Blue Valentine steals our hearts

If you think you’ve seen it before, you’re wrong, and you’re also right.

Now that it’s spent months on the awards circuit, the same Blue Valentine stories abound: Ryan Gosling and Michelle Williams lived in their married characters’ onscreen house for a month, celebrating holidays and buying groceries on a strict budget; Gosling, a Method actor, wanted to wait the story’s six years between settings to film; it took writer-director Derek Cianfrance a dozen years to get the thing made; it briefly earned an R rating in the US for its explicit cunnilingus scenes (the horror!); its realistic depiction of a relationship arc earned it spots on critics’ and nomination lists. (As of Tuesday, add an Oscar nod for Williams.)

The sameness of *Blue Valentine*, its seeming ordinariness, is the reason those unique points are hit over and over---and, OK, Harvey Weinstein, who never met a ratings debacle he couldn’t extend into a marketing campaign---because it’s a hard sell. Dean (Gosling) meets Cindy (Williams) and they fall madly for one another. Cut to six years later, and their marriage is hanging on by a thread. How did they get from there to here? Well, there’s no middle to help explain, but it’s not needed---we live in the middle. The highs and lows, the things we feel the hardest and the same---that’s Blue Valentine, equal parts exhilarating and punishing, beautiful and hideous.

When they meet, Dean and Cindy are young, so his lack of direction and ambition are normal, even to an overachiever like her. In the now, when he’s drinking a beer at 8am just to steel himself for the day and she’s working double shifts at the hospital, anything exciting and sexy about that is gone. He’s still in love but she’s fading and he knows it, so he suggests they send their daughter to grandma’s and spend the night at a cheesy motel---they’ve got gift certificates---to reconnect. It’s in that room, lit an ugly blue, that everything falls apart for them.

But oh, that beginning. The entire chain of their meeting is lovely---he spots her in a seniors’ home, later runs into her on a bus, convinces her to get off and hang out---but the best link is akin to the “Falling Slowly” scene in Once, a duet of tap-dance and ukulele so infectiously joyous the audio is resurrected over the final credits. “Surprise me,” is what Cianfrance told me his direction was to the actors when I spoke to him at a Toronto film festival event in September. Gosling and Williams had spent 11 hours walking the same stretch of New York sidewalk, trying to find the beats of Dean and Cindy’s eureka moment. Cianfrance said neither actor knew what the other was going to do, so it’s Williams as much as it’s Cindy expressing surprise at Gosling’s lovely singing voice.

It’s not flawless---Gosling’s hairline is almost comically receded, Cindy is underwritten and sometimes lost against the force of Dean; some elements lean a bit twee, see: tap-dancing and ukulele (there’s also a melodica). But as adult relationship dramas go---and these are adults, in the sad end---you’ve not seen something as rich, nuanced and true as Blue Valentine in a very long while. If you think you’ve seen it before, you’re wrong, and you’re also right. That’s its magic---through the beginning and the end, it makes you consider the middle.

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