A wise person once told me that falling in love isn’t the endpoint; it’s where the relationship begins. Romantic love doesn’t last if the couple doesn’t ultimately work well together. And yet, couples at the early stages of relationships are often so smitten with chemistry and insatiable physical activity that the question of whether they’re built to last seems like a buzz kill to rosy-cheeked romance. In Derek Cianfrance’s film about sweet love left out to curdle, a couple portrays the ways in which good people fall in and out of love. The fact that the couple in question is delineated by Michelle Williams and Ryan Gosling who are touchingly real and nuanced only adds to our wish that their young love last forever, no matter the circumstances.
The film’s scenes oscillate between present (the near dismantling of their marriage) and past (the heartfelt development of their relationship six years earlier). That Cianfrance deliberately avoids any scenes from the years in between may be disorienting or even grating on some audience members. But the approach offers the viewer a more active vantage point than escapist movie-watching. He also cleverly drops subtle details that he only explains later, like the song played in the hotel room or the good-looking jock in the liquor store. They’re crucially important to the couple, and Cianfrance engages our curiosity as he reveals their significance.
At least one of the pair is featured in every frame of the film, and usually both. They are the only ones we care about, along with their adorable daughter, and because of that, whether their relationship prevails or fails is integral to our emotional experience. But the problem is, it’s clear - despite the warm, passionate, and love-abundant scenes of their early stages - that their relationship is built with twigs instead of bricks. Cindy (Michelle Wiliams) has a history with asshole men from her father to her previous boyfriend. When sweet, endearing Dean (Ryan Gosling) enters her life, he’s a breath of fresh chivalry. And he’s so taken by Cindy that he accepts the challenges of a relationship that escalates too quickly into marriage and parenthood.
I have to confess that the scene where Cindy and Dean stand outside a dimly lit store entrance at night and he croons along with his mandolin as she tap dances was so affective on my pliable heartstrings that I fell in love with them together and knew that their deterioration would be heartbreaking. But it didn’t undermine the awareness of how utterly mismatched they were: his ambition-free life and childishness to her determination and maturity.
Much of the pleasure of this film is in watching Michelle Williams who is heartbreaking in nearly every scene. She melts seamlessly into her character, whether fragile and wide-eyed as a young woman or weathered and compromised as a mother. Ryan Gosling’s Dean is emotionally charged as well, though he presents a less believable juxtaposition between an earnest young man and a frequently drunk father prone to hostile outbursts.
The beginnings of relationships are naturally sweet, and the ends are unsurprisingly painful or bittersweet. The reason romantic comedies end when the couple finally falls in love is so that we don’t have to question whether or not they’ll last.