Blue Valentine is a love story, but it's a strange kind of love story. It starts at the end -- at the end of love, that is. It moves back and forth between the beginning of love, and the end of it, leaving the middle something of a mystery.
The movie begins in the morning, as Cindy (Michelle Williams) and Dean (Ryan Gosling), puffy-eyed and tired, wake up with their young daughter Frankie (Faith Wladyka) and start a working day. Their dog is missing, which is just the first thing that goes terribly wrong over the next 48 hours.
Cindy is a nurse in a medical clinic; Dean is a house painter. They've been together about six years, but when the film toggles back to their first meeting, it's clear the years between have been hard on them. Cindy was in college then, and determined to become a doctor. Dean worked for a moving company. He was a nice guy, a loyal, sweet guy, which at that moment, was what Cindy most needed and wanted in her life. So what happened?
That is a question that writer-director Derek Cianfrance (who co-wrote the movie with Joey Curtis and Cami Delavigne) is fundamentally not interested in answering. Blue Valentine is about the troubled beginning of the story of Dean and Cindy, and the troubled end, but it skips the middle. What happened in the middle? (Trouble would be the obvious guess.) In some sense, nothing happened, and that, the movie hints, is precisely the problem. For Cindy, something was supposed to happen. Things were supposed to change. Dean liked everything just as it was. Somewhere along the way, they pulled apart, got out of synch.
The movie creates a sense of distress and discomfort by getting too physically close to the characters. The cinematography by Andrij Parekh is invasively intimate, going for closeups that cut Cindy and Dean into pieces -- part of a face, a torso, a thigh. It's a visual technique that heightens emotion and ups the anxiety level in a film already loaded with both. The backgrounds are only vaguely there -- they're cut into little bits too, into glimpses of a shabby home, a minivan, and the cheesy motel room where Dean tries in vain to rekindle their romance. This visual dismemberment and dissection doesn't especially reveal what's going on inside the characters, but it emphasizes that Blue Valentine isn't a portrait of a romance or a marriage so much as it is a post-mortem.
The difficulty with the cut-out-the-middle approach to the narrative is that, while Dean and Cindy are well-defined in the scenes from their youthful romance, the people they become only a few years later -- he with his receding hairline, she with her weariness and frustration -- seem a little disconnected from their former selves. That may be partly a function, too, of how little time -- a couple of days in the now, a few months in the past -- the movie spends with them. A lot happens in that little time -- not all of it is revelatory, and some of it is not very surprising. Williams and Gosling, both very good actors, bring a lot of emotional intensity and nuance to their roles, which fills in some of the blanks, but also has the effect of leaving you wanting to know more.
But there is no more. Blue Valentine is less about how they got to their unhappy place, and more about that they got to be disconnected, disappointed, and discontent.