“You always hurt the one you love, the one you shouldn’t hurt at all,” croons lead actor Ryan Gosling midway through the runtime of director Derek Cianfrance’s sophomore effort, Blue Valentine. Yet, because of the film’s unique temporal structure, the scene actually takes place towards beginning of Cindy (Michelle Williams) and Dean’s love story. In this respect, the Mills Brothers’ classic serves as a self-fulfilling prophecy for the couple.
Blue Valentine is a film that deals in dichotomies, charting the vast differences between the beginning of a relationship and its untimely demise. Cindy and Dean’s relationship is easy at the beginning. For Cindy, Dean represents new hope. He is the antithesis of her last boyfriend (Mike Vogel), who in many ways resembled her abusive father. Goofy but romantic, carefree but not careless, Dean is willing to love her unconditionally. While, in Cindy, Dean believes he has found “the one.” Cindy’s decision to marry Dean is much more calculated than his own. He sees their marriage as the goal, whereas she sees it as means to achieving security for herself and their unborn child.
The couple’s diverging motivations make married life that much harder. Dean is blind to Cindy’s discontent, because he is so happy to be with her and their daughter Frankie. He works during the day, painting houses, in order to pay the bills. But, his only real joy is derived from the home he and Cindy have built. Cindy, on the other hand, resents their quiet suburban lifestyle. Only at work, as an obstetrics nurse, does she allow herself to be happy.
Cianfrance, who spent 12 years fine-tuning the script with fellow screenwriters Joey Curtis and Cami Delavigne, is careful not to choose sides. He never vilifies Cindy, nor does he victimize Dean. Instead, he shows the ways in which both parties contributed to the fragmentation of their marriage. Cianfrance also worked carefully with cinematographer Andrij Parekh to establish the differences between scenes set six years ago and those set in the present day. The bright Brooklyn-based scenes set in the past were shot with 16mm film, which makes them seem almost dreamlike in comparison to the cold digital video of the present day. This differentiation of film stock and color palettes manages to enhance the film’s sense of realism.
Williams and Gosling truly inhabit Cindy and Dean, showing how much people can change in just six years time. Of the two, Gosling has more heavy lifting to do. Prosthetics and makeup strip him of his boyish good looks in the future scenes, foregrounding the changes Dean has undergone both superficially and personality wise. But, in many ways, the pair strive to make each other better. Their genuine chemistry bleeds into the film, coloring in the quieter moments that their characters share.
Much ado has been made about the sex scenes in Blue Valentine, much ado about nothing that is. The scenes are in no way exploitative or gratuitous. If anything, it is the sincerity with which they were scripted, acted and captured that upset the MPAA, upon first viewing. Cianfrance doesn’t sugar-coat anything in this film, sex scenes included.