On pages of literature, in the harmonies of pop songs, and on the silver screen, love rarely appears fully formed; it's either amputated to show only a few easily digestible bits or it's choked with sugar. But every now and then, a work of art gets it right, as Derek Cianfrance's Blue Valentine does, in sharing every part of love, from the glorious wonder of finally finding it to the desolation of realizing it wasn't built to last.
We find our protagonists Cindy and Dean, played expertly by Michelle Williams and Ryan Gosling, as they get their young daughter ready for the day. Cindy takes on the responsibility of dressing her and preparing her breakfast, while Dean distracts her with jokes and silly games like slurping up food directly from the table. Cindy quickly becomes frustrated by having to take care of not one, but two children, and that's where we glimpse the first crack in the family portrait. To make matters worse, the family dog has gone missing and Dean fights with Cindy about not remembering to lock the gate. They flee from each other in their separate cars as they make their way to their respective jobs, Dean listening to the Dirtbombs on his way to a day of manual labor and Cindy listening to "We Belong" by Pat Benatar en route to her job as a nurse, a contrast of musical genre that hints at the overwhelming distance between these two vastly different people.
Before the emotional turmoil of the present day becomes too much of a bummer, the movie flits back to the couple's glory days to find out how their love began and how it went astray. They first meet at a retirement home (she's spending time with her grandmother, he is working for a moving company across the hall). He uses his best lines and she's not buying, a signal that this girl isn't so easily won over by any charming loud-mouth, thus making her exponentially more attractive. But it isn't too long before she dumps her dull boyfriend and gives into Dean's wiles.
On their first date, Dean and Cindy walk around town getting to know each other before stopping in the doorway of a closed shop. Dean finds out Cindy used to tap dance and insists on an impromptu performance. "I need music," she says. He obliges, playing his ukulele and singing "You Always Hurt the One You Love." It's a cute, intimate scene in which we find ourselves right there with them, falling madly in love. But, just as we begin to luxuriate in the warmth of that moment, the movie coldly snaps back to the future, where a beer belly and receding hairline replace Dean's boyish wonder and a murky sadness replaces Cindy's wide-eyed idealism.
Blue Valentine proceeds in this non-linear fashion, pulling the rug from under us just as we get our footing. The result is raw and traumatic, an experience as uncomfortable as watching your parents break up. Perhaps the reason Michelle Williams and Ryan Gosling are so convincing as this crumbling couple has something to do with the unorthodox way the film was produced. For one month before filming began, Williams and Gosling lived in the very house Cindy and Dean call home, going as far as buying groceries for the week and performing the other unglamorous chores that go along with cohabitation. They were urged by Cianfrance to pick fights with each other and explore those dark, quaking spaces of anger. Judging by the film itself, this practice paid off in spades; the chemistry between Gosling and Williams is undeniable and painfully realistic as they fully inhabit their characters, leaving no trace of their real actor selves behind to remind us that we're watching a movie and not peeping through someone's living room windows.
In a conversation Cindy has with her grandmother, she asks about love. Her grandmother answers, "I don't think I found it." Cindy is taken aback by this divergence from the traditional fairy tale and asks, "Not even with grandpa?" "Maybe in the beginning, a little," she responds. This worries Cindy as she wonders how she can ever trust her feelings when they can so easily disappear, leaving nothing but a chasm or chalk outline where affection once lived. And this is where Blue Valentine realizes its message: the struggle to accept the glaring reality of love's impermanence and the overwhelming urge to be the exception. We should know better than to continue chasing love, but we do it anyway. It's an instinct embedded in our DNA, buried deep in our bones and our hearts. It's what makes us human.