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By Michael Calleri

Marriage, and the shock to the system from which it must recover, is the subject of a powerful new movie.

Hovering over the film is this question: Why do people get married?

Are there myriad reasons, or just one? Can the question be answered with something tangible, or is the thrust to commit part of a mythical aggregation that defies explanation? Is this compunction to wed a result of love? Emotion? Expected comfort? A desire for sex? A need for contentment? Is the primary reason for marriage a financial consideration for many? Or is it simply a fact that some people cannot be whole unless they are part of a couple?

"Blue Valentine" is an extraordinary exploration of the need to marry and the struggle to stay married. Although it opens in most of the country now in 2011, it is actually a 2010 release. Had I seen it last year, it would surely have been on my best films list, competing strongly against my top two movies, "The King's Speech," which I consider a perfect film, and "127 Hours."

"Blue Valentine" tells the story of a disintegrating marriage. The couple is young, but their problems are ageless.

The film details the unraveling of Dean and Cindy's dreams for harmony, interspersing their contemporary problems with scenes from their happier courtship. We see them from their mid-20s to that benchmark age of 30.

This is a very strong movie about a woman who has fallen out of love with her husband. On the surface, there seems to be nothing wrong with him. He likes her, is a good husband, a fine father to their daughter, and is worthy of the love and friendship that a marriage promises.

The dilemma that faced director Derek Cianfrance was how best to depict the wife's withdrawal from this kind of contracted relationship without forcing the audience to choose sides. We see Dean's point of view, but we also understand why Cindy has had enough.

Cianfrance co-wrote the screenplay with Joey Curtis and Cami Delavigne, and the three of them have created a puzzle of sorts. The audience must decide what went wrong.

Has Cindy, six years down the road, matured to the point that she realizes what was dreamy at 24 is no longer anything special? Or is that an immature point of view on her part?

Dean is content with how things are. He doesn't see any problems. He was happy when he and Cindy met and married, and he's still happy.

Cindy has the higher education and the harder job. She's a registered nurse. Dean once worked for a moving company and now paints houses. Is he just too proletarian for her?

The sense I got from her reading of his comfort zone was that, as cliched as it is, she wanted him to grow along with her, and he didn't. Should marital progression -- its growth, if you will -- be the same for both spouses? And what do husbands and wives expect from each other?

You may wish to look at the issue this way: It may be obvious to some that Cindy's initial love for Dean was completely different from his love for her. Should she have been more honest at the onset of their relationship?

Neither is a bad person. Is it a natural thing for blame to be affixed? Must someone always be wrong and someone always be right?

Interestingly, the fissures in the marriage occur as the seven-year mark approaches. You know the expression, "the seven-year itch," the point at which many marriages start to wilt.

In old studio Hollywood, this subject matter was usually fodder for comedy, sometimes very good comedy, as in Billy Wilder's wonderful "The Seven Year Itch," which stars Marilyn Monroe and Tom Ewell.

In the new Hollywood, studios would rather make franchise action movies and leave the angst to independent filmmakers, who are more than willing to examine boredom as a reason for divorce.

Angst is what we've got with "Blue Valentine," but it's a riveting angst. Equally important, it's never boring.

Along with the solid direction and tough, taut screenplay, there are also two breathtaking performances. Ryan Gosling as Dean, and Michelle Williams as Cindy, are nothing less than magnificent. They inhabit their roles brilliantly.

There's a hint throughout the picture that perhaps Dean's lack of growth is a failure of masculinity. Is it unmanly to be content with one's station in life? Gosling expertly captures the essence of a man who is glad to be alive, glad to work, glad to have a wife and a child.

Williams has the look of a waif that reminds me of a young Mia Farrow, especially in "Rosemary's Baby," but like that titular character, there's an inner strength to Cindy that rises out of a steely determination to fight the unhappiness and discontent that grip her.

Cindy's irritation rises out of the fact that her husband doesn't seem to care about what she's thinking, feeling, and at times, demanding in the immediate present. There are moments when the passive aggressiveness Dean displays forces her to choke off her own emotions. There's a telling sex scene, which almost got the film an NC-17 rating, that very nearly shatters both characters.

"Blue Valentine" is a movie filled with conflict, but it's the kind of conflict adult moviegoers deserve to experience and will be eager to debate. It's a vital must-see.

E-mail Michael Calleri at michaelcallerimoviesnfr@yahoo.com.

Niagara Falls Reporter www.niagarafallsreporter.com Jan. 25, 2011