Why does it still come as a surprise when relationships come to an end? Statistically, it’s bound to happen at least once – I don’t know anyone over 30 who hasn’t had his or her heart ripped out – and the odds aren’t much better than the flip of a coin when it comes to marriage. Yet there’s always that shock wave of grief, relief and/or anger when the realization of love’s end first hits you.
2004’s Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind told us that it’s worth it, that all the pain and torment and damage we endure for love is our great Faustian bargain for the chance at the slightest moment of pure bliss. Blue Valentine, a close cousin of Spotless Mind, is more utilitarian than that. Its message: Love happens and it usually ends eventually and that sucks.
In Blue Valentine, Ryan Gosling and Michelle Williams (neither of whom have ever been better than here) play Dean and Cindy, a married couple so bogged down by work and raising a daughter that their disinterest in each other is all that keeps them from divorce. It’s like they just haven’t had a second to think about it, yet. Dean, sensing his toes dangling over the edge of the marital cliff, makes them take a second. He goads his wife into dropping off their kid and spending the weekend holed up in a shitty motel. Maybe he thinks they can reconnect and get things back on track. I don’t buy it. It’s in the way he fixates on her, interpreting her every move and mood. He’s not regarding her; he’s taking stock.
To emphasize the difference, director Derek Cianfrance occasionally jumps back in time to before they met, to the moment they fell in love and to the seismic event that cemented their relationship. At these lovely, messy intervals, Gosling and Williams simply glow. Not that they’re skipping along the beach to a Turtles song – in fact, their portrayal of young love is one of accurate confusion, familial unrest and all-or-nothing fatalism. But that’s young love, Cianfrance makes clear, and it gets more mature as we do.
It’s no spoiler to say that it doesn’t work out. But the way Cianfrance and his actors show, not tell, the destruction is a revelation. They find within the relationship its most slippery slopes – her flirty boss, a possible relocation, the way he feeds their daughter breakfast – and explores them with a sociologist’s eye. How does one thing lead to another? How does it all end up colliding so violently? One bad day, one escalation or irritation from outside forces and an entire marriage, a family, slips away just like that.
Of course, that’s not how it works; a few years removed from the rubble and either ex could draw a diagram of how it all went wrong. But that’s how it feels – like a minor misstep that turned into an avalanche, and that’s Blue Valentine’s triumph.
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