There’s a scene in Blue Valentine that just about pinpoints the moment a young couple falls in love. They’re hanging around outside, he with a ukulele, she occasionally shuffling her feet. He then challenges her to tap-dance to a song he’ll play. That song is “You Always Hurt the One You Love.” He sings it goofily; she dances sweetly.
In any other film—or even at the beginning of this one—the scene would be lovely. But writer-director Derek Cianfrance crafted his feature debut (500) Days of Summer-style, so we know that Cindy (Michelle Williams) and Dean (Ryan Gosling) are doomed. With the story continually (but seamlessly) hopping between past and present, we find out that they’re currently married with a daughter. Their dog was just killed because she left the fence open. And that’s merely one more source of tension in a household now filled with it—tension, and bitterness, and resentment, all byproducts of a life that didn’t turn out quite how they expected, wounds that it’s increasingly clear no Band-Aid can cover.
But they try. Though, as often happens with faded love, one tries a lot harder than the other. In this case it’s Dean, an arguable man-child who thinks it’s great that his contractor-painter job allows him to crack a beer at 8 a.m. He sees nothing wrong with wanting no more out of his life than being a good husband and dad. Cindy, however, is ambitious. Originally hoping to become a doctor, she settled for nursing after she had the baby. She’s trying to move up at work and can’t understand Dean’s contentment with being a laborer when he has real talents. Cindy tries to keep the peace—she gets flustered, for instance, when she mentions running into an old boyfriend and Dean freaks—but more often looks at Dean with cold eyes and an obvious lack of respect. Their union is a time bomb.
Blue Valentine is a quiet film that’s hypnotic in its way-too-relatable portrait of heartbreak. Williams and Gosling are wrenching, boasting a beautiful chemistry when Cindy and Dean are falling in love and realistic desperation when they’re falling out. Each have stellar moments on both sides: Williams gives an unforgettable look of tender shock when Dean tells Cindy he wants her to have the baby, while Gosling displays a rakish charm that answers why Cindy would fall for a high-school dropout in the first place. And when their relationship is disintegrating, Cindy’s tears after a failed seduction will rip your heart out, but not as much as a late scene in which she tells Dean she’s had enough. (“Tell me how I should be!” he pleads. “I’ll do it!”) Watching them gasp for their lost love is both painful and exquisite, a fitting experience considering their relationship has been the same.