Movie review: ‘Blue Valentine’

Although Blue Valentine is about the disintegration of a straight couple’s marriage, the themes, scenes and emotions it deals with could be out of any relationship: The awkward silences, the cold touches, the largely unspoken anger, the rebuffed affection, the meaningless disagreements. There are moments of tenderness, but they are made all the sadder because we see them in flashback. It’s over for these two.

I’ve been in this kind of relationship. I’m sure most people have. And it’s not pretty.

Sound like a happy film? Yeah, it’s not. But it is very real.

It’s also the kind of film that invites “process” reviews — that is, stories about the making of the film itself and its style: the hand-held camera and improvised dialogue resulting from weeks of off-set rehearsal with stars Ryan Gosling and Michelle Williams (Heath Ledger’s widow), who lived together as a married couple for weeks to get into the skins of the characters. That accounts for the realism — authenticity trumps contrivance, character supersedes plot.

You can’t call that a bad thing, but it can be difficult to watch. Cindy (Williams) and Dean (Gosling) are a young couple with a sweet 5-year-old daughter, but their marriage is failing. In fact, by the time the movie begins, it’s basically over. Both from working-class backgrounds — Dean is a housepainter and mover, Cindy is a nurse — but Cindy seems to feel trapped by Dean’s lack of ambition. She likes his goofy charm, his grand acts of romanticism, but she doesn’t seem challenged by him. “I thought the whole point of coming here was to have a night without kids,” she snipes when he takes her to a fantasy motel and begins making animal noises. Ouch.

Director Derek Cianfrance approximates John Cassavetes’ patented way of creating pained realism not from meaningful dialogue or fancy camerawork, but by intense observation of small moments between people. He hops between the beginnings of their courtship and the dissolve with only subtle visual cues. He also allows Gosling and Williams to sparkle in their roles. Both are likely Oscar contenders, so intense and measured are their performances.

Blue Valentine isn’t the best date movie, but it is, in some ways, an ideal break-up movie, one that makes you feel you’re not alone in that pain.

Now playing at Landmark’s Magnolia Theatre in the West Village. Rated R (after an original NC-17 rating for explicit sex). 118 mins.

—  Arnold Wayne Jones