Blue Valentine, on paper, sounds hardly a date movie for die-hard romantics. It cross-examines the disintegration of an American working class couple’s relationship through two time periods, their youthful meeting and their subsequent dissolution, and often painfully, even excruciatingly mapping out details of the couple’s highs and lows, leaping backwards and forwards in time, as though the film is trying to comprehend where it went wrong. This might seem like a bleak and ultra-depressing affair (well, it is, admittedly), one film in which you’d never watch with your partner, but at closer inspection, this might prove beneficial to the health of all sorts of romantic relationship. Derek Cianfrance’s low-budget yet emotionally rich portrait of a crumbling relationship viscerally tears down all sugar-coated Hollywood romantic myths built around mainstream American cinema where everything lives happily after, and gives a penetrating, sobering look into how youthful love turns out when placed in the real world.
Dean and Cindy (played with astonishing depth and emotional power by Ryan Gosling and Michelle Williams, respectively) transform from star-crossed, hopeful lovers into their future combative types, the love that was once shared now the same emotion that’s pulling them both apart. Although this is nothing new in cinema – look at either Woody Allen or John Cassavetes’ oeuvres, or Blue Valentine‘s slightly kookier, more playful cousin, last year’s  Days of Summer, which both share a similar narrative DNA structure – the material is handled with such raw urgency, elevated with very committed, authentic performances by its two leads. It doesn’t matter whether Gosling and Williams both did Method insanity, but their onscreen chemistry is undeniable. Scenes where they share a spontaneous song-and-dance with Gosling sounding goofy to the tune of “You Always Hurt The One You Love The Most” burst into vivid life, albeit giving the film an elegiac tone, and their final outburst carries such emotional and psychological heft that it demands your full attention.
However, there’s a caveat: this bears some thematic similarities to another relationship drama released last year, Maren Ade’s arguably superior Everyone Else, a German cine-essay about a couple’s holiday from hell. You may call Blue Valentine as the American counterpart of Everyone Else, and that is a compliment. Nevertheless, Cianfrance’s predilection for trademark American indie offbeat quirks may prove a setback for some, but ultimately and remarkably, he doesn’t let the film wallow in acute cynicism nor goes the doomed love-affair route, but rather inspects the little cruelties of human life – that nothing is permanent, true love inevitably fades, and that affections could turn into arsenals of hatred and resentment through time’s betrayal. That’s life.
Although Blue Valentine is undeniably saddening, its narrative approach is too self-conscious to deliver a truly heartbreaking coda. Nevertheless, this is an emotionally blistering autopsy of a dead romance, surgically examining a bitter universal truth that love, as much as it can bring two people together, can also tear them both apart.