Film Review: Blue Valentine

“She sends me blue valentines all the way from Philadelphia to mark the anniversary of someone that I used to be.”

I noted on my Top Ten Films of 2010 article that the only film I didn’t see that possibly could have mucked up the works was Blue Valentine. Well, it mucked up the works. The new and improved top ten list is as follows:

10. The Fighter

9. Rabbit Hole

8. Exit Through the Gift Shop

7. True Grit

6. Inception

5. Blue Valentine

4. Never Let Me Go

3. Scott Pilgrim Vs. The World

2. The Social Network

1. Black Swan

One could argue that romance is one of those silly little things that higher self aware species aspire to despite having little to no evolutionary advantage. Mating for life, monogamy, romance, these are traits that usually, though not always, are less evolutionarily advantageous due to a pure numbers game. However, the human race has obviously evolved beyond classical evolution in our own way, and I’ve written before about how the evolution of the mind replaces the evolution of the body now that we can sculpt the world to fit our will and comfort level. Because of this, because life is not a constant struggle for survival at all times, we can relax and do silly things like fall in love. And, as Joy Division had said so famously, love will tear us apart. And it does. All the goddamned time. Our free time as a species is a blessing and a curse, because the ability to relax combined with higher brain functions turns into a delirious mix of sweating the small stuff, staying up late at night waiting for her to call, wondering why it took so long for him to come home from work, furtive glances, accusations of infidelity, all of these things that can cause acute emotional pain entirely because we do these things simply because we can.

Oddly enough, we also tend to find a level of enjoyment in watching the emotional pain of others via entertainment outlets such as film and theater or the written word; tragic love stories are certainly a well trodden trope stemming from the Greek plays through Shakespeare to the modern day. Many of them, of course, end with the mythical happy ending where everything is peachy and love is eternal and everlasting despite all those nasty speed bumps from the second act. Many of them, however, also have the potential to end with everyone dead. We can thank both the Greeks and old Billy Shakes for the proliferation of the tragic end to the love story, where love does not spring eternal, and people probably get stabbed for some reason. Or, consequently, love does spring eternal, but people get stabbed before it has a chance to be everlasting. Either way, people probably get stabbed.

Blue Valentine, the new ‘romance’ film from writer/director Derek Cianfrance, does not feature any stabbings. Not physical ones, at least. But it squarely falls into the second more grisly camp of love stories. Love does indeed tear these characters apart, and it is all laid bare in front of the camera, without fear of or revulsion from taboo. And when you read all of the various and sundry critical reviews of Blue Valentine, the critics will indeed talk about how it’s a tragic tale of two people who fall into and then out of love. And how Michelle Williams and Ryan Gosling really make you believe they were meant to be together, which is why it’s so saddening and tragic that they grow apart to such a degree as they do. But here’s the thing. Blue Valentine is not a love story. Blue Valentine is a lust story.

No, that does not mean it is porn, though there is a decent amount of sex (some of which lead to the short lived and infamous NC-17 rating from the MPAA that was eventually overturned due to, you know, logic and common sense). What it means is while the press copy may say it, and the critics may say it, that does not make it true. From what is presented on screen for the near two hours of run time, we never actually see these characters fall in love. To whit, there is some bias due to the innate structure of the narrative, and its begin with the ending mentality of showing us how they’re failing before we find out how they meet, creating a clear bias with the audience that THIS WILL NOT WORK OUT IN THE END, but this is intentional. Blue Valentine is a story of two people forced to love each other due to being forced into an extremely difficult situation. But since they were never actually in love, rather in lust, in the first place, it’s destined to fail.

I should mention, before I get into the real meat of things, that the movie itself is fantastic. I’m picking up The Social Network on Blu-Ray today (with multiple commentaries that could deem important considering New England’s pending Snowpocalypse II: This Time It’s January), which will give me the opportunity to really compare Eisenberg and Gosling’s performances within a short window, because Gosling’s work in Blue Valentine is astounding, and possibly good enough to leap frog Eisenberg as the best of 2010. Dean of the present and Dean of the past are organically different, and you can feel six years worth of new experiences and challenges informing his outlook on life as his relationship with his wife strains. You can see what Cindy sees in him, his dogged determination to be a good father to his daughter (who isn’t actually his daughter, which calls for even more subtext), his charm and good looks, but you can also see the flaws, how he drinks too much and has no ambition to do anything with his life. But it’s not painted in two dimensions or blatantly played as a dichotomy. Dean as a character simply exists, living within the film in an uncannily naturalistic and relaxed manner. Everything he does is motivated from true experience. He’s in way over his head, and has been in over his head pretty much from the beginning, and he’s doing all he can to hold on, but the cracks keep forming and getting larger. The doom is inescapable, and when it comes, he eventually takes it like a man. Eisenberg’s Mark Zuckerberg is a winning portrayal of a man who attacks the world with his intelligence, his words, and his wit, and he has both the blessing and the curse of having a mouth chock full of Aaron Sorkin dialogue, which is no easy feat to make sound natural. Gosling’s Dean is a different beast entirely, in that he seems like your good friend who’s content to work his shitty job and drink, but isn’t actually a bad guy. That’s just as tough an act to pull off as making Sorkin’s dialogue sound right (which is not to say it’s bad, because it’s genius, but it’s also cadenced in a way that isn’t completely normal), and Gosling is more than game to the challenge.

Michelle Williams, too, is wonderful in her role, though she’ll be playing second fiddle during awards season thanks to Natalie Portman. Cindy is complex in a different way, a character that should be destined for greatness but seems prone to constantly shooting herself in the foot. She comes from a broken but intact home dominated by a screaming father, and overcompensates by bedding quite a few men, one of which gets her pregnant and completely derails her life. She can’t bring herself to abort, and instead falls on Dean for support and marriage. Present Cindy is clawing desperately at having a career while supporting her child and trying to motivate Dean; she feels both crushed by and responsible for Dean’s lack of ambition; the way that choosing not to abort has changed both of their lives so immensely weighs on her. The abortion scene itself is one of the year’s best, with Williams sheepishly admitting her promiscuous past and losing her nerve right before the procedure. It’s incredibly well done.

Dean’s devotion is his undoing in Blue Valentine; the entire relationship is redefined before it barely gets off the ground due to Cindy’s pregnancy. They decide to commit and get married during the early stages of the relationship and we are in essence immediately jumped six years into the future when things begin to fall apart. As such, we don’t actually see them in love at any time through the two hours of the film. Yes, it is obviously true that they are attracted to each other in a very real way. Yes, the ukulele dancing scene from the trailer is just as adorable when it plays out in the film itself. Dean is obviously infatuated with Cindy, but we never see anything akin to love. He makes a snap decision in a pressured environment to commit to Cindy and her unborn daughter that isn’t his outside an abortion clinic, and their life moves on from there together. They essentially skip the majority of the courtship phase and jump headfirst into marriage. Then, we’re jumped headfirst into their destruction. It is entirely possible that during the six years that we don’t see, the six years spent raising their child and living their lives, that they did fall in love. But we aren’t shown that, and any assumptions to that effect could be considered potentially short sighted or foolhardy. It is also entirely possible that, given more time in the courtship phase, they could have realized they were not intended to be together, or figured out how to live with one another without going batty. Perhaps Dean would have had more time to find some ambition and avoid the bottle to at least some extent, though it is entirely possible that these are simple character flaws that would have been present regardless of the situation. A multitude of possibilities exist in alternate universes, but we work with what we are given.

To say that Blue Valentine tells the entire story of this relationship would be a lie. As far as I know, no one is actually claiming that, so that’s good in itself. What makes it such a fascinating study beyond the visceral emotional experience of simply watching it (the viewing experience is brutal and uncomfortable, an agonizing mental journey into the abyss) is the way that it seems to present a love story on the surface, but doesn’t actually follow through. It’s not like (500) Days of Summer, which strictly tells you from the beginning that the film is not a love story, which you go on to not believe until you realize that the narrator was actually telling the truth all along. This is different. Almost insidious, but in a positive way. This idea gets under your skin that everything was so perfect at the beginning, and how could things possibly have gone wrong, and what does this say about love and so on and so forth and other pessimistic/nihilistic/solipsistic things. The emotions of the situation get in the way of the logic of the story. Blue Valentine is not a love story (despite what the poster says), nor is it a story of love lost. It is a story of two people forced into a situation they didn’t want, and collapsing under the pressure, failing to follow through. The acute tragedy of the situation comes from the daughter, Frankie, and how attached she became to Dean, a father she probably never should have had. The final scene of the film is its most poignant; Cindy and Dean have had their final falling out, and while Dean walks away, Frankie follows, holding onto his pant leg, completely unaware of what’s going on, just wanting to be close to her daddy and wondering why he’s walking away. Dean tries to send her back to her mother but she won’t listen, and he has to trick her to get her to disengage from him. The hope throughout all of this is that Frankie will turn out okay, and she probably will, but it’s a difficult situation to say the least

Blue Valentine (and I’m really burying the lead here) is one of the best pure relationship dramas I’ve seen in a while. It manages to follow the same pattern as Rabbit Hole, focusing entirely on the two principal characters and their decaying relationship, and also manages to beat the holy hell out of it, completely washing you up into its wake, knowing the characters are barreling headlong into oblivion but being unable to stop them or even slightly deter their course. Where Rabbit Hole and other similar dramas tend to end on a positive note, a glimmer of hope for the future, that it’s going to suck ass but everything might be okay one day, Blue Valentine ends with despair. This is two hours of pure misery, but it’s brilliantly acted and impeccably written to be a layered and complicated mess of emotions. For those that can take a debilitating and sad story, this is a true gem of the genre.

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