Blue Valentine

Blue Valentine (2010): United States – directed by Derek Cianfrance

Rated R by the MPAA – contains language, a scene of violence, and strong sexuality

They don’t make a great deal of movies like this anymore.  Truth is, they rarely did, even back in the day.  Perhaps Ingmar Bergman was the last to tackle subjects like these, in ways like this.  Blue Valentine details a marriage through the course of a couple days, with flashbacks to how it used to be.  One storyline is decidedly more cheerful than the other.

American culture is so intensely trained on how to fall in love, but there are few paragons in life or culture that teach how love changes and how couples can stay in love.  Love at first sight is a popular element of many romantic comedies, and much literature.  But what happens next?  Why does it go so wrongly for so many couples?  Blue Valentine does not answer these questions, and perhaps it shouldn’t.  Instead it observes, quietly, the beauty and joy and love experienced as Dean (Ryan Gosling) and Cindy (Michelle Williams) first meet, and the bitterness, anger, and hardship they endure after six years of marriage.

The film opens in the present, as it were.  Dean and Cindy live with their young daughter, Frankie (Faith Wladyka).  Their dog has escaped its pen.  But it doesn’t matter what happens, just how the characters deal with it.  Cindy is concerned with getting Frankie to school on time, and getting to her nursing duties on time.  Dean is concerned with doting on Frankie, and enjoying life with his family.  He paints houses and is happy, though their marriage is faltering.

One night they send Frankie to stay at grandpa’s house, and Dean books a room at a themed sex motel hoping to jump-start their own relationship.  The film shifts back and forth between their attempted reunification and their past.  There is the love-at-first-sight moment, how it grew, how they fell in love.  Old jealousies, emotional and physical baggage, hurts that grew in their souls as they aged.  These scenes are often happy, but are more useful for illuminating their current situation.

Marriages don’t tend to fall apart on a particularly difficult day.  It may not be apparent at the time, but there often seems to be a history of difficulties that are never resolved.  Dean and Cindy’s marriage was strong, and involved incredible sacrifices at the beginning.  Now Dean is content with his painting job, one that offers the opportunity to have a beer before work.  He sees no need to improve himself, as Cindy wonders how he can possibly waste his potential.  He is skilled in so many areas, but he explains his priorities have changed and he now only wants to be a father and husband.

Both Cindy and Dean have their own problems.  Dean’s are bad, but exist on a surface level; his alcoholism, inability to grow up.  But Cindy’s personal demons are deeply rooted in who she is, in how she grew up.  Her parents remained together, long after they stopped loving each other, and her perspective of a strong, long relationship was damaged forever.  She questions how, and if, a couple can remain together, in love.  Dean’s youth, it is eventually revealed, was quite the opposite, and this struggle between them turns into the climax of the film.

It is clear from near the beginning of their dissolving relationship that they have stopped listening to each other.  They are not able to sit down and talk like adults, even if they are old enough to be considered adults.  They were busy falling in love, at the beginning, and never learned to talk and listen.  Now when they need to talk things out one partner reacts, and the other shuts down.  Listening more, changing more, these seem to be some of the keys to a lasting relationship.  Again, our culture teaches how easy it is to fall for someone, how their witty pick-up lines quickly lead to an evening of talking and walking the streets, a la Before Sunrise [review here].  This quickly leads to passion and lovemaking, and this, we are told, is love.  But what happens when this type of love fades, after a few years?  Real love is deeper, and changes as time advances.  If those in a relationship aren’t willing to change as their love changes, the relationship will break.  Blue Valentine highlights these issues profoundly, and sorrowfully.

The film is raw, shot mostly on the fly, with hand held cameras.  It is joyful at times, exuberant, then cuts abruptly to Dean and Cindy’s current state of affairs.  It is refreshing, in a way, to see a sexual relationship portrayed so honestly.  Sex is painful at times, and happy, and difficult, and necessary.  The vast majority of films paint sex as constantly passionate and physical, something that one experiences as they are falling in love.  The sex in Blue Valentine is something more, something real.  I would love to embark on an essay concerning the MPAA’s treatment of the film, but here I will only invite a comparison between Blue Valentine, a realistic portrayal of a couple’s sex life, and Black Swan [review here], a fantastical, erotic film.  While the actual content of both films is remarkably similar, they were initially treated much differently by the MPAA.

There is much more that could be said about Blue Valentine.  It is harrowing and depressing, possibly the most depressing new film I have seen since Requiem for a Dream.  It is a cautionary tale, one that couples should watch and discuss together.  It shows the pitfalls of relationships, how neglect causes them to crumble.  It highlights the danger that can befall a culture that endorses falling in love, and never mentions staying in love.  There is much to talk about after seeing Blue Valentine.  I’m not sure I would like to see it again, but I am profoundly grateful that I have seen it, and discussed it, with my wife.

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