This indie anti-romance arrives in UK cinemas on a wave of hype, having gone down a storm at the Sundance Film Festival and attracted lavish praise for its two principal actors, Michelle Williams and Ryan Gosling. They play Cindy and Dean, a young married couple whose relationship is painfully falling apart. It’s not a barrel of laughs. But it is rather good.
The film’s one trick is to toy with chronology, interspersing scenes of the couple’s current malaise with glimpses of their happier past: meeting, flirting and getting married. Four or five years in between ‘now’ and ‘then’ remain unseen. As a structure it invites you to look for signs of what will eventually go wrong, but mainly what the film achieves is contrast – the poignancy of the emotional shift; the shocking disparity between sweetness and despair.
Gosling and Williams both pull off their dual roles brilliantly – his change is quite dramatic and hers more subtle, like their characters – and you genuinely feel as if they are putting their heart and souls into their performances. What struck me most was their sheer inarticulacy: unable or unwilling to understand the reasons for their plight, much of the dialogue is hesitant or plain nonsensical, the actors left to communicate via volume or tone of voice.
But to speak of this film (as many critics have done) simply as an actors’ piece does a disservice to Derek Cianfrance’s directing. The intensity of the watching experience peaks in an excruciating episode at the tacky ‘Future Room’ hotel, a memorably nightmarish space lit entirely in dark metallic blue. Here Cianfrance cranks up the sound and subjects us to relentlessly close camera angles in an intoxicating representation of the couple’s claustrophobia.
Later on, Dean comes to Cindy’s workplace drunk and intent on a row. Confronting each other through the window of the reception office, the camera shows them both in profile, their heads reflecting in the panes of glass, multiplying and overlapping as they argue. In the drama of the moment you almost fail to notice the beautiful surrealism of the image – but it, like the film, is a potent and affecting depiction of a relationship’s fractured, dying state.