02/01/2011 12:56 pm ET | Updated May 25, 2011

Blue Valentine 's Sexual Politics

When we think of the toll that America's failing economy is having on the poor and on blue-collar workers, we typically think of what we can measure. We focus on those who collect unemployment, who couldn't make mortgage payments or who lost their health care.

What we don't think of very often is the toll that the economy has taken on people's intimate lives, which is illustrated in Derek Cianfrance's new Indie film, Blue Valentine.

In telling the story of a working-class couple, Dean (Ryan Gosling) and Cindy (Michelle Williams) and their daughter Frankie (Faith Wladyka), Cianfrance has turned out a small masterpiece on a marriage that fails because it can't escape the poverty in which it is mired. Cianfrance's two leading actors, Gosling, who appears on the cover of the current GQ, and Williams, who appears on the cover of the current Marie Claire, could not be more attractive in real life. But in Blue Valentine, they have not only de-glammed themselves, they have turned in brilliant acting performances (for which Williams has received an Academy Award nomination).

Cianfrance's bad luck is that the sex scenes in Blue Valentine -- which capture how Dean's and Cindy's marriage has gone bad -- have generated enormous publicity for their graphicness and have not helped the picture draw an audience. The sex scenes, which by comparison to those that recently featured Anne Hathaway and Jake Gyllenhaal in Love and Other Drugs, are a turnoff rather than a turn-on, have proved a critical distraction. They originally landed Blue Valentine a NC-17 rating rather than its current R designation.

Blue Valentine opens in the early morning with Dean and Frankie looking for their dog, who has escaped from his pen. From this point on, the film moves back and forth in time, covering the six-year span of Dean's and Cindy's relationship. We see them meet at a nursing home, where Dean, in his job as a mover, is helping an old man settle in, and Cindy is visiting her grandmother. Then we go back to their courtship, in which Dean wins Cindy over on a date in which she tap dances and he plays a ukulele while singing, "You always hurt the ones you love."

The sex scenes in Blue Valentine cover this same six-year span and let us see why Dean and Cindy married rather than went their separate ways. In the first sex scene we see Cindy and her high school boyfriend having sex standing up. It is a rushed, brutal moment. Cindy has her shirt on the entire time, and we have no sense that she has enjoyed the encounter. When the scene ends, neither Cindy nor her boyfriend speaks. All we see is her go into the bathroom and wash herself off.

We later learn that Cindy has been having sex since she was thirteen, and we can only assume that her relationships with boys have been one of the few areas in her life that let her escape from a dreary home in which her father bullies everyone. Cianfrance never has Cindy explain whom she sleeps with, but we do see that she appreciates tenderness when we see Cindy enjoying sex with Dean, who with great gentleness goes down on her (the source for the original NC-17 rating). The scene captures how much Dean wishes to please Cindy. Alienated from his family, a high school drop out with a dead-end job, Dean's appeal rests in his willingness to do anything that will make Cindy happy.

It is no small wonder that when Cindy becomes pregnant and decides against an abortion that she chooses to marry Dean (she does not know if Dean or her high school boyfriend is the father of her child). Dean is someone with whom she can be safe. The problem is that as the years go by, being safe with Dean is not enough for her. Cindy, who hoped to become a doctor, is now the chief wage earner in the family in her job as a nurse, but together she and Dean can do little more than pay their bills and maintain the small, dingy house they share.

Dean tries to break the monotony of their lives by taking Cindy to a motel with a choice of exotic suites that include Cupid's Cove and the Future Room. But once at the hotel, sex holds little pleasure for them. When Dean joins Cindy while she is taking a shower, she is repelled by his presence, and this third sex scene ends with them doing lots of drinking but not having sex.

For Cindy, this failed intimacy is the last straw. She drives away from the motel alone. Later she tells Dean that she wants a divorce. "I can't do this any more" is her final judgment of their marriage. In the closing scene of Blue Valentine we see Dean going off alone while his daughter runs after him in tears. Dean has been a loving father, indeed a more empathetic parent than Cindy, and there is no sense that he is getting what he deserves. Like Cindy, he is simply stuck in a marriage in which the future seems sure to be a repeat of the past. He is willing to endure this kind of marriage. She is not.

Dean and Cindy's breakup does no reflect badly on either in the end, and in his refusal to have Dean and Cindy discuss what has driven them apart, Cianfrance has made the right choice. Blue Valentine is a film built on silences and austerity. In contrast to the talkative, unhappily married couples of modern American literature -- from Tom and Daisy Buchanan in Scott Fitzgerald's The Great Gatsby to Frank and April Wheeler in Richard Yates's Revolutionary Road -- there is nothing Dean and Cindy have to say that could improve their lot.

Nicolaus Mills is professor of American Studies at Sarah Lawrence College and author of Winning the Peace: The Marshall Plan and America's Coming of Age as a Superpower.