Dean and Cindy (Ryan Gosling and Michelle Williams) are falling in love. Or they’re about to trade divorce papers. It depends where you are in Blue Valentine, a draining, bifurcated anti-romance that bounces between the bookends of a relationship—between first and last spark, between meet-cute and “fuck off.”
When we first see our doomed couple, they’re on the latter. Dean, desperate to save his marriage, implores Cindy to schlep their young daughter to the grandparents’ and join him in a night of drunk hotel make-up sex; Cindy acquiesces more out of fatigue than love. Soon the flashbacks start: We witness the genesis of their relationship, then return to its destruction, going from joy to misery, from great sex to grim sex (the cause of the since-withdrawn NC-17 rating), back and forth, over and over for two hours.
It’s gimmicky, yes, but not gimmicky in the manner of (500) Days of Summer, which violently throttled us with its conceit. Director/co-writer Derek Cianfrance takes his time. We spend long chunks in each period, allowed to soak up the infectious thrill of falling stupid-in-love before having our faces rubbed in its diametric opposite.
It’s effective and devastating, but also schematic and ultimately cruel—more cruel in its juxtapositions than Summer or even Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, a superior time-hopping romantic apocalypse.
To break up the monotony of the structure, Cianfrance relies on his actors. For how large Cassavetes’ legend looms in the history of American independent cinema, it’s amazing that few films have gone as Cassavetian as this Sundance fave. Mostly for the better, the leads make like they’re in Faces, babbling with expertly mannered spontaneity.
If anything, Gosling succeeds too well—thanks to the elided gap between relationship’s beginning and end, we never know exactly what killed it. But based on Gosling’s hyperintensity and Williams’ total exhaustion, we can guess. Indeed, it’s tempting to read Blue Valentine as a (very specific) warning about how draining it would be to be married to Ryan Gosling in full-on Cassavetes mode.