Derek Cianfrance's "Blue Valentine," starring Michelle Williams and Ryan Gosling, is a beginning and an ending, an intensely intimate rendering of love that limits itself to that first falling in and that last falling out.
Without a middle, the writers — Cianfrance, Joey Curtis and Cami Delavigne — have still put in everything we need to know about a relationship that is fraying faster than either Cindy (Williams) or Dean (Gosling) grasps. It is painful and moving to watch as they lose hold of the few threads still connecting them, including 5-year-old daughter Frankie (a soulful young Faith Wladyka).
That the specifics of the hows and whys of things are so unnecessary is perhaps what gives the film such a feeling of reality. In establishing the narrative like bookends, the filmmakers have reflected the way most of us tend to remember failed relationships — the intensity of the first flame, the darkness when it goes out. The ordinary nicks and cuts that actually wear things down to the bone fade into the background.
Though the film sometimes frays around the edges too, in Williams and Gosling, Cianfrance has what he needs to keep us invested. The actors, who have been doing their best work in personal films for a while now ("Brokeback Mountain" and "Wendy and Lucy" among those for Williams, "Half Nelson" and "Lars and the Real Girl" for Gosling), give an almost sleepy languor to those early moments when breath catches often, want is hot and heavy and laughter comes easily.
But it is in the final days, when things turn ugly and love dies scene by scene, that Gosling and Williams prove what emotional heft they give their characters. The result is an unsettling portrait of marriage as failed enterprise and broken dreams, the tears over the scattered shards hard-earned.
What the filmmaker has understood best is that the conflict is as much about social class as love, and in doing so has made a film that is more penetrating and salient than it probably set out to be. With cinematographer Andrij Parekh, the filmmakers have given a gritty authenticity to life on the lower rungs of middle class where money's always tight. A wide shot of an overgrown front yard, a beloved dog that has gone missing, a child wandering in the weeds calling her name, is one of those classic opening scenes that uses both its simplicity and complexity to set the stage for all that is to come.
Cianfrance keeps the story moving along, shifting often between the couple's early romance, which is spun out of serendipity, and five or so years later when everything, including marriage, has become predictable. All that back-and-forthing is less confusing than it might sound. Clarity comes not just because of changes in the look of things, although the production team has done a good job of creating two distinct worlds. It's more the way the reality of the life Cindy and Dean have built together has settled into their bones — she's the nurse who wanted to be a doctor, trying to make the best of it, he's the house painter content with a day that starts with a beer and ends with some cash.
There is a playfulness and hope that infuses their early days from that first meeting at a retirement home — he's one of the crew moving someone in, she's visiting her grandmother — to the unplanned pregnancy that changes everything. It's a small encounter that sketches in a lot about the sort of people we're dealing with here — basically good, decent and with the best of intentions.
The end stage is heavier. Everything shot tight, rooms feel airless, the booze slowing things down during a hotel getaway spent in the aptly named Future Room with its dark walls, neon lights and rotating bed, depression everywhere in their foundering try at rekindling the fire that once burned between them.
Though much has been made of the sex scene that initially got the film an NC-17 rating (after a fight, it's now an R), the truth is: The emotional bond the actors have forged throughout is what gives the film its intimacy. Williams' Cindy doing a shuffling tap dance late one night on a city sidewalk, accompanied by Gosling's ukulele rendition of "You Always Hurt the One You Love" as Dean, is as nakedly honest as any moment you'll see in "Blue Valentine," and there are many of them.
Cianfrance's documentary background — dominated by his "Battlegrounds" TV series on basketball, both street and world class — can be felt in the way he gives the actors room to move within the scenes. An instinct that if you keep the camera rolling you will not only get what you want, but something far better than you expected.
He stacked the cards in that regard by asking his actors to live in Cindy and Dean's world for a while before shooting began — their house, their budget. By using a sort of reality TV approach to Method acting, the director found a different way to smudge the line between complete fiction and conceived reality.
That meandering dialogue can be difficult to control, and at times the film feels as if the director has stepped away from the vehicle, leaving it to veer off the path. Still, it's an experiment that works more than it fails by giving Gosling and Williams both the motive and the means to create something extraordinary, a valentine that actually says something true about being in love.
MPAA rating: R for strong graphic sexual content, language and a beating
Running time: 1hour, 52 minutes
Playing: At Landmark Theater, West L.A.