As Blue Valentine begins a small child searches for an ominously absent pet. It’s a smart method of alerting us to a more general suspicion that something’s missing in the lives of its central characters, the child’s parents Dean (Ryan Gosling) and Cindy (Michelle Williams). Perpetually robed in paint-splattered pants and goofy animal sweaters, Dean’s an affectionate, playful father to little Frankie (Faith Wladyka), but he’s also childish and needy and starts drinking bright and early because apparently drinking doesn’t hamper his ability to paint houses. Cindy is by necessity more authoritative, probably the only one who makes sure Frankie eats reasonably well and gets to school in time. Cindy’s a nurse in a nearby clinic. A doctor there is eager to convince her to accept a transfer. Cindy’s procrastination in discussing the matter with Dean is, at the very least, conspicuous.
We then meet Dean and Cindy several years earlier, not long before they first met each other, when Dean worked for a Brooklyn moving company and Cindy studied medicine. A pattern is quickly established: for every scene that draws the younger Dean and Cindy closer together we’re given a counter-scene that shows the current Dean and Cindy moving farther apart. Blue Valentine, the sophomore feature from director Derek Cianfrance, written by Cianfrance with Cami Delavigne and Joey Curtis, proposes to carve out a love story by contrasting the moment of its birth with that of its apparent death, replete with bad sex, screaming, and violence. There are many insightfully rendered fragments of this relationship scattered throughout the film, many extraordinarily frank, even touching moments of vulnerability between Gosling and Williams, often shot in tight close-ups that at once heighten a feeling of intimacy and mutual isolation, so I’ve been struggling to sort out why it is that the film ultimately left me feeling unsatisfied. My best guess is that by focusing exclusively on either end of this story, by excising everything that happened in the middle, Blue Valentine neglects to give us a fully convincing sense of what this couple has shared, of the real hard work of marriage, of any sort of deeper connection between them besides the circumstantial. This manner of using only glimpses of a relationship’s progress to suggest something larger, complex and meaningful can work heartbreakingly well in, say, a song—given the working-class, east coast flavour, we might imagine Blue Valentine as a Bruce Springsteen song, or, given the film’s title, early Tom Waits—but as a feature film this love story feels a bit under-loved by its authors.
Much of what really works very well here occurs in the first half, including Cianfrnace’s imaginative use of instrumental versions of Grizzly Bear tunes. Dean’s conversations with his male coworkers at the moving company about how men and women fall in love possess a shaggy fraternal warmth that recalls similar scenes in David Gordon Green’s George Washington, particularly because of Dean’s somewhat overstated naïveté. Cindy’s more introverted and remote, yet the way we see her coasting through a mismatched relationship with a wrestler, caring for her grandmother, or ignoring the freaky outbursts of her father, a guy who’s got major problems with meatloaf, tells us something about her. As is so often the case in romantic love, Dean and Cindy’s convergence seems dependent on coincidence and impulsive decisions. Their courtship is basically a single impromptu date, incorporating a ukulele serenade and tap dancing, that’s very cute to watch unfold. They meet by chance, and by chance Cindy gets pregnant right around the same time. Feeling such longing for a woman he really doesn’t know yet, and having no clear ambitions to betray in any case, Dean hurls himself into becoming a husband and father, or at least the idea of it. Cindy’s reasons for being with Dean may be more practical, and fair enough, I guess. But I don’t think anyone whose ever given themselves to love-term love will recognize the foundations of something like that here. So do see the film for those sometimes vivid glimpses of passion and playfulness, for its most inspired floating moments of ecstasy or ache—just don’t expect it to all add up.