Blue Valentine Dir. Derek Cianfrance

[The Weinstein Company; 2010]

Styles: indie drama
Others: All The Real Girls, Half Nelson

Blue Valentine chronicles the beginning and the end of a relationship, cross-cutting from the giddy initial romance to the couple’s depressing dissolution years later. Ryan Gosling plays Dean, the romantic blue-collar sap living in NYC who’s immediately struck by Michelle Williams’ Cindy during a work-related trip to Pennsylvania. Unfortunately for the pair, writer/director Derek Cianfrance has set up some less darling plot devices than the old folks home that brings them together: Cindy will soon discover that she’s already pregnant from an earlier sex scene with her previous boyfriend, and Dean will step up like a champ.

By having their union inspired by a pregnancy, Valentine gets to revel in the tragedy of lovers who committed too quickly. If not for the kid, their relationship might not have survived the first discussion about long-term goals. But by making the baby not Dean’s, Cianfrance doesn’t have to acknowledge the issue of custody once his lovers split after several years of marriage. Dean may be the more attentive parent, but he has less of a claim on his family. It’s hard to give a movie points for realism when it’s as reliant on obvious contrivances as any romcom.

Although the arguments between the older Dean and Cindy over ambition and sexual frustration cut deeper than mainstream meditations on marriage like Rob Reiner’s rancid The Story Of Us, Blue Valentine still has one eye on the audience, setting up scenes so that viewers are guaranteed to debate which actor was more sympathetic. For instance, Cindy is clearly suffocated by their small town life and shows no appreciation for Dean’s dedication to a child that isn’t his. But the movie wouldn’t dare acknowledge that her regrets could plausibly come back to her decision to keep her baby (made at the literal last minute for reasons unknown, another case of Valentine having its stark reality cake — a prolonged abortion clinic scene — and eating it too). After all, an audience wouldn’t forgive a woman who’s as cold to her daughter as she is to her husband.

Despite the film’s clear sympathy for the well-meaning pop, Gosling doesn’t shy away from showing how aggressive romantic interest becomes overbearing as soon as it’s unwanted. And even if you recognize the toxicity of her emotional withholding, Williams makes you feel Cindy’s claustrophobia. Whether you sympathize with Dean’s heartbroken flailing or Cindy’s growing contempt will depend a lot on what you bring to the table, and the actors let the audience see both what’s relatable and ugly about their characters. But this evenhandedness relies heavily on the narrative structure: Cindy has already fallen out of love with Dean by the time we see them as adults. By denying us the middle of their relationship, we don’t see when their differences became irreconcilable or when they stopped trying to understand each other. Hiding the specifics of how they’ve grown apart, Cianfrance keeps both sides of the audience from knowing what made Cindy give up on her gallant knight and how early into the marriage her antipathy came.

It’s fitting that Blue Valentine risked an NC-17 over some relatively unerotic thrusting and oral sex. While the rutting is “realistic,” its value to the story doesn’t extend beyond the surface intimations of honesty. The film is defined by this pragmatism, draping familiar observations about broken relationships in shakey-cam signifiers of authenticity that don’t make what we see any more truthful (a credits sequence better suited for the Olympics doesn’t help either). Falling in love is great and falling out of love isn’t, but neither fact illuminates the other.

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