By Steve Persall
Times Film Critic
Falling in love is easy. A chance glance, an impulse to introduce yourself. Maybe it works, you make a date, then another. Maybe you get married, have a kid. Falling in love is easy. Staying there can be hard.
The young couple in Derek Cianfrance's searing Blue Valentine fall in love like two people who will be together forever. We meet them as the fall hits rock bottom, when they're not pretty or compatible anymore, parenting on different wavelengths, and now their dog is dead. Dean (Ryan Gosling) hopes a night away from home will help. Cindy (Michelle Williams) appears resigned to the fact that it won't.
The big night out is a liquor store stop and then a two-hour drive to a motel featuring sexually themed rooms. They have a gift certificate and choice of fantasy accommodations. Dean, in an unintentionally cruel irony, chooses "The Future."
Blue Valentine is also about the past, when Dean and Cindy first met and saw the future in each other. With time-shuffling efficiency we also learn who they were before that, and why this relationship never had a chance. Cianfrance uses flashbacks of Dean and Cindy's love story like a coroner probing a corpse for clues to a cause of death.
Sounds depressing, but Blue Valentine is a reminder that well-measured and expertly acted pain is as thrilling to watch as 3-D spectacle. The screenplay by Cianfrance, Joey Curtis and Cami Delavigne is a marvel of character development and deconstruction. Whatever isn't on the page is shaded darker by Williams and Gosling in performances of such spontaneity as to tread on cinema verite. The movie feels real, a compliment lost on most moviegoers these days.
Blue Valentine has attained a degree of notoriety for its original NC-17 rating from the Motion Picture Association of America, mainly due to a brief episode of drunken sex in the Future room. The rating has since been revised to an R, but the rating board's slip is showing. The scene apparently violated the board's notion of how many pelvic thrusts are allowed before an NC-17 is imposed.
The sequence is raw but also revealing, and not skin because the nudity isn't explicit. It is a coupling of desperation; to please, to find selfish gratification, to clutch for what's slipping away. Everything happening before is compacted into the act, and everything after is inevitable. The closest comparison would be any sex scene in Last Tango in Paris, intrinsic to the drama as it is.
Pegging Blue Valentine as merely "the movie with the sex scene" would be a shame since there's so much in Cianfrance's film to applaud. Jim Helton and Ron Patane's editing becomes an extension of the script, cutting between past and present to expose another crack in these brittle lives.
One early example: a brief shot of Dean peeking from a nursing home door into the hallway, his eyes suddenly brightening. We don't see Cindy but know it's that first sight when love can erupt. Cut to a close-up of Cindy, but not at that moment in time. It is years later when her skin is splotched and her hair isn't brushed and we wonder like Dean what happened to the face he immediately adored. It's a long story, perhaps not an uncommon one. But Blue Valentine is an uncommonly fine movie.
Steve Persall can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or (727) 893-8365. Read his blog, Reeling in the Years, at tampabay.com/blogs/movies.