"I don't ever want to be like my parents," a teenage Cindy (Michelle Williams) tells her aged grandmother in the new Scenes From a Marriage melodrama Blue Valentine. Did those parents ever love each other? Did they once, and just get it out of the way?
Blue Valentine is about that ultimate question writer Tom Robbins posed once — "Who knows how to make love stay?" — and it's about that last-ditch effort to remember how love was in the beginning, just to see whether it was ever worth fighting for.
Cindy, as we already know by then in this dissection of five years of a relationship and marriage, is facing the same sort of harsh realization her parents must have come to. We see them middle-aged, bitter and cruel — especially her father. Cindy remembers that as she confronts her limits of being married to Dean (Ryan Gosling), a mercurial, argumentative and unsatisfying spouse who rationalizes his life choices and his drinking to her in every out-of-the-blue argument he starts.
Now older and disillusioned herself, Cindy of five years later remembers her question of Granny — "How can you trust your feelings if they can just disappear like that?"
First-time feature director and co-writer Derek Cianfrance presents a narrative that skips back and forth, starting with a bad day in the lives of Cindy and Dean, parents of preschooler Frankie. Their dog has run off, and because they live on a busy highway in rural Pennsylvania, you can guess what comes next. Cindy, a nurse, faces a big career decision. Dean, a beer-swilling house painter who enjoys a job that lets him swill that beer while working, wants only to get them back, romantically, to where they once were.
And as they check into a "cheap sex motel" with themed rooms (They're in "Futureworld"), we flash back and forth to the day they first met, the "love at first sight" moment (for Dean) that put them on this path.
Gosling gives Dean a breezy, insistent cockiness that hides a brittle side. He's smart, with "potential," as Cindy put it. But that never interested him. Williams, nominated for an Oscar for this performance, has the face across which we watch this story play. She had the ambition Dean lacked, but she fell under his insistent courting, wooed by his kindness, his sensitivity and his ukulele.
Blue Valentine feels off-the-cuff and improvised, which adds to the charm of that first date and the danger of that "big fight." Clues to how they came to be are offered in the present, explained in flashback. It's a gritty, almost ugly-to-look-at film, and Cianfrance isn't shy about including a random blast of unwarranted shaky footage.
But there's a brutal honesty to Cindy's angst, a real conflict in her connection to this man. Will they endure, the way her parents did, or will they throw in the towel — her outgrowing him, him embittered at her loss of affection and passion? We worry for them, which is all this movie needs to accomplish.
A film made notorious because of a needless ratings dust-up over its not-all-that sex scenes, the well-acted, generally engrossing Blue Valentine doesn't blink when the going gets tough, and it doesn't romanticize that first blush of attraction, affection and love. Don't assume that pun title is about the raciness of the subject matter. In a marriage in trouble, the only inviolate truth is everybody involved is going to be blue.