A cursory glance at its title and attractive cast gives the impression that Blue Valentine might be a great date movie. But, to borrow the disclaimer from 500 Days of Summer, "this is not a love story."
Although Derek Cianfrance's Sundance sensation traverses Revolutionary Road's trail of marital disintegration, Blue Valentine is not some polished assault on Eisenhower-era conformity. Instead, it's a raw, plaintive portrait of a romance's heady birth and excruciating death rattle, cut from the gritty mold of John Cassavetes' Faces and, to a certain degree, A Woman Under the Influence.
Even more significant is what's not in the film. Missing is the maudlin middle, the answers to how Dean (Ryan Gosling) and Cindy (Michelle Williams) go from young, white-hot lovers to a marriage so broken it's barely held together by parental obligation. Was it money, the stress of a young family, emotional abuse or simply a misapprehension of the degree of actual affection residing between two people ultimately bound together by an unexpected pregnancy? The cause(s) remains vague, if not unknown, as is often the case in real-life divorces whose demise remains cloaked in a fog of subfusc culprits.
Absent the usual narrative gimcracks, the film sometimes teeters over lethargy and self-consciousness. What spares this latest tale of gangrenous romance from the banality of, say, a movie about a down-and-out boxer seeking one last shot at glory is a slavish, almost discomforting realism portrayed by actors well equipped for the challenge. Gosling and Williams each essentially play two characters, one in love's early throes and another grappling with the fugue caused by its inescapable demise.
Cianfrance assigns a bit of gender reversal to his leads. Cindy is cast as the driven, sometimes self-centered partner who blames her home life for stifling her dreams, while Dean's focus on his role as spouse and parent becomes an obsession that chokes out consideration for anything else life has to offer. On one hand, Dean morphs into an emotional troglodyte; on the other, he willingly emasculates himself for the sake of hearth and home and is made to suffer for it.
Cianfrance deploys the well-worn device of chronological hopscotch to tell this tale of love and marriage. The narrative back-and-forth works best when fashioned into a kind of call and response: e.g., Dean and Cindy's first sexual meeting is crosscut with a much-later attempt to rekindle thing inside a cheesy sci-fi-themed hotel suite. While the act they perform on this occasion is still, strictly speaking, sex, Gosling and Williams' sublime execution fosters the feeling of pulling the plug on a comatose relationship.
You're left half-wondering whether it was the cunnilingus or the sheer, aching sadness of the scene that prompted the rating board to nearly brand Blue Valentine with the scarlet NC-17. No matter: As with the rest of the film, it is the unknown that's most compelling.