At the movies, and in almost any narrative-based art form, we are often asked to take sides with and against the characters. There are good people and bad people; people we root for and people we root against; characters we like, characters we hate, and characters we love to hate. Sometimes we are even asked to sympathize with someone that is not so likable. And still at other times we are prompted to look at a situation or relationship as though all sides are equal, with no rooting interests. This last type is rare, but it is the type that Derek Cianfrance’s Blue Valentine (2010) strives to be. When examined closely, though, Blue Valentine subtly forces us to see that one person is right and the other is…well, something other than right. We can feel sorry for all parties in this unpleasant situation, but sides are taken.
SPOILERS COMING YOUR WAY
Throughout Blue Valentine we observe the beginnings and (possible) endings of a relationships between Dean and Cindy (played by Ryan Gosling and Michelle Williams, respectively), two young adults who fell in love at one time and have fallen out of it as the movie begins. Blue Valentine doesn’t cover any of the ground between those two points, which appears to be a period of four or five years. We begin near the end and move back and fourth between two linear tracks of time as the film progresses. The time structure is not fragmented to the point that we don’t know where we are at, but it does make stark comparisons between what makes a love begin and what breaks it down. Blue Valentine is not a puzzle film, but a didactic one. What we learn through these comparisons is that Dean and Cindy are not really a good match, but like so many people who are in the emotional throes of early love, they don’t pay any attention to compatibility issues. Their lack of attentiveness damns them in the end.
Romantic relationships are sometimes born out of desperation. For Dean it is the desperation of not having loved anyone recently and wanting to find “the one”; for Cindy it’s an unplanned pregnancy from a boyfriend who is well below her level – she dumps him, but she’s left with a baby. Dean and Cindy meet each other at just the right time; they are ready for someone, anyone, to be with. In the present tense of the film, Dean and Cindy’s every moment is fraught with tension that’s just below the surface. The love that once was is clearly gone. In many ways, Blue Valentine should be seen as a standard rise/fall film; the plateau, as mentioned before, is not explored. We are not given to understand how their long-term patterns of behavior and attitudes form. What was their first year of marriage like? How did they do when Frankie, their daughter, came into their world? We don’t know exactly where or how things started to go downhill.
As we look at the two ends of the spectrum, Derek Cianfrance wants us to see Dean and Cindy as equally culpable partners in crime. Their relationship, at the end especially, is volatile. Both are frustrated by each other, but only Dean seems to have the energy to keep things going. His commitment to the idea of their love can’t be denied, but he’s not willing to put in the legwork required to fix what they have. Cindy, on the other hand, seems to be willing to do the hard work of the daily grind, but is so exhausted from the demands of it that she has no emotional core left to give. He pushes, she retreats. He’s the cool dad, she’s the disciplinary mom. He chills on the couch, she cleans the house. He’s often cheerful and fully of jokes, while she’s always on edge. The dynamic that they have is not sustainable, but neither partner is willing to actually budge in their entrenched attitudes and behavior patterns. Dean won’t grow up, and Cindy isn’t willing to just call the whole thing off.
We can sympathize with both characters for most of the movie, because we can never be sure of exactly how things reached the breaking point. We see that Dean is somewhat lazy and a poor parenting partner, but we also see that Cindy is no fun to be around. It’s a vicious circle and it makes too much sense. When they decide to leave their daughter with Cindy’s dad for the night so that they get drunk and make love at a hotel, we see that Dean and Cindy’s daily tensions have spilled into their sexual life, where Cindy desires a sadomasochism that Dean refuses to give. Here we’re given the sense that Dean’s love is pure and emotionally raw while Cindy is too cold. But through it all, we can sense that their situation is not the fault of one partner or the other, but of established behavioral habits.
Because we can’t see the middle section of their relationship, we have to do some extrapolating from what we see in their early days. We can see some bad behaviors in one scene just after Cindy has found out that she’s pregnant. They’re walking across a bridge in New York City. Cindy is obviously distressed, but won’t tell Dean what’s going on when he presses her. She says she doesn’t want to talk about it, but Dean continues to push her. When she continues to withhold, Dean climbs the bridge fence, feigning a suicide jump if she won’t tell. She pleads and begs, and finally, when she gives in and tells him that she’s pregnant, he climbs back down and acts the noble man for understanding her predicament. She’s with a man who’s willing to emotionally blackmail her with potential suicide just to see why she’s in a bad mood. There a problem with this, but Cindy is in too deep in problems to notice. Meanwhile, Cindy never does anything even remotely comparable to Dean. She’s in a tough spot, and, yes, she does lean on him during that time, but one can understand being a little overwhelmed at the choice between abortion and having a child. As an audience, we can see what she’s getting into, and unfortunately she doesn’t appear to have any friends who can tip her off. Can a person deal with that sort of emotional abuse on a day to day basis?
Dean is clearly a man of great emotions. His passion is part of what keeps them together. It’s his energy that pushes the relationship along, both in the beginning and at the end. But his passion also plays a negative role. When Cindy is called into the doctor’s office where she works on the morning after their drunken hotel stay, she leaves Dean in the room, forcing him to catch a bus. She’s so tired of him that she’s unwilling to give a common courtesy of taking him home with her. While what she does is uncalled for, Dean returns the favor by busting into the doctor’s office to argue with Cindy while she’s on the job. He crosses other lines at the doctor’s office, too. What he does is both relationally and socially unacceptable.
Blue Valentine puts us firmly on Cindy’s side by the end of the film, so much so that it’s easy to feel like the film cheats us at the chance to see something more nuanced. Other than an understandable exasperation, what great faults does she have? Her problem is that she understands what it takes to make a family work, that’s she’s grown up?
If we were only shown the fall of their relationship, Blue Valentine would’ve been a screeching, painful film to bear. These latter stages consist mainly of arguments, yelling sessions, and melodramatic crying. The beauty of Blue Valentine is that it allows us to see how love comes together. The early part of their relationship rings truest. We see that their romantic ideals combined with their desperation throw them together in a whirlwind fashion that is actually rather romantic. Though their situation is born out of desperation and practical need, we can see how Dean and Cindy would be attracted to one another, and how they would allow themselves to not analyze their situation. At their point of meeting, they are both smart and charming, if a little rough around the edges. Michelle Williams and Ryan Gosling lived with each other for a time so they could dig into these characters, and their stunt pays off. They nail both ends of the spectrum for Cindy and Dean, and this is the primary virtue of Blue Valentine. Their chemistry is so palpable that we can believe that Cindy and Dean are people who could really exist. The performances are brave in their emotional rawness and detailed in their modes of expression. Blue Valentine may not be a fair movie and it may not offer any incredible insights into the nature of romance and its failure, but it is a pleasure to see two young actors so dedicated to their craft.