“How can you trust your feelings when they can just disappear like that?”
Twelve years between feature dramatic films for writer/director Derek Cianfrance is excusable when they end up as good as Blue Valentine. Billed as a love story, this look into a young NYC couple’s relationship is such because it shows the bad times with as much authenticity as the good. After gaining buzz in 1998 for his debut Brother Tied, Cianfrance spent the next decade honing this script and making its stunning portrayal of companionship good enough to see the light of day. Making documentaries to pay the bills and survive while his art gestated, things finally came together with A-list talent Ryan Gosling and Michelle Williams signed on to breathe life into the already complex characters on the page. Shot with way too little money and way too few days, I’d almost hate to see what he could with a big budget and time. In a perfect world, all films would have the script and performances to make brilliantly complex work that hits you like a punch to the gut. It’ll be a travesty if this doesn’t get a Best Picture Oscar nomination to go along with almost guaranteed acting notices come February.
The end is in the beginning. It sucks to think about, but I’m sure everyone has looked back on a failed relationship, tracing its breakdown to details that occurred very early. Things you once loved become those you hate years later, the partnership evolving together as well as each component separately. We continually change, altering our interests, reworking our sensibilities, and becoming completely different people as each second passes. So, how can we expect to not at some point realize the person we decided to spend the rest of our lives with may no longer be the one? I’m not saying ‘true love’ or whatever other romantic notion you may believe doesn’t exist—I’d go so far as say Cianfrance, with co-writers Cami Delavigne and Joey Curtis, aren’t saying it either—but we can’t go along with the naïve notion that things won’t be hard. There will be memories of the past, moments of déjà vu where you smile bittersweetly at a happy time, knowing the same situation now only harbors sorrow. So, like any good storyteller would, Cianfrance latches onto this convention and tells his story by cross-cutting the finish with its start.
Little Frankie, the young Faith Wladyka in her first role, introduces us to the story, screaming the name of the family dog that has disappeared. Crawling through the doggie door, she enters the messy living room, her father passed out and paint covered in the chair. Gosling’s Dean has the air of white trash with his large glasses, unkempt receding hairline, and precariously hanging unlit cigarette in his mouth as he carries his daughter out to see the unlocked fence. His wife, Williams’s Cindy, is catching some extra sleep before her shift as a physician’s assistant, angry when woken up by her two children—yes, I lump her husband into the pair—pretending to be tigers. Life is obviously a struggle as Dean drinks before work at 8am and Cindy uncaringly dismisses her daughter’s disgust for breakfast, a condition agreed upon by her father once he realizes the oatmeal was simply poured in a bowl with water. Frankie is definitely Daddy’s little girl, his penchant for acting her age helps, and you start to see a subtle feeling of annoyed envy as a result. Whatever unbridled love there was merely a shadow now.
There was love, though. No one can deny that fact. Soon the film transports us to the day these two met, she dropping her mother off at a nursing home and he working to move a new resident in. Cindy now has a broad smile and positive attitude with her long blonde hair and life as a college student; Dean has a full head of hair, leather jacket, and a surprisingly compassionate and romantic view on life and love to contrast his rough accent and, on the surface, uncultured persona. They are young and fate plus desire helps get them together for one of the sweetest first dates I can remember seeing onscreen. There is a genuine spark between them; she dealing with recent relationship woes and he wondering if the dream of finding the girl ‘he’d be stupid to walk away from’ was in the cards. It’s a fascinating duo, Dean’s own jokes about not being good enough for her staying affable enough to charm rather than annoy, but her beauty proving to not be her identity as she’s decided to pursue an education in medicine. They’re from different parts of town, but they click from the shared want of something real.
A wonderful ukulele performance becomes a highlight of Blue Valentine, shot from a city street with Williams dancing on a storefront’s stoop as Gosling goofily croons and strums. It is the benchmark moment for them as a couple; cementing a bond you’d think would be impenetrable, until we are exposed to the hidden secrets of their courtship. The present-day scenes are a lifetime from those early days and Cianfrance knew the distance in time was crucial, actually shutting down production for a month so his stars could live together and cultivate a familiarity to dismantle. It’s amazing to watch the feelings come and go as we switch time periods, the use of ‘their song’—on the same cd five or so years later—creating a love like no other in one frame and then the hurtful memories of happier times in the next, proving the change in feelings. Gosling and Williams will make you cry from joy and pain through their performances, serving as vessels to project our own similar situations onto. This is life in all its unfiltered glory and the ending, with its quick cuts from wedding day to the point of no return—all set to a score by Grizzly Bear—is heart-wrenchingly perfect.
As a note … only once I started writing this did I remember the controversial NC-17 rating first given by the MPAA. That is how inappropriate such a label was. It’s a shame we’ve become a culture where positive, healthy love becomes taboo while beheadings and dismemberments are deemed acceptable for teenagers. Thankfully it was overturned to an R and hopefully the world will watch as a result. It deserves to be seen.
 Ryan Gosling as Dean and Michelle Williams as Cindy in Derek Cianfrance’s BLUE VALENTINE. Photo Credit Davi Russo/ The Weinstein Company
 Ryan Gosling as Dean in Derek Cianfrance’s BLUE VALENTINE. Photo Credit Davi Russo/ The Weinstein Company
 Michelle Williams stars as Cindy in The Weinstein Company’s Blue Valentine (2010)