On the morning when we first meet Dean and Cindy, they're well into their relationship and their marriage: She's a nurse, sleeping late on her day off; he's a laborer who works for a moving company, and he's tending daughter Frankie, who's outside in the yard, trying to find their missing dog. (Cindy, we learn later, left the gate to his cage open.)
As Blue Valentine unravels, we meet Cindy (Michelle Williams) and Dean (Ryan Gosling) a few more times at different points in their relationship. Derek Cianfrance, who directed and co-wrote this challenging slice-of-life drama, doesn't tell his story in chronological order, which is almost always a pretentious and unnecessary technique in a film. Here, though, the departure from a straightforward chronology frees us from wondering what will happen next, and allows us to concentrate on what's happening right before us.
For about the first third of the film, it may take you a while to figure out just where in Cindy's and Dean's lives you've landed. But each scene resonates so thoroughly with intimacy and experience that you're learning something about something with every breath these authentic characters take.
The concept here is simple: What is an intimate relationship like, really? Not every single moment or every single aspect, but the ones that matter the most, or the ones that don't seem to matter at the time. Dean works pretty hard to get Cindy to go out with him, and he charms her by playing the ukulele and singing "You Always Hurt the One You Love," while making her dance in the light of a store window at night. She stops after a while, a little embarrassed at being so free-spirited, but he keeps playing. The choice of song is about the most ironic thing in Cianfrance's otherwise literal drama.
Dean never thought he'd be the kind of guy who loves loving his wife and child. Now that he is, Cindy can't understand why he's content with just that, and with working with his body, rather than using his creativity and being more ambitious. They don't quite fight about it. They barely even talk about it. But when they do talk, it doesn't get them anywhere.
She's damaged when they meet. "I know they loved each other at one time," Cindy says, to her grandmother, about her embittered parents. "Did they just get it out of the way before they had me?" Her aggressive ex-boyfriend liked doggie-style sex and didn't withdraw when he promised he would. Dean is a high-school dropout, the son of a musically talented janitor and an absentee mother, and he smokes cigarettes while holding his daughter.
So Blue Valentine is also about class in America, and about the difficulty of overcoming what our upbringing can so cruelly teach us to be. Their relationship is inexplicable -- love, if it's nothing else, is hope -- and yet, every moment of it feels authentic and possible. You fall in love based on how you feel about yourself, you get into the swing of it, and then it becomes hard to live without it.
What's new here is that we rarely see a film that explores the phenomenon with such elegance and integrity. Only the climax feels contrived and clichéd -- Cianfrance is too hard on his characters, and especially on Dean -- although it's as well executed as everything else in the drama, and it most certainly could happen.
Cianfrance photographs Blue Valentine in a documentary style -- an overused technique, except this time, the highly refined, wholly authentic acting and writing combine gracefully to give us the sensation of eavesdropping. The dialogue feels spontaneous, and yet, I could believe that every line was precisely written, and then rehearsed to make it feel improvised. I don't know how they actually did it, and I don't want to know. What's important here is what these artists put it on film for us to attempt to comprehend, which can be as easy or as difficult as you let it be.
Starts Fri., Jan. 14. Manor, AMC Waterfront