Watching Blue Valentine, you wonder if its writer-director, Derek Cianfrance, took a look at Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf? and asked himself why the older generation should have all the fun. His film, which deals out scenes from a disintegrating marriage in the wrong order, begins with a child calling for her missing dog. Her mother, Cindy (Michelle Williams), spots the animal later while she is out driving; Cindy's husband, Dean (Ryan Gosling), buries it while the child is away.
They do their share of crying over the animal, but they're not only mourning the loss of a pet. If Dean and Cindy knew they were characters in a movie then they would recognise, as we do, that the dead dog carries a certain symbolic weight. The animal is laid tenderly to rest but this young couple's marriage is not destined for such a peaceful end.
The question for any viewer preparing to endure a bruising portrayal of marital breakdown has to be: why bother? It says much for the intensity of Blue Valentine that one of its lighter moments involves Cindy recounting a joke about a child killer. But what distinguishes the movie from the misery porn of, say, Revolutionary Road (2008) is its emphasis on the joy that bears this marriage aloft long before it hits the rocks. The happiness and optimism of the couple's salad days are played as emphatically as the despair that comes to overwhelm them, a trick missed by François Ozon's 5x2 (2004), another break-up movie that disrupted the chronology of a relationship from first kiss to last rites. In Blue Valentine, it's as pleasurable watching Dean and Cindy fall in love as it is excruciating seeing them fall apart.
Much of the magic is in the editing, which places resentful confrontations adjacent to giddy passion, like a dinner-party seating plan gone wrong. Cianfrance studied under the legendary avant-garde film-makers Stan Brakhage and Phil Solomon, who well know the implied savagery of a simple cut. His film is prone to whisk us five or six years into the past on a whim; we realise with a jolt that Dean's hairline is no longer receding, or that Cindy is in a wheelchair. There is a brief but pleasant haze of jet lag whenever we acclimatise ourselves to these shifts in time.
The cross-cutting can be a little on-the-nose, such as when Cianfrance flits back and forth between the couple's wedding and snatches of them at their lowest ebb. But at least once, there is genius in the edit. Dean is working as a removal man in New York. Having finished a job, he lingers in the doorway and stares transfixed at something off-screen before the film cuts to a shot of Cindy watching him digging a grave. What was Dean looking at? We'll find out.
What we don't discover is why exactly the relationship curdles so comprehensively, although the picture supplies plenty of clues to be going along with. Even that period in Dean and Cindy's romance that can be filed under "carefree courtship" includes a violent ex-boyfriend, an unplanned pregnancy and a trip to the abortion clinic. And Dean's eventual explosiveness is hardly a bolt from the blue, considering that he threatens to throw himself from a bridge when Cindy won't tell him what's bothering her.
Only the glimpses of Cindy's fraught family life, dominated by a volatile father, appear to insist on an obvious psychological pattern (woman re-creates her parents' marriage, that sort of thing) rejected by the rest of the film. The perfectly beautiful, pastoral score by Grizzly Bear also seems to go too readily with the grain; it's the sort of music you'd listen to if you wanted to wallow in your sadness.
But there is spontaneity enough in the performances. Williams and Gosling are scrupulously humane, never entirely losing their tenderness even in the crossfire. Williams makes Cindy both inscrutable and raw; when Dean shows up drunk at her place of work, or a perceived promotion transpires to have a hidden agenda, you can practically hear her heart plummet. Gosling plays the notes of arrogance in Dean's youthful charm. He has decided he's not going to die: he thinks death is for dummies. We've all been there. l