Movies about love are irritatingly polarizing: If they aren't mooning over a couple's blissful, boy-meets-girl courtship, they are gawking at the last days of their angry, venom-filled break-up. But Derek Cianfrance's Blue Valentine tries to have it both ways, and its clever structure occasionally pays big dividends. Through several flashbacks, the best moments from Dean (Ryan Gosling) and Cindy (Michelle Williams)'s early days are juxtaposed with their present-day moments of doubt. By repeating large and small actions, gestures, and lines of dialogue in different contexts, Cianfrance's film shows how past actions, whether momentous or innocuous, acquire unexpected poignancy with the passing of time.
The film opens in the present, where 30-ish husband Dean, a content working-class dude whose thinning hair, mustache, tinted sunglasses, and dangling cigarette offer a visual parody of a deadbeat dad, attends to their young daughter, while wife Cindy makes watery oatmeal and dreams of better things at the hospital where she works. Cindy's idea of change involves moving away and finding a better job, but Dean seems pleasantly content.
But their marriage has hit a rough patch. So in an attempt to carve out some private time together, Dean and Cindy spend the night in the "Future Room" of a cheesy erotic hotel. The symbolism of this room is inescapable. Like a prison cell, it is cool, metallic, and windowless, and its "charms" feel chintzy and adolescent. (Welcome to the future, indeed.) But it is here where, after too much alcohol — and a memorably uncomfortable attempt at sex that temporarily earned the film an NC-17 rating — much of the emotional baggage that they've been lugging around is opened and painfully dug through.
The most explosive scenes in the film occur when these two decent, needy people finally have it out with each other. They batter each other with repetitive phrases ("Open the door! Open the door! Open the door!") and exclamations of despair ("I've had it. I've had it!"), because, like most people, they can't articulate their feelings of frustration and desire in the heat of the moment. These scenes contrast sharply with the hushed dialogue and tentative smiles shown in the flashbacks, when unplanned moments felt like vague, promising signs of romantic bliss.
With such minimal plot, the performances are everything. Williams and Gosling are frequently fascinating and never less than watchable, and they both got the memo that Cianfrance wasn't interested in any camera framing below their shoulders. They do good, strong work with their faces and voices. Williams is more naturalistic. In her last few films, she's tried hard to take her youthful prettiness into some dark places, and in Blue Valentine she often succeeds. Her performance here is closer to the mysterious traveler of Wendy and Lucy than the mournful love object of Shutter Island. Gosling reveals some bull-headed inquisitiveness and skepticism in his scenes with Williams, but he's channeling Marlon Brando's Terry Malloy slovenliness too directly here; his attempts to seem dumber than he is are more inconsistent than believable.
Opening Friday, January 28th
Malco Cordova and Paradiso