Romance is easy, but marriage is hard. And if you have any doubts about that, I direct you toward “Blue Valentine,” Derek Cianfrance’s lacerating dissection of a union born of promise, but doomed to failure.

Romance is easy, but marriage is hard. And if you have any doubts about that, I direct you toward “Blue Valentine,” Derek Cianfrance’s lacerating dissection of a union born of promise, but doomed to failure.


Like a highway pileup, the carnage is disturbing, yet you feel compelled to stare at the twisted wreckage, all the while thinking those people could easily have been me. In that respect, “Blue Valentine” is the ultimate rubberneck experience, but it’s not the main attraction.


No, that distinction goes to Ryan Gosling and Michelle Williams, two actors shaping up to be the DeNiro and Streep of their generation. There’s even a “Deer Hunter”-like vibe enveloping the stifled blue-collar world their Dean and Cindy inhabit. You also detect a lot of that earlier film’s muted joy, particularly in the frequent flashbacks to the couple’s early days, when the hormones and endorphins ran wild.


Like them, you allow yourself to be swallowed up in the rush of emotions, as cockeyed optimism and heart-pounding excitement obscure the signs of trouble ahead. You know just what Dean and Cindy are feeling, too, because we’ve all been there, just as we’ve all learned the fleetingness of passion.


It’s a level of verisimilitude Cianfrance and his co-writers, Joey Curtis and Cami Delavigne, continually strive for and often achieve. Sometimes to devastating effect, as the story oscillates between the idyllic beginnings of Dean and Cindy’s romance and the bitter, abusive end six years hence.


We see nothing of what occurred in the space between, but their weary expressions and slumped shoulders speak volumes about a relationship pocked with crevices deeper than the Grand Canyon. Money is tight, their 5-year-old daughter, Frankie (a fabulous Faith Wladyka), is a handful, and Cindy is at last coming to the realization that Dean is more of an energy-sucking parasite than a husband.


It’s no small feat that the juxtaposition of falling in love and falling into an abyss melds so fluidly. But even more impressive are the profound insights into issues of fate and the shear unpredictability of life.


What you seek isn’t necessary what you get, like for Cindy, who longed to be a doctor but wound up a physician’s lackey. Or Dean, who aches for the full-out passion that Cindy no longer provides.


Each silently blames the other for their lack, but the reality is that no one is at fault. They just aren’t meant to be together, as evidenced in the couple’s final night together in a sleazy, sex-theme motel.


Their lovemaking is clearly one-sided, with Dean providing all the pleasure, particularly in the graphic oral sex scene that got the film slapped with the dreaded NC-17, a rating that has since been reduced to an R. Rightfully so, because the encounter is hardly erotic; if anything, it’s profoundly sad.


And what makes it sting is the fact that Cindy and Dean, despite his hot temper and love of drink, are such decent, likable people. They are neither heroic nor villainous, just hopelessly lost in the void between the life they expected and the life they were given.


Reach Al Alexander at aalexander@ledger.com.


BLUE VALENTINE (R for strong graphic sexual content, language and a beating.) Cast includes Ryan Gosling and Michelle Williams. Co-written and directed by Derek Cianfrance. 3.5 stars out of 4.