Dean (Ryan Gosling) and Cindy (Michelle Williams) meet cute and break bad in Blue Valentine, director Derek Cianfrance's viscerally raw and lyrically stylized reverie for first love lost. This no-punches-pulled drama of marital collapse leaves its young leads as bruised and heartbroken as the title suggests, and it is, yes, devastatingly sad. Yet the emotional eddies of Gosling and William's relationship contain more memorably funny, screwball-cute, and swooningly romantic moments than this season's rompiest studio rom-coms. It will no doubt still prove "too depressing" for some audiences. Others might object to the way Cianfrance drowns the sadness in style, finding it atmopsherically overwrought, or to the way his actors leaven their emotionally naked performances with moments of playful, low-key quirk. ("I gotta sing goofy," he says, strumming the ukulele, as she prepares to dance a soft-shoe number.) But it works beautifully.
Dean and Cindy's marriage seems all but over as the film begins. She's coldly remote, he's passive-aggressive, and the most mundane morning ritual of prepping their daughter for school roils with unresolved tension. Unable to resolve or even address the conflicts that are driving them apart, Dean pressures Cindy to go on a gimmicky one-night getaway to a honeymoon motel. "Let's get drunk and make love," he begs, poignantly betraying both his desperate need to reconnect and the lack of emotional resources that would allow him to do it. That it's too little, too late, becomes clear long before they arrive at their "future"-themed suite, and yet we can't look away as they slam their heads against the same walls, again and again.
Intercut with this suffocating kammerspiel of Dean and Cindy's last days, there are fleeting memories from their earliest moments together. Cianfrance shoots these two timeframes using markedly different yet suprisingly seamless techniques. The present is recorded in a series of static, locked-down digital compositions. The lenses are extremely long, which compresses the space but renders depth of field extremely shallow; the actors are right on top of each other yet never in focus together, at once claustrophobically close yet worlds apart. Cianfrance's shoots through foreground material that's so far out of focus it barely registers as objects, just atmospheric washes of color, a kind of visual suffocation. The past is shot with wide-angle lenses on handheld 16mm. The feeling is expansive, free floating. The elliptical editing shuffles through discrete moments, a shaggy succession of fragmentary detail and drifting sound bridges that evokes a head-swimming succession of memories.
From the redbrick walkups of Brooklyn (where Dean lives) to the peeling-paint townhouses of Scranton (Cindy's hometown), Cianfrance moves effortlessly between urban and pastoral landscapes, with a few fleeting glances at the sprawl in between. He has a sumptuous, unironic appreciation for aging Americana (faded Old Glory flags, tarnished brass eagles, a carefully preserved service uniform) and flea-market kitsch (bubble-glass picture frames, wicker wall hangings, amateur devotional paintings). The detailing in the production design and the carefully scouted locations are at once convincingly naturalistic yet obviously, lovingly art-directed.
The flashbacks are generously scored with a selection of songs by Brooklyn-based rock band Grizzly Bear. The atmospheric but intimate instrumentals, swelling and ebbing from cacophonous clashes of sound to sparkling grace notes and back, perfectly mirrors the story's range of blow-out battles and delicate minutia.
Blue Valentine is Derek Cianfrance's second feature. His undistributed debut Brothers Tied, a moody, black-and-white study of a fraternal blood feud, was almost a parody of art cinema, all dramaturgical clichés and precious detail. But this borderline unwatchable film contained discrete moments—a beautifully composed image, a flurry of edits—that suggested a raw if undeveloped talent. With Blue Valentine, Cianfrance has realized that potential and then some.