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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, their miscommunication.

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 hairline.

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