Review: 'Blue Valentine'

Although for a time "Blue Valentine" carried an NC-17 rating, the only thing utterly graphic about the film is the brutally honest depiction of the dissolution of a marriage.

The film has since been given the appropriate R rating, but that does not mean children should see it. And to be quite honest, it might be hard for many adults to sit through it as well.

The title indicates a romance that has lost its blood, and director Derek Cianfrance's second narrative feature is an artful dissection of that cold, metaphoric heart.

The movie opens with young Frankie (Faith Wladyka) standing in her front yard calling helplessly for her lost dog. As her father, Dean (a scraggly and balding Ryan Gosling), realizes, the gate has been left open. To placate his young daughter's fears, he suggests they leave a bowl of water out for the dog, as surely it will have to return to eat. Early on we are confronted with a symbol of something beloved that has been lost and likely will not return.

Back in the house, it is apparent that Dean has a special, tender relationship with his daughter. He playfully acts as her accomplice as they make like "tigers" and pull a surprise attack on a sleeping mommy (Michelle Williams). Later, in the kitchen, he pours oatmeal and raisins on the kitchen table, as father and daughter eat "like leopards." Frankie relishes the playfulness of her father, but mother Cindy seems to be at her wits' end.

"I don't want to clean up after two kids," she says caustically to Dean, as she reminds her daughter that she's a big girl now who should be eating from her bowl.

"You're a big girl now, sweetheart, so don't have any fun," Dean says sarcastically.

And therein lies the inherent opposition of the two mind-sets of Dean and Cindy. She is serious and constrained, while he is whimsical and free. She has apparently tired of his boyish charm, but the details of her frustration at first remain a mystery.

After the extended introductory sequence, Cianfrance cuts to a slightly younger, more handsome Dean who is sporting a full head of hair. We follow Dean through the process of applying for a job and listen in as he opines about the truly romantic nature of men versus the cold pragmatism that leads women to choose a partner, a curious and fresh flipping of gender roles.

After a few minutes it becomes clear that what we are seeing is a flashback, one of many 8- to 10-minute vignettes Cianfrance employs throughout the film to retrace Dean and Cindy's relationship.

The juxtaposition of the nervous energy and anticipation that accompanies a burgeoning romance with the cold despair of decaying love is startling. Early in their relationship, as with all relationships, there is the excitement that comes with the discovery of a tantalizing mystery. But the blank canvas onto which we can project our hopes and desires eventually becomes muddied by reality, and the unknown becomes the unbearable.

When the movie jumps back in time to show how the young lovers met, the scenes are presented through the soft warmth of film that stands in contrast to the stark digital images used to depict the harsh realities of a marriage that is taking its final breaths.

"Let's get out of here. We've got to get out of here," Dean says to Cindy at one point as he attempts to persuade her to spend the night at a motel getting drunk and having sex. "Here" in this case refers to their house, but it also represents the place they are in their relationship. They are at the precipice, one from which Dean foolishly believes there is an escape.

Despite the lubrication of booze and the coaxing of Penny and the Quarters singing "You and Me" on the stereo, Cindy refuses to give into the myth of reconciliation. Dean's attempts at romancing the wife who no longer loves him are painful, best illustrated by a scene in which he tries to pleasure his disaffected wife in the shower.

With Cindy back at her office after their failed fireworks, Dean makes one last flailing and violent attempt to hold onto a woman who it seems was only actually his for the most fleeting of moments. It is an intense physical outburst that works to shift the dynamic between viewer and the characters.

For much of the movie, Dean wins our sympathies with his rakish charm and devil-may-care attitude, while Cindy seems cold and cloistered. But it becomes clear that Cindy is simply trying to live a purposeful life despite the forces that have circumscribed her, while Dean is content to waste his potential and ignore any ambition. He simply cannot be the man she needs him to be, and Dean seems to sense and resent this while doing nothing to change until it is too late.

Williams and Gosling are simply incredible as they subtly capture the range of emotions that color the arch of a relationship that is not built to last, from the first butterflies of flirtation to the last dreadful stages of grief.

For all of the chatter about illicit sex, the scene that most fully captures the movie and moves the audience with its perverse irony is the musical interlude where Dean, in a playful attempt to woo Cindy on a date, plays a ukulele and sings the standard, "You Always Hurt the One You Love."

"And if I broke your heart last night, it's because I love you most of all," he sings.

"Blue Valentine"

Our grade: A-

Genres: Drama, Romance

Running Time: 120 min

MPAA rating: R