Love is the most elusive, most talked about, most scrutinized subject of any truly interesting film. Derek Cianfrance's Blue Valentine explores the concept with a refreshing perspective not seen since the dysfunctional relationships studied in Bonnie and Clyde, Sid and Nancy, or The Graduate--the fundamental difference with Blue Valentine being that Cindy (Michelle Williams) and Dean (Ryan Gosling) are normal people who aren't driven to rob banks, shoot up heroin, or sleep with relatives of their significant other due to their intense love for one another. They are simply two fatally flawed forces that collide just like the rest of us in our own personal Shakespearean romance-tragedy.
The realistic, Blair Witch Projectesque filming style of Derek Cianfrance is another pivotal part of what makes Blue Valentine seem like a film where the viewer is allowed to watch, from a fly on the wall perspective, the gradual dismantlement of true love. Rather than opening the film at the beginning of Cindy and Dean's relationship, Cianfrance chooses to start at the point of culmination, symbolically using the loss of his daughter Frankie's (played by the oh so adorable newcomer Faith Wladyka) dog as perhaps a metaphor for the loss of something greater.
The rote, mechanical nature of Cindy and Dean's married life is evident from the first scene they share, as Frankie and Dean wake Cindy up so that she can make breakfast for her husband and daughter (a much maligned instant oatmeal confection). The diverse parenting styles of Cindy and Dean are also quickly spotlighted by the verbal chastisement Frankie gets from her mother about eating without silverware, telling her, "You're a big girl now." Dean retorts sarcastically, "You're a big girl now, so don't have any fun."
The portrait of a banal married life continues as Cindy drives through town listening to Pat Benatar's "We Belong to the Night" and ends up coming across the carcass of their recently lost dog, Megan. She pulls over to the side of the road, knowing she cannot just leave it there. When she arrives at her daughter's school recital, she tells Dean, with a sparse selection of words, "I found Megan." The delivery of the line leaves no room for interpretation. Dean blames her by scolding, "How many times did I tell you to lock the fuckin' gate?" It is yet another sign of their extreme marital discord, as well as how far they have drifted apart in the way that they view things.
The flashback to the past finally transpires with Dean applying for a job at the Steinway Moving Company, an event that set in motion his eventual meeting with Cindy six years prior (though, based on his present receding hairline and both parties' noticeable plumpness, one would think that much more time had passed). One of the moving jobs he lands happens to be at a retirement home where Cindy's grandmother lives. The encounter is one of those love at first sight moments, with Dean leaving her his business card, along with a missive on the back that reads: "Give me a chance, Dean."
Part of what makes Blue Valentine so relatable to anyone who is brave enough to take the emotional plunge required of watching it is that it contrasts how we idealize a relationship that is in its infancy with what we ultimately know it will turn out to be. As Michelle Williams notes of the film,
"Something I've come to appreciate about the movie is how, at the beginning of a relationship--if you're paying attention--you can foresee how it's all gonna come down. And at the end, you replay those moments of bliss from the start and think, how did I get here? Things start out with so much purity, you have to wonder, how did we come to this?"
The film's resonance, nevertheless, is based on so much more than just the story itself (co-written by Cianfrance, Cami Delavigne and Joey Curtis). There are several other notable components that make it what it is, chiefly Andrij Parekh's cinematography and the Grizzly Bear-laden soundtrack. Parekh, who previously worked on the acclaimed Gosling movie Half Nelson, infuses every frame with a blue hue, echoing and presaging the eventual melancholic demise of Cindy and Dean's love for one another. The morose overtones of the cinematography are further emphasized by the sweetly sung ethereal lyrics of Grizzly Bear. But what truly steals the show in terms of music is Ryan Gosling's rendition of The Mills Brothers classic "You Always Hurt the Ones You Love," a title that drives home the entire theme of Blue Valentine.