Blue Valentine is a film designed to stir debate, but not in the usual silly political nor emotional sort of way. Its debate is of a deeper and more profound measure, and that is it asks which of the two main characters profiled in the film is in the wrong? The film does its best to be evenhanded, and for every tick of the ledger against one of the major characters, an equally incisive demerit can be handed out to the other. However, the biggest demerit I can give regarding this 2010 film, directed by Derek Cianfrance, about the turmoil of a mediocre marriage, is the critical cribbing that abounds in essays and reviews of the film, online and off. And that cribbing involves the almost near-universal claim that this film follows the end of, or the dissolution of, that marriage. Yet, nothing of the sort can be convincingly construed from the film’s contents nor its ending.
Yes, the film, which bifurcates into flashbacks of how the married couple of Dean and Cindy Pereira met, and details a troubling two days, some years later, around the 4th of July, does have Cindy declare that she wants a divorce, but that occurs 15-20 minutes before the film ends, with Dean walking away, down a street, after some reconciliation has occurred. Also, given the volume of detail that we get on this couple’s relationship, from the things actually shown in the two time frames, to those things easily inferred from those seen things, and the character portrayals of the two lead actors, Ryan Gosling and Michelle Williams, it’s pretty obvious that, like most couples in this sort of relationship between two weak willed individuals, this run of troubling days is simply the latest incarnation of personal melodrama the two have jointly constructed, in fact, enhancing their bond, long term, due to its joint effort. And the film reinforces this with a few telling moments in the film wherein we see Cindy’s parents’ marriage, and hear of the marriage of her grandmother- two women Cindy clearly resembles; especially as she seeks Dean to be violent toward her, only to belittle him as ‘not a man’ because he refuses her invitations to be brutish. In short, this is not a film about the end of a marriage, but a film about 99+% of all marriages that last till death do us part.
The 112 minute film was directed by Derek Cianfrance, and was scripted by him, Cami Delavigne, and Joey Curtis, and is an odd amalgam of the good and the bad. The bad is that almost every situation the film depicts is a cliché. The good is that they are all written and acted exceedingly well. On the positive side, even the banal moments slightly alter- if not fully undermine, the clichés, yet on the negative side, the outcome of the film (i.e.- no resolution depicted) is never in doubt. That we know how the film will end, despite seeing nothing of the ‘middle years’ of the Pereira’s marriage, evinces this film’s travel over well trod ground, for, from about twenty minutes in to the film it’s clear the film will not provide a neat resolution, so little real ‘drama’ is built up, even as the film does wonderful things in sketching these very familiar characters who actually do strive to be more than the stereotypes they could have easily become, if not for the excellent acting of Williams and Gosling. While there is some nice (mostly diegetic) scoring by a rock group called Grizzly Bear, and there is some interesting framing of cinematography by Andrij Parekh (note how the past is seen in mostly handheld shots while the present is seen in mastershot compositions), the film is dominated by its two leads.
Dean is seen as a streetwise high school dropout-cum-day laborer, while Cindy is a college educated nurse who was on track to become a doctor, before getting pregnant. The child is likely not Dean’s but an ex-boyfriend’s named Bobby Ontario (Mike Vogel)- an aggressive, dim witted jock who abused Cindy and beat up Dean, with two musclebound cohorts, when he found she preferred him; at least initially. Set to get an abortion, Dean instead agrees to marry her, knowing the child, a girl named Franky (Faith Wladyka), is likely not his biologically. Cindy is controlling- in a backhanded passive-aggressive sort of way, manipulative, and is a more modern equivalent of the character Judy, essayed by Mia Farrow, in Woody Allen’s 1992 film, Husbands And Wives. She actually longs for a jerk in her life, like Bobby, whom she meets at a liquor store and still obviously lusts for. Dean, meanwhile, fell in love with her at first sight, and does all he can do to please her, from raising her child to being supportive, to moving out to Pennsylvania so they can be closer to Cindy’s parents, and it’s clear that the film takes the ‘nice guys finish last’ adage to its limit, for Dean is a doormat, and many viewers will likely think he needs to be a man, not a wimp.
The best example of this comes when Dean wants to take Cindy away to a themed sex motel for a night, so they can rekindle passion, and Cindy and he get drunk, instead, then she abandons him at the motel, while he’s passed out, simply because she got a call to come in to work at her clinic. Dean then heads to the clinic, where he is assaulted by Cindy, demeaned, and then when he tries to have time alone with her, it becomes clear that Cindy has been badmouthing her husband to her co-workers and boss, a lecherous doctor who clearly wants to bed Cindy by not so subtly offering her a promotion if she’ll do so. When the doctor gets between Dean and Cindy, Dean feels he is trying to move in on his wife and slugs the bastard, only to have him turn around and fire her.
Throughout the film the viewer sees the same patterns repeat: Dean is lazy but content; Cindy is a go-getter with no sense of self nor purpose. In one telling exchange, Cindy berates Dean’s lack of drive and ambition, claiming he has so much potential. Dean calls her on her obvious obliviousness or false bravado and asks her ‘potential to do what?’ When she has no answer it’s clear that Dean, despite his flaws of drinking (although not to the point of alcoholism) and wimpiness, is the aggrieved party, and that Cindy has not grown up beyond the fanciful stage of a teenager (at her aborted abortion she claims to not know who the father is, and to have had 20-25 lovers in her brief life. But the root of the film is that ‘romantic love,’ as depicted in Hollywood films, is bullshit. Dean recognizes that, while neither is going to change the world, they do have a deeper connection than most people, and it is Cindy’s being hung up on the romantic narcissism of the Hollywood Model that has cast their marriage into its state (the Bobby Ontario scenes show this conclusively). What’s interesting is that, despite a few viewers and critics that see fault lying mostly with Dean, the majority of viewers (if one can reliably tell from film blogs and chatrooms) see Cindy at fault, and this includes women. My wife, as example, watched the film a first time, and felt Dean was at fault, but in a rewatch with me, came to the conclusion that Cindy was at the core of the problem. Any person with a brain will conclude the same, and as proof, I submit this: reverse their roles, and not a woman alive would think Dean was NOT an arrogant, self-centered, masochistic jerk. They would be right, and anyone denying this role reversal claim is a hypocrite. The film is primarily a dissection of Cindy’s self-loathing, and Dean just happens to be the all too average guy who loves her despite it all. In many ways, he’s a modern capital R Romantic, a Ralph Kramden, sans the humor, while Cindy is his ultra-Realistic Trixie (albeit a constantly PMSing one).
But, this leads to an even greater problem- that most human beings do not even recognize when they have the ingredients of joy and love before them. In this way, Blue Valentine is one of the more realistic portraits of love ever filmed. It is not ‘an autopsy of a failed marriage,’ as film critic James Berardinelli claims, but rather, as Roger Ebert (whose emotional radar is usually far beyond his critical one) claims, it is about this:
Dean seems stuck. He seems to stay fixed at the initial stage. Can you see the difference between (1) "He loves me as much as he always did," and (2) "He loves me exactly like he always did"?
Yes, Dean is utterly clueless about personal growth. In that way, his immaturity tells him to just be the same, whereas his wife’s immaturity tells her to just move, not necessarily grow, for she (like her husband) seems no more mature than she did in her earlier years. It’s clear that Cindy regrets her marriage for that oldest and least named reason: she feels she ‘settled’ in life, rather than strove for something (or someone) more, and this is what fuels her self-loathing; which likely includes her deliberately (consciously or subconsciously) allowing the family dog to run away and get killed, at the film’s start, knowing it might precipitate a melodrama that could end her marriage. Also, unlike Berardinelli, and countless other reviewers, Ebert does not automatically assume the film depicts the end of a marriage:
Who was it who said we get married because we want a witness to our lives? That may provide an insight into the troubled minds of the married couple in "Blue Valentine," which follows them during their first six years of mutual witness.
The DVD, put out by Anchor Bay, has deleted scenes, a trailer, a making of featurette, and a commentary by Cianfrance and editor Jim Helton. While not offering any startling insights, the commentary does refrain from the usual fellatio such things entail. Despite all the good in the film, though, it falls shy of greatness, and even near greatness because, unlike the films and style of John Cassavetes, with which it’s almost always compared, it follows a rote Hollywood formula- well done and with a few minor deviances, whereas Cassavetes mapped out wholly new territories in his best films, and blew them out of the park- think of the opening drunken scene in Faces. The film also tends to benefit from the low expectations of most modern filmgoers in regards to recent realistic adult dramas- i.e.- it seems better than it really is because its competition is so uniformly lousy. On the other hand, this film transcends the lesser works of Cassavetes- especially his famed portrait of a bad marriage, A Woman Under The Influence, even as it channels a sort of Kevin Smith vibe to it. Overall, Blue Valentine is a film worth seeing. It is not the masterpiece its believers claim, nor is it aimless, as detractors believe. It does, however, herald the arrival of Cianfrance as a director of potential greatness. Now, like Cindy Pereira on real love, he must realize it.