TIFF 2010: Blue Valentine

 Photo: Daemonstv.com (Davi Russo)
(Making up is hard to do.)

Starring Michelle Williams, Ryan Gosling and Faith Wladyka. Directed by Derek Cianfrance. 113 minutes.

Early in Blue Valentine, the Pat Benatar ballad “We Belong" comes on Michelle Williams' character's radio. At the time, I brushed the choice off as inconsequential and random, just another kitschy background track - the movie equivalent of muzak. As the story progressed, however, its lyrics haunted me.

In that song, Ms. Benatar says that while she and her lover "belong" together, more than often she finds herself crying alone because he "cuts [her] feelings to the bone." She doesn't want to leave him ("really") because she's "invested too much time" but she's not sure her love is still there. "Have we become a habit?" she asks under the thundering late 80s beat. "Or do we distort the facts?"

Those two questions, while never technically posed on screen, are the essence of the broken love story told in Blue Valentine. Cindy (Michelle Williams) isn't in love with Dean (Ryan Gosling) when they meet at her grandmother's funeral home (he's working at a mover, she's visiting). In fact, she's not even in like. But when her other boyfriend flakes out on her, and her life plan starts to crumble into irreparable pieces, she falls into his arms, hoping that his unrequited love might turn into something more. Something semi-meaningful.

In a romantic comedy, Cindy would grow to find Dean charming and they would get married and live happily ever after in a perfectly affordable bungalow. But this isn't a romantic comedy. In fact, it isn't even a romance. It's a tale of like-for-the-wrong-reasons, marry-because-you're-desperate and hate-because-you-never-really-loved. And it’s harshly beautiful.

Blue Valentine looks and feels like a great 80s indie song, with its succulent, shady cinematography and pre-90s grunge costumes, but it’s not. As Cindy reveals in a random presidential-naming sing-song (which includes Bush and Clinton), it’s meant to be modern. And with its Grizzly Bear soundtrack and late 20-something cast, it sort of is. But it deals with an issue that’s not so new, except the movies.

From the moment we see Dean and Cindy quarrel over their daughter's oatmeal in the opening, we know we're not in for a happy ending. What we don't know is how they got to this breaking point. Like tragically cynical, chain-smoking cousin of (500) Days of Summer, Blue Valentine gets to the bruised heart of its couple's story by alternating between snapshots of mumbled memories and present-day problems.

One minute the not-so-happy couple are tired and weathered-looking, arguing over a lost dog and checking into a sleazy, sex motel. The next they’re fresh-faced and almost-hopeful, running down empty streets and sharing secret talents. The pieces are jagged, and don’t seem to fit together at first, but over time, they form a complex candid of every hopeless romantic’s greatest fear: a love that never was, and never will be.

Gosling and Williams will smash your heart as the forever-quarrelling lovers and focus of this 12-years-in-the-making (seriously, studios were afraid of it) feature. We’ve seen them pour their souls into devastatingly gritty roles before – they both have gotten Oscar noms (for Half Nelson and Brokeback Mountain, respectively) – but this is a whole other level of heartbreak.

In the wrong hands, Cindy and Dean could become a melodramatic farce, an insincere portrait of a situation that is far too common, but more than often ignored. But with these two, they seem so real, it’s uncomfortable (their one-sided, non-rape sex scene will make your skin crawl). If love is, as Ms. Benatar says, a battlefield, they are landmines. Prepare for the aftershock. A-

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