120 Minutes // USA // The Weinstein Company
directed by Derek Cianfrance
written by Derek Cianfrance, Ryan Gosling & Michelle Williams
Thursday, September 16th, 2010 – Toronto International Film Festival (Varsity 8)
starring: Ryan Gosling & Michelle Williams
Twelve years ago – before his first and, until now, only feature, Brother Tied (released in 1998) – Derek Cianfrance (writer/director of Blue Valentine) had an idea for a feature about the life and death of a relationship. Having tremendous issues in gathering the sufficient funds necessary to craft this extremely minimalist film was only in 2009 that Mr. Cianfrance was able to gather the small amount needed to create his passion project. One that he had slaved over for many years; one where he had the actors he wanted invested and meticulously preparing for their roles years and years in advance (Gosling for four, Williams for six); one in which no producer, production company or anyone that wasn’t one of his primary actors would be allowed to tamper with the project that he had slaved over for a third of his life. What has risen from this adamant, nearly stubborn behavior is a vibrantly affected feature that encompasses nearly all of the joys and pains of being in what you think is love. From that butterfly-in-your-stomach feeling when you lay your eyes on an anonymous who has unknowingly stolen your heart to the melancholic, frustrating and shrunken feeling of knowing you’re no longer a factor in the life of the person you love, Blue Valentine is an intimate account of point A and point B of an everyday relationship.
Cross-cutting between the first few weeks and final two days of Cindy and Dean’s six-year relationship, Derek Cianfrance meshes together a rather poetic contrast of extremes with bits of casual interaction scattered throughout. When delving into the inception of the romance, the audience is treated to some of the most beautiful scenes of the year. Be it the infatuated look with which Dean first approaches Cindy – which Gosling sells more convincingly than the protagonist in a child’s fairytale – or the promotional tool that Dean’s ukulele serenade of Cindy has become – another scene in which Gosling’s mirth illuminates the audience – or one of the many other brief, but sincere romantic gestures that the couple share, the beginning of their togetherness is bound to do your heart well. “Present day”? Not so much.
Although devised as a lachrymose love story — even the preparation of the film had the two stars share a home and create real loving memories of marriage together before falling out of it — this film is anything but. If viewing this film as a romance, questions will form immediately after the feature ends. Plenty of blame will be dropped on the shoulders of Cindy for her stubbornness, there will be a demand for more information about the decline in affection that slowly amassed over the course of six years and Dean will be viewed as a victim. Instead, Blue Valentine is the story of a man who loves the simple life and a woman who hates it.
In creating a film with characters comprised of extremes – his affability, her decadence – Cianfrance finds himself in a difficult situation. Almost all of the reason why the marriage doesn’t work out is because Cindy is too fractured a person to function properly in that kind of emotional climate. She’s the type that thrives off of independence as she’s been that way most of her life. He’s a more conventional guy that more people will immediately relate to. She’s constantly pushing him away while he’s trying to bring her closer to him in an attempt to make her feel more fulfilled. It’s her fault that the relationship doesn’t last, but it isn’t her fault that she is the way she is, nor is it her fault that he was so committed to her.
Rather than a distressing love story, Blue Valentine is instead an interesting and upsetting psychological treatise on human behavior and interaction. Dean is a man of loyalty and love. He’s also somewhat of a drifter – he lives in a city away from any family, if he has any – and pursues artistic expression through music. We assume that Dean felt destitution in his childhood – that he’s been on his own for awhile based on how he interacts with the world. For example, when moving an elderly man into a retirement home, Dean finds himself loving the man as he would a grandfather – immediately becoming loyal to the genial old war veteran. They speak of love together and Dean lights up as if he’s never held a conversation with an older male figure in his life before. It is no coincidence that shortly after the warm chat Dean has with the old man that he locks eyes with Cindy and is immediately infatuated. The old man spoke about love as if the cornerstone to his happiness. In turn, Dean now believes if he has this then he will be fulfilled. Upon his first encounter with Cindy after his maladroit attempt at snagging her number, it’s clear that Dean loves this girl. But it doesn’t matter if it’s this girl or another – it could honestly be one of a million girls – because Dean so easily fits the bill as “the ideal man” to most any woman. Cindy just happens to be the one he first locked eyes with under the influence of an elder’s wisdom. But do not take my dissection of the man’s earnestness as a dismissal of his romantic intentions because he unequivocally loves Cindy.
Later when interacting with Frankie (the daughter Cindy had with Bobby), Dean does all he can to give her a happiness and emotional comfort that he had never experienced as a kid. He sacrifices a potential music career so that he can tend to the life of a child while also being financially and emotionally supportive of his wife. He’s kindness incarnate and a character who is impossible to dislike.
Cindy, however, is not nearly as ready to smile about life or glad to sacrifice anything for anyone. In fact, she’s downtrodden, bitter, and not nearly as warm as she once was. She’s reticent now. And frigid. But this is not to say she’s venomous as she doesn’t mean to do any harm to anyone… at least not consciously. Deep down she’s still the same idyllic, sidewalk dancing sweetheart we fell in love with early on, but a resentment has consumed her. She no longer cares for love (if she ever did); she cares for a career, for significance. She’s particularly resentful toward Dean for his complacency; his lack of career-based ambition.
In addition, there appears to be an undercurrent of hostile jealousy toward Dean as well. Be it because she wishes she could be as non-fastidious as him, or that she wishes her occupation would afford her the same easement as Dean’s does, or that she wishes her daughter would look up to her as much as she does Dean, or the all encompassing wish that she could be blissful in living such an insignificant life. She’s a bubble ready to burst… but why? What has made suburban simplicity so terrible for Cindy? Why is she so against the idea of enjoying her life? What has made her so disconnected from her husband? So callous toward him? Last we saw them, albeit six years ago, they were utterly infatuated with one and other. He has retained his lovefor her despite having to give up on his aspirations to support his wife and child, yet she has not. Why? This is where the film gets interesting because this aspect is very open to interpretation and my take on it is that she never loved Dean. Here’s why:
In college, just prior to meeting Dean, Cindy had a boyfriend named Bobby Ontario. He was very careless with her emotions and merely used her for her flesh. Same can be applied to her father, striking the second remark. Dean represents a breath of fresh air for her. His spontaneity is a lot of fun — this provides Cindy with a carefree evening away from her exhausting schoolwork — and he’s emotionally invested in her — something she’s not had from a male figure in all of her life. She’s attracted to him and for good reason, but even though everything appears to be good on paper, there is something amiss. She’s been emotionally remote in almost every aspect of her life, only finding solace in the company of her grandmother. She’s diffident and anemic, essentially dragging herself through pedestrian day after pedestrian day hoping to accomplish something in her life; to quench that worthless feeling that has been projected onto her by her father, her ex-boyfriend and all other people that have pushed her around in her life. She isn’t someone who aspires to love, and although it appears she’s relishing it in the flashbacks, what she’s actually celebrating is her release from emotional captivity. What Dean has brought out in Cindy isn’t a love for him, but rather a love for life. Cindy misinterprets her liberation as affection and things go downhill from there. The moment she realizes she’s pregnant she is still unaware that what she has isn’t love – just a very supportive and beautiful friend. And when she opts out of an abortion because the shrewdness of the procedure intimidates her, she throws herself back into captivation. Not the same one, but a similar one nonetheless. The resentment she harbors from there on out is one she has for herself, but one she projects onto Dean. Not because he’s changed, but because she wants it.
Now we’re in the present day. Things are terrible for both parties. Dean wants to restore the long-since-past love the two shared years ago, but Cindy wants no part of it. She excuses herself from Dean’s idea of a romantic resurrection (a night at a theme-oriented sex hotel) several times before capitulating. At the sex hotel, they find themselves in “The Future Room,” which possesses a blue-based monochromatic color scheme. Dean barters with her for sex in hopes to bring their cadaver of a relationship back to life, where she eventually capitulates once again. She’s not there. The film’s tagline could very well be “Some people are destined for loneliness”.
Apart from giving Cindy all of the cynicism where Dean has none, the film’s only other problem is its unsubtle use of symbolism. If you didn’t know how the film ended before going into it, the feral nature that inhibits “The Future Room” tells you that their future together is going to be ravenous and disconcerting. Later, Dean calls Cindy’s cell phone and he has difficulty talking to her because, and he balks, “We have a bad connection”. If that isn’t enough for you, after an ordeal that transpires at Cindy’s hospital which is the culmination of both parties doubts of remaining together, a frustrated Dean tosses his wedding ring into a small, bushy area by the building. Soon after they proceed to look for the ring – both equipped with solemn expressions as if to say “Where is the love?”. A few other instances plague the film with their one-meanings.
For as long as this review is, I’ve not bothered to actively discuss the accomplishments of Ryan Gosling and Michelle Williams because this review is only as full of subtextual rumination because of them. They are these characters and for however long I am alive when I think of Ryan Gosling or Michelle Williams, Dean and Cindy will immediately spring to mind. Actors are seldom this tightly knit to the skins of their characters. This film’s psychological resonance is a testament to their arduous and what I would imagine to be agonizing emotional investment to the project.