The Michelle Williams and Ryan Gosling marital drama "Blue Valentine" is agonizing to watch yet relentlessly compelling, even illuminating, playing almost like a sober documentary rather than a narrative film.
Though fictional, "Blue Valentine" is a document of sorts, a chronicle of a crumbling marriage that often feels as honest and painful as if it were a nonfiction film about real people putting each other through absolute hell.
That sense of eavesdropping authenticity results from the commitment of Williams and Gosling, who remained signed on to star for years before filming finally started, and the perseverance of director and co-writer Derek Cianfrance, who honed the script for 12 years.
The behind-the-scenes troubles for the film - including an initial adults-only NC-17 rating for sexual content - reflect the bumps and bruises of marriage that Cianfrance set out to illustrate.
Like any marriage, the result is a beautifully idiosyncratic portrait of a relationship that starts with the brightest of hopes and inevitably falters as the years and mileage accumulate.
"Blue Valentine" follows a pivotal day in the life of Cindy and Dean, a married couple spending a night away from their young daughter (Faith Wladyka, in her screen debut) in hopes of renewing the romantic spark that has steadily faded between them.
Williams' Cindy is a medical assistant who once dreamed of being a doctor, and Gosling's Dean is a housepainter whose only aspiration in life was to be a family man.
They once held deep affection and passion for each other, but the unasked question with which both grapple is whether they ever were truly compatible for the long haul.
Cianfrance intersperses the present-day marital scenes with lovingly nostalgic flashbacks to the start of Cindy and Dean's romance six years earlier.
The authenticity is heightened by Cianfrance's filming methods. The flashbacks were shot first, on Super 16mm film using a single lens and handheld cameras, lending those portions a hazier look, like happy memories of a time of spontaneity and possibility. The present-day scenes have a sharper, unforgiving quality, shot using two digital cameras fixed on tripods, with long lenses, one each following Williams and Gosling, allowing the actors to prowl the sets at will.
The scenes from their marriage were shot a month after the flashbacks. Williams and Gosling had a contest to see who could pack on the most weight in that time to help show the intervening years (Williams won, gaining 15 pounds).
But camera styles and gaining weight are incidental to the film's main strength - the raw, ferocious, punishing performances delivered by Williams and Gosling.
There are moments of sublime sweetness in the early days of Cindy and Dean's love story that could melt the heart of the most unsentimental cynic. To see where it all leads as they drift apart is heartbreaking - certainly not as heartbreaking as watching friends in real life break apart, but about as close as you can come in a film.
When Williams and Gosling fight, make love, trade jokes, share an awkward conversation in the car, every second feels real.
It's probably that sense of tough truth that led raters at the Motion Picture Association of America to brand "Blue Valentine" with an NC-17 rating for sexual content. That rating would have prohibited those younger than 17 from seeing the film, but the filmmakers appealed and got it lowered to an R rating.
The NC-17 rating was absurd, since the film's sex scenes, including one in which Gosling's character performs oral sex on Williams' character, are not that explicit. But that's part of the great illusion the filmmakers create: Everything, sex included, seems so much more real than it is.
Not many parents will be thinking "Blue Valentine" is a film they must take their teenagers to see over the holidays. But an NC-17 rating would have held the film out of many theaters and made plenty of adults think twice about seeing it.
And it's a film that should be seen by as many people as possible.
"Blue Valentine," a Weinstein Co. release, is rated R on appeal for strong sexual content, language and a beating. Running time: 112 minutes. Three and a half stars out of four.