Blue Valentine is about a marriage that’s slowly, if not quite surely, falling apart, yet the movie is every inch a love story. That’s why it stings so exquisitely. Dean (Ryan Gosling) and Cindy (Michelle Williams) have been together for six years, with a daughter they’re devoted to, but their lives are a mess. Dean, a softhearted, blustery screwup with a youthfully receding hairline, is a freelance house- painter who likes the work because he can enjoy a beer at eight in the morning. He says so with a boastful grin. In other words, he’s trouble. Cindy, a kindly, beleaguered nurse who is looking to move up in the medical world, is sick of his slovenly pursuit of pleasure, his slipshod career options, and his refusal to be an adult. At the same time, we can see what she’s drawn to: Dean is sexy, with a slightly saddened little-boy charm, and he’s forever working his way back into her good graces. They’ve turned the addict/enabler two-step into an elegant rehearsed dance.
In one memorable sequence, they take a romantic night off and go to a tacky theme motel, where they’re booked into a room with lunar wallpaper and a sci-fi spaceship motif. In this dingy kitsch palace, the two guzzle vodka and mess around (she asks him to get rough — less out of nastiness than nostalgia), fumbling toward the moment when they can feel those old feelings they used to have. Trying to set the mood, Dean puts on a scratchy old soul song. It’s ”You and Me,” a curio from the ’70s by Penny & the Quarters, and all we have to hear is a few bars of its warbling sweet plea (”You and me/You and me/Nobody, baby, but you and me”) to know that it’s their song and that it’s a heartbreaker, because the two probably haven’t felt that way in a very long time. As the tune goes on, it sounds more and more achingly beautiful. It becomes the wistful ”our song” of everyone in the audience.
The young co-writer and director, Derek Cianfrance, works in leisurely long takes, letting the sweet nothings, the bitter battles, the dying embers of romance play out before our eyes. From the start, we may wonder: How did a gentle, sane woman like Cindy end up with a mate so ardently troubled? But Cianfrance has built that complication right into the movie. He cuts back in time to reveal how the two met, folding the past right into the present. Dean wasn’t always so addled, and with his full hairline he was ruggedly attractive. Cianfrance stages each scene as another desperate piece in the puzzle of how a couple could find each other this innocently and then get this lost. At moments, watching Blue Valentine is like being at the scene of an accident, yet the power of the movie rests in how easy it is for almost anyone to glimpse them- selves in the elemental passions of these two.
Blue Valentine is lushly touching and gorgeously told. By the time the film is over, you may feel that you know every inch of these lives. That’s because Ryan Gosling and Michelle Williams act without a net. The two have moments that make you melt, like one where Gosling, on what is basically the couple’s first date, stops at a storefront to do an awful/endearing Elvis impersonation, singing ”You Always Hurt the One You Love” as he accompanies himself on the ukulele, while Williams dances a happy little jig. You can see them spontaneously locking hearts. And both actors have moments that tear you apart, like one set in the doctor’s office where Cindy works, with Dean busting into the place to fight with her, and everyone looking at him like he’s crazy, and us realizing that he’s not crazy but that he may now be a prisoner of his rage, too far gone to stop hurting the one he loves. Gosling plays Dean as a snarky working-class hipster, but when his anger is unleashed, the performance turns powerful. It becomes a scary study in the woundedness of defensive manhood — Raging Bull meets COPS. Williams has the quieter role and maybe the trickier one: Her Cindy has to make choices about how much her feelings for Dean are seriously worth, and the choices keep changing. There are real demons here — in him, and in her, too. Yet Blue Valentine wrenches us with its painful and tender understanding of how people with even this tattered a connection can lunge for love as if it were air. A