There is no middle ground to the coupling and uncoupling in Blue Valentine, a movie that ruefully reminds you of what it's like to fall in and out of love. We meet Dean (Ryan Gosling), a house painter and morning drinker, and his wife, a nurse named Cindy (Michelle Williams) as their relationship is unraveling; the end seems near. But as so often is true in life, coming to terms with an end means revisiting the beginning, and that is what this solemn, beautifully acted film does, cutting back and forth in time to allow Cindy and Dan and us to take the true measure of what is being lost.
We begin with their young daughter Frankie (Faith Wladyka) looking for their missing dog, who apparently got out a gate Dean assumes Cindy didn't shut. The scene in which Cindy later spots the dog, dead by the side of the road, is a demonstration of just how miraculously talented an actress Williams is (and what a good director she's working with here in Derek Cianfrance). We notice the dog just as she does, through her windshield. Then our perspective shifts to the passenger's seat and we see Williams in profile; her expression barely changes, but her features nonetheless register the pain over losing the pet, her guilt and her resentment over Dean's accusation all in one fell swoop. Cianfrance uses the dog's death to draw a line in the relationship sand, narratively not at all as clunky as it sounds and then goes back in time.
Their first meeting can be directly attributed to the kindnesses they show to older people. In Cindy's case, it's a deep devotion to her grandmother (Jen Jones), who she frequently visits in a rest home in Pennsylvania. Her Grandma speaks honestly and openly, particularly about the dead husband she did not really love "he didn't really have any regard for me as a person" and through her directness, gives her granddaughter the gift (and curse) of high standards. Dean is part of a New York area moving crew installing Walter, a wizened old man, and all his possessions in the same rest home. Dean, crushed by the old man's lonliness, decorates the new room with Walter's photographs and souvenirs. On the way out, he catches a glimpse of Cindy.
Walter is the excuse for Dean to return to the rest home, but the goal is to find this girl again. Dean firmly believes that his sex is the more romantic one. Women go off looking for Prince Charming, he tells his buddies at the moving company, and then settle for the guy with the best job, who can take care of them. Whereas men, he says, resist and resist "Until we meet one girl and we think, 'I'd be an idiot if I didn't marry this girl.'"
Cindy, meanwhile is emerging from a complicated relationship to say any more would spoil the movie's quiet, slow revelations and the ways in which Dean is good to her carry more import than they might have at another point her in life. The couple are not brought together under false pretenses, but they are rushed and in that rush, see only each other's good qualities.
What's particularly special about the screenplay, which Cianfrance co-wrote with Joey Curtis and Cami Delavigne, is that the flashbacks carry a subtle point of view with them, not immediately apparent, that alternates between the two Dean and Cindy aren't just remembering what once was, but how they were at that time, what was shaping the connection they forged. They are charming and passionate together in their early days, but watching their beginnings we come to see why that love, found so quickly, might have run out. Rejected by Cindy in a present-day shower lovemaking scene, Dean is cast back to time when she did want him in just that particular, intimate way. His flashback, if you want to call it that, includes a recollection of the day he, smitten, told one of his work buddies, "Maybe I seen too many movies, you know? Love at first sight." We imagine his mind searching for the weaknesses in the fabric that formed their relationship, the holes he knows are there now.
Speaking of intimacies, these would be the scenes that originally earned the film an NC-17 rating from the Motion Picture Association of America's ratings board a rating revised, on appeal, to a much more suitable R. But lifted or not, that NC-17 hangs over the movie like a lascivious promise; it might be good to know, if that's what you're looking for, that we don't actually see that much. A woman and a man having sex a few, brief times, mostly with at least some clothes on, providing some peeks of flesh nothing frontal or scandalous. We see less skin than we did in, say, Love & Other Drugs, but what we do see is the raw emotion of a couple having sex in very different states of mind. The scenes cut so close to the emotional bone that you can understand why they might cause a panic amongst MPAA boardmembers, although of course, it's nothing to be afraid of: just the realism of love in its varied forms.