The buzz about Blue Valentine, a sensation since its premiere at Sundance last year, has been as much about the producers’ struggles with the MPAA (culminating in an R rating for the movie after it was first stuck with an NC-17) as it has been about the movie’s actual content. But anyone expecting sleaze or erotica out of Blue Valentine based on the ratings controversy will be disappointed, instead finding only two talented actors working very hard at being miserable. The sex in Blue Valentine, which chronicles the marriage of aimless housepainter Dean (Ryan Gosling) and frustrated nurse Cindy (Michelle Williams) at its very beginning and very end, is mostly tinged with bitterness, not arousing so much as melancholy. It’s just one of many elements that director and co-writer Derek Cianfrance uses to beat the audience down, wringing every last drop of tragedy out of Dean and Cindy’s collapsing relationship as he shows how the seeds of their unhappiness were being planted even in their most blissful moments.
Blue Valentine can be a wrenching experience, but for all its heightened emotions, it doesn’t feel particularly real or insightful. We start by seeing Dean and Cindy at their worst, sniping at each other over little things, arguing in front of their young daughter (Faith Wladyka), perpetually on the verge of exploding into full-on war (which they eventually do during the movie’s uncomfortable climax). When Cianfrance flashes back to the couple’s early days, their tentative first meetings, their giddy early dates, there’s no sense of excitement or romance, only doom, and the bleakness to come makes the entire courtship feel fake and unconvincing. Gosling and Williams cry and yell and pour their hearts into every moment of the movie, but they’re mostly just screaming into an empty void.