PJ and I just got home from seeing Blue Valentine starring Ryan Gosling and Michelle Williams as a couple, Dean and Cindy, whose marriage is falling apart. The film, directed by Derek Cianfrance, cuts back and forth between the past and present, comparing moments in these people’s lives: happy moments and sad ones, moments that have brought them together, and moments that are driving them apart.

Here’s the trailer:

This movie is exquisite. The performances, the screenplay, the direction, everything about this movie is beautifully tragic, an examination of what Elizabeth Inchbald once called “the exquisite sensation of pain” that occurs when you’ve done something that you believe is right but that will also cause you suffering. I love that Blue Valentine explores this relationship, showing us exactly who these two people are and how they got this way while never blaming either of them. Neither one is right or wrong, or maybe they’re just both wrong.

Gosling is wonderful as Dean, the hopelessly romantic ne’er-do-well who has stumbled his way into being a husband and a father, roles he loves more than anything else, the result of which is a lack of any further ambition. When Dean and Cindy first meet, Dean is a professional mover oozing charm and sex appeal. Cindy can’t help but fall for him. When Cindy learns that she’s pregnant, Dean offers his support for whatever she decides to do, becoming her Prince Charming, especially in comparison to the other men in her life.

Dean’s problem, however, is that he’s never progressed beyond the romantic fantasy. He loves his job because it allows him to drink all day and then come home and be with his family, but he never considers the affects his drinking has on Cindy. Likewise, the characteristics that make his a playful father are the same characteristics are now driving Cindy away — he’s little more than a kid.

Williams has never been better. Her Cindy is a complex, intelligent woman struggling to decide what to do once her dreams of becoming a doctor have been short-circuited. She’s a realist, the woman who’s always known what she wants and how to get it. The reality of life with Dean and their daughter isn’t what she thought it would be — if she ever even considered what it would be.

She’s feeling trapped in a life that’s slowly suffocating her. Does she admit that her marriage is a failure and leave? Or does she stay “for the sake of their daughter.” She’s seen her parents’ troubled marriage, and it’s something she wants to avoid at all costs.

While the cutting back and forth between past and present may sound like a gimmick, Blue Valentine‘s narrative structure serves two key purposes. On the one hand, it sets the audience up, leading us to think one thing only to be forced to reevaluate our interpretation once we have more information.

For example, early in the film Cindy runs into her old boyfriend at a liquor store. His flirtatiousness causes her discomfort, but it also clearly thrills her. When she mentions the encounter to Dean, he becomes upset. Her response to his anger leads us to think that he’s jealous, but as we see more of the past we come to understand that his response is something else entirely. This new understanding forces us to reevaluate Cindy’s response to this chance encounter too. These moments trick us into assigning blame for Dean’s and Cindy’s arguments only to make us see that there’s more to these arguments than we originally thought.

The second function of the non-chronological narrative is to give us deeper insight into each person’s desires, motivations, and personality. Little statements or actions from the past illuminate these characters’ present positions, frustrations, and ambitions. This narrative technique creates the complex tapestry that becomes these characters’ story.

Obviously, I loved this movie. I think it’s a beautiful, if heart-breakingly painful examination of one couple’s disintegrating relationship. I think it’s probably the kind of film that becomes richer the more you see and think about and discuss it. It’s clearly going to be one of my favorites of the year.