Two young people, a man and a woman, pause at a dark storefront on a quiet street, late at night. They’re giggling and silly, awash in the early days of attraction-that-just-might-be- love.
She, goofy and embarrassed, demonstrates a talent for him – tap dancing, with feet shuffling and arms flapping – while he plucks out “You Always Hurt the One You Love” on a ukulele. In the dim shop window, we see an ornament: a hanging heart.
This sweet, wistful scene comes not at the beginning of Derek Cianfrance’s “Blue Valentine,” as we might expect, but in the middle.
The movie shuffles around in time, like those dancing feet, to tell us the story of Dean (Ryan Gosling) and Cindy (Michelle Williams), a couple whose tenuous marriage is at a crisis point. Desperate to fix things somehow, Dean suggests a night in a motel room; a seedy place illuminated by a cruelly blue light.
Both are haunted by memories of the carefree, sparkling young couple they were – not the tired, though still-young, parents they’ve become, moving through life in a state of exasperated disconnect.
Everything about “Blue Valentine” feels utterly natural, from the frank (but not particularly explicit) sex scenes to the sweetly relaxed presence of 6-year-old Faith Wladyka as the couple’s young daughter to the way Gosling and Williams never seem to be acting.
It’s as if Cianfrance – and we – were spying on a real couple, in good times and bad. And while we don’t always understand why the characters behave the way they do – Gosling’s perpetually sleepy-looking Dean, in particular, remains a bit of a cipher, and it does seem as if the two don’t know each other particularly well – their emotions feel so honest and real that it’s devastating to watch the contrast between the past and present.
Filmed in tight, cramped close-ups (the motel room is so tightly shot you can barely make out the furniture), “Blue Valentine” has a palpable air of claustrophobic danger; you constantly expect something terrible to be happening to these characters. And, indeed, something does.
Cianfrance lets us be present both at the birth of love, and at its death, in all its grubby real-life inconvenience.