Blue Valentine

isn’t a romantic drama; it’s a horror movie for romantics. Derek Cianfrance’s (Cagefighter) film asks questions that most modern romantic movies attempt to avoid: What happens to a married couple when they fall out of love? What if you’re not meant to be with the person you married? The answers to these questions are often painful, messy and uncomfortable.

So is Blue Valentine. But it stirs up all of these emotions without once turning into a melodrama.

The film cuts between the present and the past of a Pennsylvania couple, nurse Cindy (Michelle Williams: Wendy and Lucy) and house painter Dean (Ryan Gosling: Lars and the Real Girl). As the film begins, it’s pretty clear that the couple is teetering on a precipice: They’re snappish and out of sync, only putting on a bright exterior for their daughter.

In between scenes of domestic discord, Cianfrance cuts to the inception of the couple’s relationship. We watch as drifting Dean charms work-oriented Cindy on an improvised date. They laugh at the same jokes, they sing, they race around the city. The fireworks between them flare so brightly that you know this couple is meant to be together.

Then Cianfrance cuts back to their present lives.

Here nothing is funny or charming or sweet. It’s a whirl of disappointment, fatigue and depression. Cindy seems to carry the weight of this on her shoulders, while Dean stubbornly ignores any sign of dissonance. As they hurtle toward the inevitable end, you squirm in your seat and mourn for the formerly happy couple.

The much ballyhooed hotel sex scene — which earned the film an initial NC-17 rating — is every bit as graphic as the MPAA made it out to be. It’s not the nudity that’s graphic — though you’ll see plenty of Williams’ body — but the troubling idea that married sex has become an act of concession instead of love.

Blue Valentine’s power lies in the performances of Gosling and Williams, who lived together for a month before filming. Both actors in effect deliver two wonderful performances: as hopeful lovers embarking on a new live and as weary married people trying to recapture a snuffed spark.

Gosling makes a character who could have been an immature oaf into a hopeless romantic who is equally charming and infuriating. Williams is given the harder task of playing the mature, world-weary partner. She excels at expressing just how beaten down Cindy is by her life. Shoulders slightly stooped, Williams’ Cindy projects fatigue and desperation that has been wearing her down for years. Both actors revel in their characters’ flaws, taking turns acting selfish and unlikable.

I wrote in my preview that this wasn’t a first-date movie, and I’m going to stick with that assessment. Cianfrance’s brutal film portrays the ugly side of sex and the death of love as common themes in human life. Dean and Cindy aren’t exceptional, and that’s what makes the movie so horrifying: This can happen to anyone. That’s probably not the message you want to leave the theater with if you’re hoping for a goodnight kiss.

Yet this is a love story. Cianfrance clearly admires the intense courtship of his characters. But he questions how to maintain that passion when life starts to chip away at romantic ideals.

Cianfrance doesn’t offer an answer, which might be the hardest part of the film. Still, if you’re in the market for a drama that will emotionally eviscerate you while making you ponder the futility of love, you won’t find a better option at the multi-plex. Just bring a friend, not a date.

Excellent Drama • R • 112 mins.