“Have we become a habit? Do we distort the facts? Now, there’s no looking forward; now, there’s no turning back.”
The words come from an old Pat Benatar hit, “We Belong,” but they perfectly express what’s going through the mind of Cindy (Michelle Williams) in “Blue Valentine.” Benatar’s ballad sounds like a fiery ode to the power of passion — until you pay close attention to the lyrics: “Whatever we deny or regret, for worse or for better, we belong together.” Perhaps Cindy is figuring out the underlying meaning of the song for the first time while she listens to it as she drives to work. She is slowly, reluctantly facing the realization that she can’t keep going down the same road.
Director Derek Cianfrance (who co-wrote the screenplay with Cami Delavigne and Joey Curtis) puts Cindy and her husband, Dean (Ryan Gosling), under a microscope to study how a marriage can disintegrate, day by day, week by week, bit by bit. While there are some emotional explosions and furious fights in “Valentine,” Cianfrance and his actors — both of whom dive fearlessly into the hearts of these characters — are more intrigued by how a break-up can be triggered by a long string of minor miseries that are ignored, like the tiny, almost imperceptible lines in our faces that go unnoticed until that one awful day when the mirror and the morning light conspire to reveal an unsettling truth: We are no longer what we think we are.
A love story that began with an almost fairy tale-ish finale — Dean, a knight in shining sweatshirt, rescued a helpless Cindy from the clutches of a cruel boyfriend — has turned into a sour Cinderella story. Cindy got her prince, only to find he has no ambition, and they moved into a castle that turned out to be a low-rent haunted house, in which bittersweet memories and old recriminations seem to emanate from the dull wallpaper and faded Formica.
The structure of Cindy and Dean’s life with their young daughter, Frankie (Faith Wladyka), is spelled out immediately in short, bold strokes. He’s the “fun” parent who licks raisins off the breakfast table while showing Frankie how to “eat like leopards.” She’s the enforcer, who has to keep everyone on schedule and remind Frankie that she’s “a big girl now.”
“You’re a big girl now, sweetheart,” Dean chides Frankie. “So don’t have any fun.”
Cindy has a steady job as an ultrasound technician; Dean has a patchier career as a house painter. He wishes she would be more adventurous and uninhibited. She wishes he would show some initiative: “I’d like to see you have a job where you didn’t have to start drinking at 8 o’clock in the morning to go to it.”
There are still bursts of unexpected joy and playfulness in their interactions, but there used to be many more, as we see in flashbacks to the days when Cindy was a college student who found Dean’s goofy behavior an irresistible alternative to her poisonous home life with a dictatorial dad and a mom who apparently resigned from life years earlier.
“In my experience, the prettier a girl is, the more nuts she is — which makes you insane,” Dean told her. That kind of sweet talk led Cindy to believe she’d finally landed Mr. Right. Unfortunately, that illusion has evaporated as one person grew and changed while the other simply grew older and less ambitious.
“Valentine” illustrates the toll that time has taken on Dean and Cindy through director of photography Andrij Parekh’s outstanding cinematography, which emphasizes brighter colors and softer lighting in the couple’s younger days and takes on a noticeably harsher, dingier quality in their later years. While Gosling and Williams are both extremely attractive people, they boldly allow Parekh to rough them up and strip away any trace of protective glamour, so that their sometimes volcanic feelings become the focal point, not their looks.
The chasm between Cindy and Dean is exposed in a heartbreaking sequence in a “fantasy motel,” where, with the help of a lot of alcohol, they try to rediscover each other. The interplay between Gosling and Williams becomes almost unbearably vivid as they make one last stab at attempting to love each other the way they once did. The violently mixed emotions come through in their searching eyes, their uncertain body language, the strain in their voices and the arduous tug-of-war between desire and disinterest.
The frankness of the scene initially earned “Valentine” an NC-17 rating, although what’s most stunning about it is not the sexuality but the frightening friction between Williams and Gosling, neither of whom holds anything back. Anger, lust, hopefulness, contempt and desperation spill out of them, turning the room into a steamy swamp of jumbled emotions.
Observers on the outside of a ruined relationship tend to look for a “good guy” and a “bad guy,” a martyr and a monster. “Valentine” is a trenchant reminder that placing blame is a tricky game. Cindy and Dean both have their fine points and their flaws: At certain points, you can see how their strengths are sometimes their weaknesses, and vice versa. Maybe there was a time when they did belong together. But — as with Benatar’s days of topping the charts — nothing lasts forever.