The trailer for Blue Valentine (IMDB) features a scene in which Dean (Ryan Gosling) is attempting to seduce Cindy (Michelle Williams) by playing a song on a ukelele and singing along in a goofy voice and inviting her to dance along as he sings. He has stopped her at night in front of a downtown storefront, where the interior lights perfectly illuminate her, and the scene, played out of context, seems like a sweet early moment in a relationship, as the couple begins to find each other’s inner beauty. But there is also a hint of melancholia in the scene as Dean sings, “you always hurt the ones you love,” a sentiment that permeates throughout the film and of the ways in which Cindy and Dean will hurt each other.
But rather than telling this story of the dissolution of a relationship in chronological order, Blue Valentine, as directed by Derek Cianfrance, starts just as the relationship is about to end. A gate has been left open, and their beloved family dog has escaped. The couple’s daughter, Frankie, discovers this and first wakes Dean from the sofa, and later Cindy sleeping in their bed, a not-quite-subtle reminder that the couple has drifted apart. The film then intercuts between the events of this final day (a school assembly, discovering their dog dead by the side of the road, a road trip to a nearby hotel for a weekend getaway) and the early days of their relationship when the couple first meets and begins to fall in love.
Dean is immediately enamored, while Cindy is tentative at first, before becoming seduced by his charms and by his willingness to support her through a personal crisis. He works as a mover, and she sees him as he helps an older gentleman as he begins to settle into a nursing home, decorating his walls and seeking to make an older stranger more comfortable. The intercutting between these two moments is effective, with the past shot in brighter colors, and Cindy’s hair longer and more freely flowing, while the later scenes typically rely on darker lighting. The film is also relatively frank in its depiction of the couple’s sex life, shifting from the excitement the couple feels when it first meets to Dean practically forcing himself on Cindy during their last-ditch attempt to re-kindle things in the “sex hotel,” ironically in the “Future Room.”
In her review, Karina Longworth faults the film for providing the male character, Dean, with a rich interior life while denying any depth to Cindy, and I think there is a reasonable argument to be made that Cindy’s story is somewhat eclipsed by Dean’s. Worse, for Karina, is the suggestion, during a scene at a women’ clinic, that Cindy may have been, to use Karina’s phrase a “tempestuous slut,” due to her past number of partners. But I’d like to believe that our perceptions of Cindy were more subtle than that, and I found myself sympathizing with her frustrations with Dean and his inability to really understand his wife, with her recognition that things weren’t working and her attempts to hold things together, even during a chance encounter with an old flame. I did find some aspects of the film to be a little forced. Parts of the backstory with a violent old boyfriend and a judgmental father seemed contrived, as AO Scott observes. But I appreciated how the film managed to navigate between the present and the past in engaging and thoughtful ways.