"I have to sing goofy... in order to sing. Like I have to sing stupid. " This the unnecessary disclaimer from Dean (Ryan Gosling), as he's about to serenade Cindy (Michelle Williams) in front of a Brooklyn dry cleaners one evening, early in their swoony courtship. If you've seen the trailer for Blue Valentine, or the film itself, you've heard Mr. Gosling's "stupid" singing, a kind of throwback yodel of "You Only Hurt the One you Love," that occurs while he strums a ukulele. Cindy provides a shuffling, ragged tap dance. The singing and dancing are both so beautifully goofy that it's hard to imagine not falling in love with either Dean or Cindy in that moment.
Unfortunately, the couple and the film have to leave the cozy entryway of the Brooklyn dry cleaners with the heart-shaped wreath on the front door. You know, the inexorable march of time and all that. Blue Valentine, for its part, goes back and forth. Director Derek Cianfrance provides nothing in the way of "Six Years Later" sort of titles on the screen, much as he did apparently shoot the two time periods with different film stock. The early, relative halcyon days of our two lovers is filmed in super 16mm, lending it just a hint of the chromatically rich but imperfect palette of home movies. The slightly grainy past occurs generally in Brooklyn, after Dean and Cindy meet in a Pennsylvania rest home, he delivering furniture, she visiting her grandmother. It's a Brookyn (the film was actually shot in the New York borough and in Scranton) composed mainly of bridges and underpasses, where conversations take place against backdrops of corrugated steel shutters tagged with graffiti. Like Dean's colorfully stripped 80's leather jacket and black hoodie, it's past that seems to be working just a little too hard to establish its indie street cred.
Blue Valentine begins and ends in the relative present, some six years after Cindy and Dean first met in that Pennsylvania retirement home. We initially see their daughter, Frankie (Faith Wladyka) in a field, calling out a name. It's hard to determine the name she's screaming at first, but it's a forboding moment. As it happens, she's calling the family dog, Megan, who has run away. Consistent with much of Blue Valentine, the bad thing which lurks is revealed over time, not dramatically amplified in the moments after we see the elfin Frankie alone in the field. Only in subsequent scenes do we see Cindy finding the dog, Dean burying it in a tarp and then Cindy trying to console a weeping Dean after the burial. Poor Megan reminds one of the kids in Jude the Obscure, checking out of the family before it all becomes too sad to bear.
The first scenes with we see of the family life hint strongly that the romance between Cindy and Dean, like the family dog, has left the building. Dean and Frankie awaken Cindy after looking for the dog. She's not amused: "No, No!...I'm sleeping! Stop! It's too early." When Cindy later serves Frankie some instant oatmeal, Dean hardly helps the process along, suggesting that he and Frankie pour the offending oats on the kitchen table and eat the raisins "like leopards." Cindy's response - "Oh come on Dean! I don't have to clean up after two kids" - is that of beleaguered wives and mothers from time immemorial. But when we later hear the "two kids" lament again, it seems an indication that six years of familiarity with Dean's free spirited ways have bred contempt in Cindy.
The extended sequence in the hotel room, broken up by flashbacks of the far more sanguine past, is like a long, torturous, perfectly choreographed dance. In fact, Dean and Cindy do even dance briefly, even happily. At this point in their relationship, a moment of mutual happiness is like some parallel dimension into which they can only occasionally slip, though it's not a movement over which they can seem to exercise any control. For Dean, now a painter, the passage of time is indicated by a receding hairline and tinted glasses, which gives him the air of a less than successful mobster. His thrift store tastes have not changed: a sweatshirt embossed with an image of an eagle seems to be a staple of his wardrobe. Aging Ms. Williams is a trickier matter, given the still youthful contours of her face; the plump cheeks still suggest baby fat. The toll of the years is told more quietly with her, a weariness that ultimately flares to exasperation. What becomes obvious during the hotel scenes is that Cindy has become sick to death of Dean, that she feels suffocated by the extremes of his personality.
Revolutionary Road and Blue Valentine arrive at their bleak destinations from seemingly opposite directions. In Revolutionary Road, April becomes disillusioned with Frank when he's absorbed by the conformity of post-war America of which they had both been so contemptuous. By all appearances, he has changed so much from the assured young man she met at a party years before. Cindy's dilemma is quite differenet, though equally numbing: Dean has hardly changed at all.
Ryan Gosling and Michelle Williams are two of the executive producers of Blue Valentine. Their participation as producers is easy to understand. The film is a great showcase for their respective talents. They're both very good here. Gosling is perhaps slightly mannered in his performance, but just slightly so.
Beyond the pleasure of watching them work, I'm not entirely sure what's in it for an audience. One can certainly encounter much worse than a troubled Ryan Gosling or Michelle Williams in the dark turns of a cinematic funhouse. But you might still might find the whole ride just a bit too rigged for effect.