappointment, ecstasy – and never seem forced or phony. They must conduct scenes of considerably physical intimacy, both blissful and terrifying. (The latter inspired the film’s initial NC-17 rating, which must surely count as one of the most ludicrous decisions in the MPAA’s checkered history of misjudgment.) Viewers will likely disagree about which of the two figures is more sympathetic, but the film itself staunchly refuses to take sides, acting instead as an elegy for the promise of love, here dead at the hands of so many good intentions and poor decisions made in seemingly sound mind. What we have here is a new kind of date movie: the kind that makes you wonder if the two of you stand a chance at all.

Simon Howell