Directed by: Derek Cianfrance
When the credits rolled at the end of ‘Blue Valentine’ I wasn’t sure if I’d seen a masterful representation of the cold deterioration of a long-term relationship, or a film that tries much too hard to make Dean & Cindy the millennial generation’s Romeo and Juliet.
There are several scenes which are at odds with the bleak tone of the movie, but these are useful in the sense that they represent the wistful way in which we reimagine our own memories of the good times. If we are to take them literally as scenes which actually happened then they somewhat tarnish the movie. For example the kooky serenading that (Dean) Ryan Gosling does to (Cindy) Michelle Williams in front of a quaint little shop with a red heart hanging up in the doorway is the kind of nauseous lovey dovey tripe that could be used in an advert for match.com.
Swallowing the brief romance is a small price to pay because the good stuff comes in the bitter arguments. I don’t know if I’m a masochist, but I was heartily chewing through a bag of Haribo Starmix as the couple sniped and bickered away at each other. The break-up plays out with the same intense anguish as a Richard Yates novel. It was Yates who said “If my work has a theme, I suspect it is a simple one: that most human beings are inescapably alone, and therein lies their tragedy.”
Dean and Cindy are lonely people, and they never truly gel as a couple. Dean becomes dependent on Cindy, to be the stabilizing force in his otherwise freewheeling and directionless life, to act as his anchor. Cindy on the other hand has to settle for second best. She gives up the strong charming masculine wrestler Bobby for Dean. She works as a nurse, when her ambition was to work her way much higher up the medicine ladder.
The last scene of ‘The Graduate’ shows two young lovers looking petrified about their future together. They sit at the back of a bus, on that great unknown road that might lead to marriage and children, settling down, living an ordinary life. For me that scene has always represented the most accurate representation of the fear that love can bring. Is this person right for me in the long term? Although the reality is that nobody asks themselves this impossible to answer question. Although perhaps they should at least find some time to reflect upon this, because when it all goes wrong, everything turns to shit.
Director Derek Cianfrance tells his tale using flashbacks; we start and end in the present, with the disintegration interwoven in a nostalgic look at those ‘better days’. Cracks appear early as the couple argue about preparing breakfast for their young daughter, and the carelessness of leaving the gate open which led to the disappearance of the family dog. This seems to stem from tiredness, Cindy is exhausted, working long hours for little reward. Dean on the other hand works as a painter who makes enough to get by, and operates in a relative stress free environment, although any possible stress is tempered by cigarettes and alcohol.
In the flashback scenes Dean is a daydreaming removal worker with artistic talent, Cindy is a medical student with a promiscuous side. Cindy is seeing a guy on the wrestling team, and Dean has an idealized concept of finding true love which is irrationally romantic, the kind of notion that is destined to end in a bruised ego. Somehow their paths cross as Gosling moves an elderly man’s belongings across the States to a retirement home that happens to house Cindy’s Grandmother who is suffering from dementia.
Dean muses about love with a co-worker before he meets Cindy and says “I feel like men are more romantic than women. When we get married we marry, like, one girl, ’cause we’re resistant the whole way until we meet one girl and we think I’d be an idiot if I didn’t marry this girl she’s so great. But it seems like girls get to a place where they just kinda pick the best option… ‘Oh he’s got a good job.’ I mean they spend their whole life looking for Prince Charming and then they marry the guy who’s got a good job and is gonna stick around.”
He’s got it wrong; in fact it seems to be a recurring theme in the film as Dean keeps getting it wrong. This comes to a head when the couple retreat to a seedy sci-fi themed hotel room with a shit load of booze in order to try and rekindle their relationship. Cindy laments upon Dean’s failure to not be able to capitalize on his creative potential. Dean then reveals to her that he never wanted to be a father or a husband, but he is content to continue to play these roles. The whole night is a disaster, and when work calls for Cindy to cover a shift at the hospital she hurries away.
It is evident from Gosling and Williams performances just how committed they were to the script, which they both read several years before production began. Their natural dialogue, most of which was improvised and a great deal of preparation for getting into character as a couple makes this almost voyeuristic viewer experience, ‘Blue Valentine’ is a harrowing peep through the curtains into domestic strife.