Pity the couples who, perhaps seduced by the downbeat but vaguely romantic title, see this one on a first date. Staring with unabashed focus directly at emotional sores long since rubbed raw during the death throes of the relationship between nurse Cindy (Michelle Williams) and housepainter Dean (Ryan Gosling), this film only just stops short of making us feel like rubberneckers at a road crash.
Cutting between Cindy and Dean's initial romance and their later frictions, writer-director Derek Cianfrance's gracefully filmed autopsy never makes the mistake of painting their early days together as perfect. The weak points in the threads that bind this couple are evident from even their happiest first encounters; that the fabric of their affection was destined to fray and unravel is no surprise.
In some ways, this makes for an oddly reassuring message. We're emphatically not being told that this most perfect of relationships stands no chance; rather, we're being shown the consequences of attempting to live one's life chasing a vision of love ultimately as ephemeral as a soap bubble. This is the quirky Sundance movie couple five years after the happy ending.
We're never shown that Dean and Cindy have the mutual interests, compatible outlook or anything else that might help provide a solid bedrock for a lifetime's companionship once the electrical crackle of their early years' excitement has been earthed. Turns out, tap-dancing in doorways while your boyfriend plays the ukulele does not a marriage make. If the film has a message, it might be that love at first sight is, if not always a chimera, a fragile thing when required to fuel an entire life together.
Blue Valentine's biggest strength is undoubtedly its performances, with Williams and Gosling both utterly convincing, if not necessarily likeable. Williams plays Cindy as a woman in the process of withdrawing from life's disappointments and lumbered with the task of being the one to face facts and articulate the cruel truth that she and Dean are unable to make one another happy. Gosling's only flaw is perhaps his considerable charm, which initially weights things in Dean's favour, when in fact, he's as culpable - or, looked at another way, as blameless - as Cindy for this couple's inability to sustain each other.