Blue Valentine as 'a love story'. They're right. It's the story of a love: an account of Cindy and Dean meeting, striking up a relationship, having a baby and destroying their marriage beyond belief and hope. It is not, then, romantic in the usual sense, but neither am I prepared to call it nihilistic.
When we're introduced to Cindy (Michelle Williams), Dean (Ryan Gosling), it's pretty clear their marriage is on the rocks: during breakfast, Dean is goofing around with their daughter Frankie (Faith Wladyka) while Cindy does all the work, his childish behaviour a form of aggression against her by claiming Frankie. Later, Cindy finds the family dog dead after being hit by a car; Dean is unwilling to give her the comfort she needs, suggesting instead a night at a sleazy sex motel.
Blue Valentine goes back and forth between the present - just two days,
in which the relationship suffers a final, catastrophic and irrevocable
breakdown - and the story, over several months, of the beginnings of
their love. Dean, working at a moving company, meets Cindy when she visits her grandmother at a retirement home, and she's eventually swayed by his happy-go-lucky ways.
Those chronologically early scenes are so much indie rom-com cliché, but of course there's a horrid twist. Watching the relationship blossom is gut-wrenching not just because we know it
won't work out, but also because we realise that the very qualities that
endear them to one another will end up tearing them apart. Both are recognisably the same people a few years later, but they're using their personalities - his ostentatious relaxed slackerdom, her controlled, anxious fretting - to attack each other.
Dean comes off as very much the worse of the two, not just because his romantic comedy antics cause trouble for Cindy, but because director Derek Cianfrance gives Gosling a number of traits that tend to scream 'bad guy', at least in the chronologically later portion of the picture: he's balding, wears wifebeaters and sunglasses, smokes, and is sliding into alcoholism. He seems responsible for most of their problems, his sense of inadequacy projected into aggressively twisting her words. Dean is, in a word, pretty much awful throughout.
Cianfrance's achievement lies in not making Blue Valentine a simple story of a long-suffering woman and her terrible husband. Thanks to the writing and Gosling's performance, Dean is never less than a complete human being, and so we empathise with him even in his worst moments: by pretending concern for Frankie's welfare, he instrumentalises their daughter to guilt-trip Cindy into staying with him, and it is despicable, but also pathetic - and I suppose quite a lot of people actually do this, which makes it sadder still.
The direction is increasingly inventive as the film moves along, using a lot of handheld camerawork for an unsettled aesthetic, and a number of shots that are cold, sad and brutal, but still beautiful: Cindy stepping over Dean, who's sleeping on the floor; or the two of them talking to each other through a window from an angle Cianfrance chooses to make sure we only see Cindy's reflection, so they seem not to be looking at each other.
As shot by Andrij Parekh, Blue Valentine looks exactly like old family photos - beautiful, sure, but it communicates visually that all this story is told in the past tense, doomed to an unhappy ending. The film's most heartbreaking scene is set in the back of a bus, when Dean ventures 'let's be a family' after the pregnant Cindy has decided not to have an abortion. It's a beginning, but it is also Janus-faced, pointing to that moment - inserted not soon after - when the family begun in tears and laughter falls apart forever.