Review by Ryan Wilson
Woody Allen once said that a relationship is like a shark: “It has to constantly
move forward or it dies.” I thought of Allen’s comparison while watching Blue
Valentine, a very serious, very dour look at a crumbling marriage, released last week
on DVD. After viewing the film, I longed for some witticism of some sort because
Blue Valentine more than lives up to its title, especially the “blue” part.
This is not a criticism. In fact, the film should be required viewing for any
young couple jumping too quickly into a commitment. The film is so spot-on
realistic, so convincingly acted that it might just scare that young couple into
thinking twice about the dangers of making a deeper dedication.
Ryan Gosling and Michelle Williams play Dean and Cindy, two world-weary
parents of a young daughter whom they both love. At first we feel their problems
stem from the typical sort of strife based on work schedules and exhaustion, and the
scary thing is that we don’t see much more that really gets in their way. Sure, Dean
drinks beer a little too early in the morning and acts like his daughter’s playmate
rather than her father, and Cindy seems to suffer from sleep deprivation from her
stressful job as a nurse, but their problems don’t feel insurmountable until they get
alone together. Then we see the nightmare that is their communication, or rather,
They talk over and around each other, interpreting all observations as
personal affronts. Dean and Cindy are not selfish people, but how they listen to each
other is so selective that they can’t see past their own anguish, giving us a portrait of
a bad marriage.
Many good films have portrayed the complexities of adult anxiety in a
marriage, but what makes Blue Valentine stand out is its elaborate use of flashback.
In fact, I hesitate to call it “flashback” because the film occurs as much in the past as
it does in the present. And this is not the typical cause and effect scenario where we
get to see those moments that foreshadow their dreadful marriage. No, the truly
scary prospect of the film is that once Dean and Cindy were very much right for each
other. Once they wanted to listen to and solve each other’s problems. But alas, the
future has come crashing down on them. Literally.
In a heavy-handed move writer/director Derek Cianfrance has Dean and
Cindy check into a themed hotel in a desperate attempt to save their marriage. The
only room left is the so-called “future room,” which Dean says looks like a “Robot’s
Vagina.” In this miserable setting the full disappointment of their joint future hits
them, and we spin back in time, back to when love once seemed as solid as Dean’s
I enjoyed the early scenes of their courtship the most. In fact, the very
moment that the two meet is wonderfully nuanced. Dean is a blue-collar kid
working for a moving company. He’s optimistic and sweet as he moves an elderly
gentleman into a nursing home. There he chances to meet Cindy, who is visiting her
grandmother because she sees in her a romanticism lacking in her own life. At this
moment the two need each other and are right for each other, and the audience feels
it. We feel, as they do, that life is a fragile, fleeting experience in which we long for
companionship. So when Dean and Cindy meet, it feels as if the stars align.
Alas, this, however, is also the same life where in the future those two sweet
kids will eventually end up publicly berating each other, shouting that they can’t
stand to continue the charade of closeness. In short, they turn cruel.
To their credit, Gosling and Williams make this brutal scene feel completely
plausible, almost as if you’ve gone through one such moment yourself during a bad
break-up. Watching them tear into each other, I was reminded of someone who once
told me that such a public display is only evidence of a couple’s passion. I still don’t
buy that. Watching this climactic moment only makes you believe that sometimes
love isn’t enough, that, sometimes, sadly, a life together takes more than love.
As I said before, young couples should watch Blue Valentine as a warning that
time changes every relationship. The film is a dark reminder that aging contributes
to our limitations as individuals. Even as loving individuals. Like the best neo-realism, Blue Valentine is difficult and disturbing material to wade through, but
you’re wiser after experiencing such art. Wise enough hopefully, in this case, not to
end up a dead shark.
Take 5 on Film is a production of Delta College Quality Public Radio.
© Ryan Wilson, 2011