Movie intimacy reaches groundbreaking new heights in this shocking story of a young marriage on the rocks, thanks to the charisma and range of two of the screen’s most appealing new stars. Blue Valentine (opens Dec. 31) juxtaposes two narratives, set in the present and past, about love found and lost with uncompromising honesty. In two no-frills performances, Ryan Gosling and Michelle Williams play a blue-collar couple from Brooklyn who learn the meaning of unconditional love and then crash to the depths of despairing bitterness.
Scruffy, overweight and balding, the appealing Gosling is at first unrecognizable. Then, as the film moves backwards, we see him (a house painter) meet her (a nurse) while visiting patients in a retirement home. He saves her from an abortion before he fully understands the responsibility of marriage and parenthood. She fails to meet her potential as a career girl. He drinks on the job. In a last effort to rekindle their early passion, they book a room in a sordid motel, but the damage is done. Naked in the shower and trying out pornographic sex positions, they finally collapse in confusion and cruelty.
The dedicated performers throw themselves into the intense love scenes with such embarrassing intimacy that you feel guilty for watching. The naturalistic acting gives the movie an improvisational quality, like an invasion of privacy. And director Derek Cianfrance juggles multiple chronologies to shed light on two sides of a love story that begins with tenderness and pain, then ends in rage and more pain.
This is not a feel-good movie, but I took it away with me, racked by feelings of emotional intensity that still linger. Blue Valentine is about real life, warts and all, over narrative conventions and action and plot mechanics. It is brutal, compassionate, beautiful in its ugliness and one of the bravest films of the year.