Within the first 15 minutes of Derek Cianfrance's wrenching romantic drama Blue Valentine (the Weinstein Co.), you know more about the intimate, day-to-day details of its characters' lives than you do by the end of most movies. Cindy and Dean (Michelle Williams and Ryan Gosling) are a married couple in their late 20s or early 30s. They live in rural Pennsylvania with a daughter of about 5 (Faith Wladyka). Cindy, an obstetrics nurse, loves her job and is good at it, but at home she's snappish, discontented, and perpetually overworked. Dean is a house painter, ambitionless but reasonably content in his work, a volatile husband and a goofy but besotted father. Cindy and Dean's marriage is in trouble—not because of an affair or abuse or addiction (though both drink more than they probably should), but just because of the passage of time and the thousand natural shocks that flesh is heir to. They don't laugh at each other's jokes; they don't respect each other's parenting decisions; they don't have sex.
At the end of one particularly miserable day, Dean decides that what he and his wife need is a night in what Cindy ungraciously but accurately describes as a "cheesy sex motel." They leave their daughter with her grandfather (a dour John Doman) and check into the ironically named Future Room, a windowless dump wallpapered in reflective foil, where they spend a night drinking, dancing, and having epically bad marital relations. Intercut with these painfully naturalistic present-day scenes are flashbacks to a more hopeful time five or six years earlier, when the two first met, fell in love, and, after a series of split-second decisions that were either romantic or stupid or both, wound up at the altar.
Blue Valentine's ingenious temporal structure is one of the best things about it. The nested time frames complement and explicate one another without any obvious signposting; there are no legends at the bottom of the screen reading "six years earlier," no chunks of expository dialogue setting up the couple's circumstances. In fact, until you get used to the back-and-forth structure, it's hard to keep track of whether a scene takes place in the past or the present. But that's not a flaw; the viewer's sense of slippage between timeframes echoes the couple's experience of being doomed to repeat patterns established long ago.
From the beginning, the fault lines in this relationship are discernible: Cindy's rigidity and secretiveness, Dean's hypersensitivity and refusal to accept loss or change. Yet neither partner emerges as the villain; there's no abusive Ike Turner here, no abandoning mother a la Kramer vs. Kramer. Watching as these two well-meaning and decent people try, and fail, to stop treating each other horribly was one of the most painful experiences I've had at the movies this year. Dean and Cindy's climactic (and in part physical) confrontation at her workplace is as hard to sit through as the arm-sawing scene in 127 Hours.
Blue Valentine isn't perfect: There are a few narrative details that feel contrived, a little pat. A subplot that establishes Cindy as the child of an emotionally abusive father makes its point too neatly. The pretty, plaintive score by the Brooklyn indie band Grizzly Bear at times panders to our emotions, especially in the flashback scenes—we would understand that these two were falling in love without acoustic-guitar reinforcement. But the movie gets so much else right, from the careful hand-held camerawork by Andrij Parekh (who uses different film stock and color palettes for the two time periods: the past in warm golden 16-millimeter, the present in icy blue digital video) to the sensational performances by both leads.
There are so many things to love about Michelle Williams' face. I dearly hope that, on that still far-off day when she's no longer a young woman, she never does anything to it. It's a beautiful face, but beautiful in a normal, non-movie-star way, and so wonderfully expressive and unguarded. She plays this tired, disillusioned, chronically angry woman without a trace of actorly vanity. It's a performance noteworthy not just for its intensity but for Williams' ability to communicate inner experience at a micro-level of detail. You can pinpoint the precise moments when Cindy, realizing that no one is watching, lets her face slacken into its default expression of despair.
Gosling's performance, if I had to compare them, is just a shade less subtle than Williams', but he's also superb as the thin-skinned, loudmouthed, heartbreakingly loyal Dean. More impressive than either performance is the space the two actors create between themselves. We wouldn't feel we knew them so well by the end unless we believed they knew each other. In an unorthodox rehearsal process that resembles John Cassavetes' or Mike Leigh's, Cianfrance co-habited with his leads for a month, sharing chores in the Pennsylvania house where they would shoot the present-day scenes. He also reportedly filmed them in takes up to 40 minutes long, often with the actors improvising dialogue from a template Cianfrance provided. (The director has mentioned his plans to leak some of this cutting-room-floor footage on the Internet; here's hoping it ends up as an extra on the DVD.)
Before its release, the MPAA threatened to slap Blue Valentine with a box-office-killing NC-17 rating, but producer and distributor Harvey Weinstein threw a tantrum and got it reversed to an R. For once, Weinstein's drama-queen behavior seems justifiable. (I particularly loved Weinstein's defense of a flashback scene in which Dean performs oral sex on an ecstatic Cindy: "That was good acting. Maybe too good.")
My suspicion is that the MPAA was uncomfortable with Blue Valentine's depiction of sex not because it was too graphic, but because it was too frank and dark and sad. We're used to (non-pornographic) movie sex signifying only one thing: "Then they had sex, and it was awesome." Dean and Cindy's drunken coupling in the Future Room is decidedly not awesome—it's shot through with open hostility and even moments of questionable consensuality (though when Dean comprehends the degree of his wife's revulsion, he desists). Maybe a new MPAA rating should be invented for Blue Valentine: NSFFD, "not safe for first dates." This is a marvel of a movie, but in the interest of perpetuating the human race, I'd counsel dewy young couples embarking on life's journey to check into a sex motel instead.