I had a friend who, when she was an adolescent and her parents’ marriage went kaput, learned from her father that he was leaving when he read her the opening line of Count Leo Tolstoy’s “Anna Karenina”: “Happy families are all alike; every unhappy family is unhappy in its own way.”
Though an ardent fan of literature, it was years before she could bring herself to read another word by the Russian novelist.
“Blue Valentine,” the compelling drama from writer-director Derek Cianfrance (“Brothers Tied”), is about a family that is unhappy in its own way.
More specifically, it is about a couple whose marriage is falling apart. The wife (Michelle Williams) is unhappy; the husband (Ryan Gosling) is at a loss as to how any longer to make her happy.
In some ways “Valentine” is the dark flip side of “The Kids Are All Right,” this year’s indie comedy hit which also examined strains in a long-term relationship, albeit a gay one.
Both movies are atypical in that Hollywood mostly trades in movies about falling in love, with little interest in examining what it takes to stay together over the long haul or why and how love can fade and disappear.
Not that there haven’t been some terrific films about marriages going sour, including comedies. In the latter category, there’s 1937’s “The Awful Truth,” in which Cary Grant and Irene Dunne divorce (after his infidelity), but then fall in love again despite both having taken up with others in the meantime.
Also on the honor roll of movies about connubial dysfunction are Ingmar Bergman’s 1973 gem, “Scenes from a Marriage,” and 1989’s “The War of the Roses,” with Kathleen Turner and Michael Douglas, which presented as scabrous a view of marriage as has ever been seen on screen.
For many, the definitive film about a marriage over the long haul is 1967’s “Two For the Road.” Albert Finney and Audrey Hepburn star as a chic couple, seen over the course of multiple vacations in France, whose bickering and extra-marital wavering almost gets the best of them.
What “Two” shares with “Blue” is a fractured timeline structure. Both films travel back and forth over the years, allowing us to see the relationships both at the beginning and end, though not necessarily in that order.
In “Blue,” when we first meet Cindy (Williams) and Dean (Gosling), the marriage of this working class couple–she’s a nurse, he’s a house painter–is already in trouble. They have a young daughter, whom both love, but Cindy yearns for more from her life, her job and Dean, while he basically just wants Cindy and nothing more.
Traveling back in time, we see their courtship, when both are in their late teens. Dean, working then as a furniture mover, woos Cindy, who has ambitions of becoming a doctor, with silly songs and jokes. And we see them now, as they make one last time attempt to reignite the magic with what turns out to be a disastrous night at a Pocono’s honeymoon hotel.
“Blue” is careful not to spell out who’s to blame for the breakup, leaving that to the viewer to decide. What’s clear is that, somewhere along the way, Cindy has stopped loving Dean, or at least loving him enough to put in the energy needed to turn the marriage around. And Dean, devastated, can only flounder.
Part of what makes “Blue” so compelling are the intense performances by Gosling and Williams, both actors who know how to burrow deeply into a role and find its raw emotional core. For Williams, it’s weariness. Her Cindy is just plain tired of wanting more from Dean, which is why it’s doubly heartbreaking to see her filled in the early scenes with energy and optimism. For Gosling, it’s a sweetness gone sour. His Dean is a guy content to be content; when what he considers happiness is threatened and Dean can’t fix it, he falls apart fast.
Ironically, opening the same day as “Blue” is “Another Year,” British director-writer Mike Leigh’s lovely film about a year in the life of a long and happily wed couple (Jim Broadbent and Ruth Sheen). “Year” raises the same questions that “Blue” does: why do some marriages succeed while others don’t, and what does it take to be happy in life?
The answers to those questions are as simple and yet as complex and open-ended as that first sentence in “Anna Karenina.” It is the secret to the success of both movies that they acknowledge that.