Trying to convince someone that you’re mad at them when really you’re sad at them is one of the hardest things to do. The moments in life that require the skill are always dire, the stakes inevitably very high. It’s almost impossible not to choke. Narrow your eyes too much, and you’re done for. Stretch your voice too taughtly, and it’s over. But Michelle Williams and Ryan Gosling hit the note perfectly again and again in Blue Valentine as Cindy and Dean, the emotionally ravaged, sad-at-each-other couple at the center of the film.
Blue Valentine is a chronologically broken portrait of a chronically breaking marriage. Cindy, a nurse, and Dean, a house painter, live in rural Pennsylvania with their kindergarten-aged daughter, Frankie. Williams, who we’re used to seeing in the tabloids, sipping iced coffee, and strolling around Boerum Hill in cool clogs, is a little doughier as Cindy. When she’s not in scrubs, she wears stretched-out t-shirts. Her roots need touching up and her French tips filling in. Gosling disappears into Dean, who is desperate, tattooed, and always in aviator sunglasses, even inside.
The opening scenes portray the frantic, early morning minutes before the family disperses for the day: Frankie to school, Cindy to her shift at the hospital, Dean to the driveway, where he sloppily swears at speeding cars before heading off to pound a beer and paint a house. Cindy prepares oatmeal for Frankie, which Dean criticizes. He then encourages Frankie to “eat like a leopard,” plucking out the raisins, and slurping them off the table with her in neat little lines. Dean is entertaining his daughter at his wife’s expense. Nothing good comes when parents fail to put up a united front, and already we can tell that this marriage is frayed.
But the relationship’s current iteration (Dean, drunk and whiny; Cindy, frigid and short-tempered) is interspliced with flashbacks to their shared, happy past. The cuts are often disorienting — Dean with a full head of hair opening a door to a suddenly younger Cindy, for instance. The impressive feat of the structure is the restraint with which the flashbacks are deployed. You always want more of them, more of the past; it’s a relief when it’s granted, and it’s almost intolerable when we’re thrown back from it, into the ferment. We, like Cindy and Dean themselves, want to spend no time at all in what this marriage has become, though it says something great that we still root for them in the flashbacks, knowing all the while what’s in store for them. After one of their early dates, Dean throws Cindy onto the bed, “BOOM!” he bellows goofily, shoving a CD at her chest. “Everybody’s got a song,” he says, “but they’re lame and they all share them, you know, it’s disgusting. Not us. We have our own song.” It’s a hilarious but haunted line. Like those couples that unknowingly share clichéd love songs, Cindy and Dean are not unique; their misery is not special or distinctive. This is not an unhappy family in its own way, but a family unhappy just like so many others.
Up until the making of Blue Valentine, Derek Cianfrance had only ever directed shorts and documentaries, mostly for TV. The necessary authenticity of his previous form has translated fully here. Both Williams and Gosling inhabit their roles to a degree that a mumbling Marlon Brando could be proud of (the two lived in a remote cabin together prior to production, sharing domestic duties and seemingly simmering with mutual venom). Blue Valentine accomplishes in cinema what Jonathan Franzen’s Freedom does in literature: its characters and story make most other depictions of ruined romance and exhausted matrimony look flimsy in comparison. And like Franzen, Cianfrance here succeeds in telling a non-didactic, amoral story. When characters are rendered this deeply, they don’t speak for anyone but themselves. Blue Valentine is not prescriptive, and no one is exploited for the sake of allegory.
In multiple scenes — arriving late to Frankie’s recital, listening to her father interrogate Dean over dinner — Williams is able summon that silent rage of dumb emotion, the kind that materializes when your mind and vision are whittled into a single point of white-hot feeling. And Gosling’s charm as Dean is not at all canned. When Cindy drives Frankie off to school, Dean waves from the front lawn, shouting, “I love you like crazy. I love you like craaaaaa-zy!” over and over again, in an increasingly cartoonish voice. Not being able to imagine the writer making certain lines up — feeling as though they must be the remembered tics of a real, live person — is a testament to a script’s quality.
The subtlety of the rapport between Cindy and Dean is often snuffed out grandly with shouting matches, bitter words, and bad sex. But in the penultimate scene, in the wake of a violent outbreak that seems to have finalized it all, the sensitivity of their connection reëmerges, though sadly. Their body language exactly mimics their words. They both speak, breathlessly, in contentless repetitions. “Tell me how I should be. Tell me how I should be.” Then: “I’ll do it. I’ll do it. I’ll do it.” Then: “No, no, no, no, no.” Then: kiss, kiss, kiss, kiss, kiss. Finally, she quivers into his arms, not out of forgiveness or love, but out of fatigue and short-circuited verbal power. It’s how you speak and move when you’re in the midst of total emotional carnage, and the immensity of looming change can only be perceived in momentary flashes, ones that make you stutter and shake.
Like others, my only reservation was with the film’s vast gaps, though they do not leave blind spots or confuse the sequence of events. We see the utter wretchedness of the present, and we see the sugary sweetness of the past. The film shows us the two most extreme poles of a relationship: the falling in love and the already-out-of-love. We see the charm and lust that is preamble to infatuation. We see the scorn that is the epilogue to all those implied nights of proximate neglect, all those tiny, ungenerous glances that seem to multiply by fathomless factors as the years go on. It’s the less cinematic moments, though, that buttress a relationship, and in not revealing them, we’re left with a sense of pity more than gutting empathy. What we don’t witness is the more incremental arc of a shared life: the being in love, not the falling in love; the losing of love, not love’s loss.