Blue Valentine is that rare breed of film: a thoroughly realistic approach to the breakdown of a relationship. Director and screenwriter Derek Cianfrance tracks the beginning and end of a relationship, from its love-filled start to its final eventual and utter breakdown.
Ryan Gosling plays Dean, who believing in love at first sight, pursues Cindy (Michelle Williams) after a brief exchange of banter in the doorway of her grandmother’s room in a nursing home. Both are clearly from a blue-collar background, but whilst Dean is content to move furniture, Cindy wants more, desiring to become a Doctor. It is Dean’s general lack of any professional ambition that Cindy later highlights, questioning his lack of drive. Cindy, in working hard, finds it hard to understand that Dean, who is sogood as so many things, feels no need to further himself. Dean explains that he is simply content to be a good husband and a good father. Dean certainly is a good father and husband, doting on both his wife and child. It is this that makes the relationships eventual breakdown so heart-breaking. There is no specific reason for Dean and Cindy to break up, no adultery on either side, no violence. There is no right or wrong here: Cindy is simply no longer in love with him.
The film’s narrative switches between the couple’s initial meeting and the final few days of their marriage. Cianfrance, in making Cindy and Dean so radiant in the early days of their relationship, not only ensures the audience’s empathy, but further highlights the lacklustre state of their relationship six years later.
Much has been made of the original NC-17 rating the film initially received; arguably, the sex scenes featured in Blue Valentine are not only integral to the characters development, but are also fundamental in the development of the way they interact with one another. In the first flush of love, their sexual attraction to one another is still highly present; they have sex because they are in love. In later scenes,Dean, starved of affection and still believing their relationship can be saved, arranges for the pair to spend a night in a seedy motel, hoping in some way to reignite the affection Cindy used to feel for him. The night in the motel merely cements the relationship’s end, an end which has been apparent to all but Dean.
The very look of the film also serves to highlight the fragile nature of their relationship, shooting the earlier days of the relationship in 16mm, whilst the later days are shot in digital, contrasting the idealistic love they feel at the beginning, with the lack of love Cindy now feels.
Ryan Gosling and Michelle Williams are both utterly perfect as Dean and Cindy; it is entirely due to their performances that the film is so affecting. Williams is more understated than Gosling, but that is not to say her acting is any less impressive: Cindy is simply more reserved, more tightly-wound than Gosling’s character, who revels in his childlike nature, especially when playing with their child.
The film’s intimate nature further aids the effect the film has upon its audience. It is rare, especially in relation to the rom-coms that so populate the box-office, to see such a frank and unyielding portrait of a relationship. Blue Valentine is an intensely sad film, poignant and at times profound. Its intimacy at times is difficult to watch, but it cannot be recommended enough.