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You may be groping for a suitable first-date movie this weekend. "Blue Valentine" is not even in the running. Rather, it's an ideal last-date movie, a cinematic cold shower, a 112-minute PSA for safe sex that makes a life of pitiless solitude look like a comparative beach. If the two of you can hold hands leaving this flick, it's true love indeed.
There is a great love story here, actually, as Dean (Ryan Gosling) and Cindy (Michelle Williams) meet cute at a nursing home, hurdle his utter lack of qualifications to be her mate, persevere through an unexpected pregnancy and fall — well, if not in love, at least into marriage. You've seen that movie plenty, but "Blue Valentine" frames that movie as flashbacks during a couple of days for that same mom and dad only about five years later, when the cracks in their foundation have begun to frost-shatter. The result is an uncommonly raw drama that earns every gram of its not-inconsiderable pessimism.
Dean's a painter (the rollers-on-walls sort) who takes the side of their young daughter, Frankie, in any family conflict. Cindy's a nurse (her dreams of med school apparently deferred) who doesn't regard Dean as an equal. The family dog goes missing, and it doesn't turn out well. The couple, fraught, drops off Frankie with Cindy's folks. Dean decides the best thing is to reconnect for a night, away from the house, so he drags her to what she derides as "a cheesy sex motel" — aqua-lit sci-fi Future Room, here we come. (Or don't.) It turns out to be a hard night on both of them.
Impressively for a former Mouseketeer and a one-time "Dawson's Creek" ingenue, respectively, Gosling and Williams (credited as co-producers) achieve here a masterpiece of poignancy with a rare double: believable chemistry both as a young couple rushing into love and as a less-young couple plummeting right back out of it. Director Derek Cianfrance helps by shooting them in the sort of zooms that would make even their dermatologists blush. Every tiny malicious glance, every shard of pain swallowed, registers like a billboard on your lawn. You can't leave their faces. You're stuck in the shower with these people, trapped in the car with them. Their petty power struggles — Dean undercutting her authority, Cindy lashing him with the c-word (that would be "crazy") — become the stuff of emotional claustrophobia. Pretty soon you want out too.
Autopsying a detonated relationship is as natural as picking at a scab, and part of the fun (to use the term loosely) of "Blue Valentine" is the grist it offers for this. Where do Dean and Cindy go wrong? Whose fault is what? Were they doomed? Are we all? It's not a message movie — it feels too real for that. But the verdict from one group that discussed the film at some length is that it suggests a durable relationship needs two people who look up to each other. Lovers who stop working on themselves are left then to go to work on one another, and that guarantees no room for a future.