“Love is the triumph of imagination over intelligence.” ~~H.L. Mencken
Maybe at first in love imagination does win over intelligence, as Mencken argued. But it’s inevitable that imagination doesn’t get to keep winning. One day unpretty, rational thinking, the bills-and-dead-car-batteries reality, takes over. For the more resilient couples, this is merely the beginning of a new phase of love; in Derek Cianfrance’s vivid, heartbreaking drama “Blue Valentine,” it is the beginning of the end for Dean (Ryan Gosling) and Cindy (Michelle Williams). Their fragile bond, built on the whimsy and giddiness of new love, cannot withstand the shift. And when the whimsy wears off, Dean and Cindy have nowhere to go but down.
With his focus on the whole story, told through flashbacks that blend the beginning, middle and end admirably, Cianfrance sets his film apart from other romantic dramas — or, to be more accurate, romantic melodramas. He does not paint over the ugly parts; nor does he allow “Blue Valentine” to descend into endless shrieking matches. Cianfrance also does not make the sweet moments of Dean and Cindy’s early courtship seem saccharine and larger-than-life. He starts the film when the 30something couple’s marriage is at the point of near-fracture. Dean’s fundamental lack of drive has begun to gnaw at Cindy, a nurse who wants to advance her career. What once seemed spontaneous and charming has become a constant source of frustration for Cindy. Dean, a hard-drinking house painter, can’t understand why just being Cindy’s husband and father to their young daughter, Frankie (Faith Wladyka), isn’t enough. He doesn’t buy into the concept of potential, so he doesn’t think he’s squandering his. Still, Dean has a good heart, and in an 11th-hour bid to rekindle some of the old spark he books a hotel room. But too much booze and too many exposed nerves turn the evening gut-wrenchingly sour.
Interspersed in these tense scenes are the early days of Cindy and Dean’s relationship, from their chance meeting at a nursing home — where Cindy is visiting her grandmother (Jen Jones) and Dean is moving furniture — and sweet first date to Cindy’s unexpected pregnancy and Dean’s clash with her volatile ex-boyfriend Dean (Mike Vogel). The flashbacks are rich in small but rich character details that Williams and Gosling underplay to great effect. Cindy’s interactions with her bullish father (John Doman) might explain her hunger for male attention and her attachment to Dean, the antithesis of violent-tempered men like her father. Dean’s attempt to woo Cindy — using a ukelele and a warbled love song — speaks to his tendency toward courtly love. He is a romantic at heart, an unrepentant one; there’s the suggestion that he sort of fancies himself the Prince Charming to Cindy’s distressed damsel. Nowhere does “Blue Valentine” capture this more beautifully than during Cindy and Dean’s impromptu courthouse wedding. They are caught thick in the haze of romance, wanting to rush forward, be reckless for the grand and heart-swelling cause of love. Underneath that love, though, there’s a tinge of desperation, the kind of subtle but vital emotion that only actors as compelling as Williams and Gosling could pull off.
To get to the gut level of this splintering relationship, Cianfrance relies on the intimacy of 16mm film and the dingy buildings in Brooklyn and Pennsylvania. His true gift is making these locales change as Cindy and Dean’s relationship changes: at the start, these shop fronts and weedy concrete sidewalks seem inviting, whisper of promise. But near the end, they feel cool, dank and unwelcoming (the barroom hotel room lighting accomplishes this aim stunningly well). Remarkable as well are the gradual and sometimes painfully realistic changes Williams and Gosling give to their characters. The physical changes (both gained 15 pounds to play their 30-year-old selves) look authentic; what’s really incredible, however, is the way these actors adapt their characters. Both Williams and Gosling understand the power of body language and facial expressions. They are able to convey all aspects of Dean and Cindy’s life together with brutal clarity: the exciting spark of early romance; the shift to married life and raising a child; and their emotionally bruising final argument, the pressure-overwhelmed hole that causes the dam to break.