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Ryan Gosling and Michelle Williams play a young couple whose early passion turns to bitterness in Derek Cianfrance's romantic drama Blue Valentine. ((Alliance Films) )

In Betrayal, his most popular play, the late Harold Pinter dissected a love affair by working his way backward from its cold conclusion to its fiery beginnings. Blue Valentine, the new film starring Ryan Gosling and Michelle Williams, attempts something similar with a marriage. In this sad-as-hell romantic drama, writer-director Derek Cianfrance cuts back and forth between the giddy courtship and ugly breakup of a working-class couple, the stark contrast giving a near-tragic dimension to their commonplace flameout.

Williams and Gosling, both of whom were involved with this long-gestating project for several years, give fiercely committed performances.

Cianfrance begins at the end of their love. Dean (Gosling) and Cindy (Williams) seem to have little left in common apart from Frankie (Faith Wladyke), their kindergarten-age daughter. He’s a carefree house painter who starts drinking before he goes to work. She’s a dedicated nurse whose puffy features and weary eyes suggest long shifts and not enough sleep. They’re at cross-purposes when it comes to child rearing (he’s Daddy the Playmate, she’s Mommy the Enforcer) and their exchanges have been reduced to the terse communiqués of a war zone.

At the end of a trying day that starts when the family dog goes missing (shades of Williams’s previous film, Wendy and Lucy), Dean makes an effort to rekindle their old spark. Having parked little Frankie with her maternal granddad (John Doman), the couple heads off for a night at a cheesy fantasy motel, where Dean has booked the ominously named Future Room. In this risibly unromantic suite, which looks like the low-budget set of a 1970s sci-fi movie, the two get drunk but get nowhere. Their attempts at talk and sex are as awkward as if they were incompatible strangers.

Just when you start wondering how these two ever got together, the film makes the first of its back-flips into the past. Suddenly, balding, seedy Dean is a bright-eyed young man eager to work for a moving company and Cindy is the girlishly pretty student with aspirations to become a doctor. Their chance encounter at a nursing home, where Cindy is visiting her beloved grandmother (Jen Jones) and kind-hearted Dean is helping an old man move in, sets the tone for their relationship. She’s shy and reluctant, while he’s impetuous, insistent and quirkily romantic.

The same qualities, as we see in every flash-forward, will eventually turn from sweet to sour: Cindy’s intriguing reticence has become emotional evasiveness, while Dean’s impulsive nature, once part of his appeal, is now alarming. Stoked with booze, it leads him into a violent confrontation with Cindy at the clinic where she works.

Williams and Gosling, both of whom were involved with this long-gestating project for several years, give fiercely committed performances. Gosling has the showier role and makes the more marked physical change, suggesting how quickly boyish charm can degrade into the lineaments of a genial, slovenly loser. If there’s a fault in his portrayal, it’s that there are times when it feels too calculated. In Dean’s big emotional moments, you catch a distracting glimpse of Gosling the Method actor, determinedly acting his heart out.

Williams, on the other hand, disappears inside her character. There’s a class subtext to the story and she subtly draws it out. It’s clear that her young Cindy, smart and ambitious, is quietly fighting to escape the low expectations and loveless marriages of her working-class environment. It’s one reason she’s attracted to the gentle, unconventional Dean and her disappointment with him and the way her life has turned out is written achingly on Williams’s vulnerable face. 

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Dean (Gosling) and Cindy (Williams) embark on a giddy courtship in Blue Valentine.

Co-written by Cianfrance with Joey Curtis and Cami Delavigne, the film offers couples’ dialogue with the uncomfortable chafing of familiarity: Dean automatically blaming Cindy for the escaped dog; Cindy treading on eggshells as she tries to tell Dean that she’s run into an old boyfriend (Mike Vogel); a would-be dinner conversation that only reveals a gulf of misunderstanding. Like the recent German film Everyone Else, Blue Valentine pins a failing relationship under the microscope and probes its every twitch.

But Cianfrance, who has a TV-documentary background, is not an intellectual director in the Eric Rohmer tradition of Everyone Else’s Maren Ade. If anything, Blue Valentine traces its lineage back to the ragged vérité dramas of John Cassavetes, with its clumsy bouts of cold sex and messy, violent confrontations. And there’s something pure Cassavetes about a loose, slightly self-conscious scene where the young Dean serenades Cindy with a goofy rendition of You Always Hurt the One You Love on his ukulele, while she does a soft-shoe shuffle in her winter boots.

The stormier passages also bring to mind Alan Parker’s powerful, troubling Shoot the Moon (1982), another drama about a disintegrating marriage. Like that movie, its lashes of lacerating honesty tend to eclipse its more dubious aspects while you're watching it.

In retrospect, though, Blue Valentine’s sorrowful sentiments feel a tad overwrought. Dean and Cindy are not unlike many couples whose differences, which once drew them together, eventually pull them apart. Nor does their marriage seem to be the lost cause that Cianfrance suggests it is. I don’t normally advocate happier movies, but in this instance, you wonder if this pair wouldn’t benefit from some old-fashioned counselling.

Blue Valentine opens in Toronto on Jan. 7 and in Montreal and Vancouver on Jan. 14.

Martin Morrow writes about the arts for CBC News.