Dir. Derek Cianfrance
(2010, R, 112 min)
★ ★ ★ ★

Blue Valentine tells a story about a young couple that’s really two stories: one about falling in love, and the other about falling out of love. In a way, it’s a fitting companion to Marc Webb’s (500) Days of Summer, which considered with comic exaggeration what Blue Valentine considers with gritty emotional realism: how to understand the course of love, its ebbs and flows, its stops and starts. In one scene, Cindy (Michelle Williams) asks her grandmother how one can rely on feelings when feelings can change so unpredictably; she’s thinking especially of her parents, who she assumes loved each other once upon a time, but all she remembers is distance and yelling. Her grandmother doesn’t presume to have a definite answer, and neither does the film. You can’t know if love is forever. You just have to feel it and take it from there.

We meet Cindy and Dean (Ryan Gosling) — a nurse and a house painter, respectively — later in their relationship, when they are married and raising a young daughter, Frankie (Faith Wladyka). From their earliest scenes we can see that love isn’t what it used to be. Dean is childish, probably drinks too much, with a hairline receding as fast as his charm. Cindy is fed up, but Cindy is also physically and emotionally withholding, leaving Dean with the constant sting of rejection.

Director Derek Cianfrance

Those doldrums are intercut with flashbacks to the beginning of their relationship, when he was a musician working for a moving company and she aspired to be a doctor. Told in this manner, their relationship does not have the structure of rise-and-fall. It’s shown as parallel experiences. A couple grows close. A couple grows apart. That they’re both the same couple gives the story a greater feeling of longing and melancholy.

Director and co-writer Derek Cianfrance films with a style that emphasizes intimacy and then confinement. He insulates his characters with claustrophobic closeups, especially during their later scenes, when their marriage has become a place to escape from. Consider, for instance, a visit to a space-themed motel room, which Dean devises to reignite the spark in their relationship. The room is full of heavy blue light and narrow spaces, and during sex the camera is brought so close to the action that it disintegrates into vague blurs of physical movement, as disorienting for the audience as for the characters. This is sex not as lovemaking but as the awkward fumbling of strangers.

This is a story about love gone wrong, but it is not cynical and places no blame. It brings its characters unflinchingly close to us through the tough, unvarnished, deeply emotional performances of Gosling and Williams, who do not explode in constant fireworks but rather inhabit sad, alien places that are very unlike what they expected love to be.

Cianfrance’s approach is intensely personal but also clear-eyed. His non-linear structuring allows him a certain objective clarity and distills his sad wisdom about love. He observes a scene of painful reckoning and juxtaposes it with an earlier scene of marriage, as if to ask, “How could one lead to the other?” I don’t know. I don’t think Cindy and Dean know, either. And that, I think, is the point. The deterioration of love has no obvious root cause. There’s no black box to recover after the crash. You just feel it, and take it from there.