“I still haven’t seen Blue Valentine yet, because although everyone who’s seen it tells me it’s good, the trailer gave me really bad ukulele flashbacks. (Seriously, for the next month I’d break out in a cold sweat if I so much as smelled a soy chai).”
So begins a news item written by Vince Mancini for FilmDrunk in February of 2011, two months after Derek Cianfrance’s sophomore feature was released. Although he’s half joking, Mancini keys into one undeniable fact about Blue Valentine, which is that, on its surface, it looks like the kind of sappy, faux-profound, early-Obama era romance our children and grandchildren will someday mock us for liking. 1 I can see it now: a bunch of college students in 2045 going to a bar’s “2010s Night”; girls in wigs with intense bangs, boys wearing lensless horned rimmed glasses and drawn on mustaches, half sarcastically dancing to Sleigh Bells and Cults. *shudders* In the film’s most YouTube-able scene, Dean Perreira (played by a near-peak Ryan Gosling) charms Cindy Heller (played by Michelle Williams, in what should be considered her signature role) by strumming a ukulele and singing in an exaggerated, old timey voice. Cindy flirts back by tap dancing to the song in front of a bridal store’s door, which is adorned by a heart-shaped wreath. You can practically see and hear the median viewer watching this scene out of context and muttering something about hipsters, kale, and Williamsburg, and see them mentally slot this film in with the likes of Juno or Away We Go as an overly affected piece of art that tries so hard to make kitsch edgy that it just ends up becoming fully kitschy instead.
The median viewer would, of course, be mistaken. Although Blue Valentine — with its Grizzly Bear penned score, fireworks fetish, and thrift store animal sweatshirts — borrows heavily from the dominate “indie” aesthetic of the early 2010s that implies a quirkiness and whimsy, it is instead perhaps one of the most hard-to-watch films ever made. Part of that is because we get to watch the relationship between Dean and Cindy go from the highest of romantic highs to the lowest of passionless lows in excruciatingly explicit and intimate detail. But this film meets this visceral challenge with an emotional one as well, reexamining and prodding at the deficiencies in popular conceptions of romance and the American Dream.
Of course, I don’t know what else we’re supposed to expect from a movie whose events are set into motion with the death of a family dog. Blue Valentine’s non-linear narrative begins in the Perreiras’ rural Pennsylvania home, after Dean and Cindy have already been married for five years and have a daughter named Frankie (Faith Wladyka). After Frankie’s dog, Megan (which, by the way, is way too human a name to give a dog), escapes her cage and ends up as roadkill, Dean and Cindy send Frankie to spend the night at Cindy’s father’s house so they can maintain the old “went to a farm upstate” charade. In an attempt to cheer his beleaguered wife up, Dean books a night at a honeymooner’s motel (which, ironically, only upsets his wife more).
It’s the scenes at the motel (Dean books the “future room,” a cheesy spaceship set up that looks straight out of an X-rated version of Disney World’s Tomorrowland) that give us the rawest, most painful scenes in the film. Dean is grating and immature — he entertains himself by shrieking in a high pitched voice (“Babe, that’s how they laugh in the future” he says to an unamused Cindy) and revels in his status as an unambitious house painter and alcoholic (“I’d like to see you have a job where you don’t have to start drinking at 8 o’clock in the morning, to go to it,” Cindy tells him. “No, I have a job that I can drink at 8 o’clock in the morning. What a luxury, you know? I get up for work, I have a beer, I go to work, I paint somebody’s house — they’re excited about it. I come home, I get to be with you. What’s… Like, this is the dream,” he self-satisfiedly retorts). Cindy, on the other hand, looks like she wishes she was anywhere else. She all but holds her nose as Dean tries to seduce her, and what ensues are the most unsexy sex scenes ever put to film.
They try to do it literally everywhere in the suite — in the shower, on the floor, on the rotating bed — and while it’s consensual, it feels compulsory, like the carnal equivalent of eating one’s vegetables. It doesn’t help that the composition of these scenes is unflinching. Cianfrance does everything he can to put the camera between Gosling and Williams, and the effect isn’t voyeuristic so much as it’s claustrophobic. You don’t feel like you’re peering into a window watching the neighbors go at it, you feel like you’re handcuffed to either actor, trapped between them and their passionless “love”-making. In the cuts back to the couple’s earlier relationship, we see plenty of lovestruck and passionate sex (this film was originally rated NC-17 for a particularly explicit cunninlingus scene) but the moment that the Perreiras’ time at the motel recalls the most is Cindy’s aborted, uh, abortion — clinical, sterile, painful, and invasive.
While the “five years later” scenes provide most of the emotional texture of Blue Valentine, it’s the “five years earlier” scenes — the ones where Dean and Cindy are still in love — that lays the intellectual groundwork. Dean is a drifter with a heart of gold who works as a mover. Cindy is an aspiring med student from an abusive home who’s dating Bobby Ontario (Mike Vogel), her school’s outrageously named wrestling star. They first cross paths at a nursing home where Dean’s helping a resident move in and Cindy is visiting her grandmother. Dean gives her the moving company’s phone number (he’s so cool he doesn’t own a cell phone, you see) but she never calls. They meet cute for a second time on a bus. The ukulele and tap dancing antics — and their eventual courtship — ensues. Bobby finds out, and beats up Dean. Cindy finds out she’s pregnant. Cindy goes to get an abortion but eventually decides against the procedure. Dean says that he’ll help her raise the baby. They tie the knot in perhaps the most dapper attire anyone has ever worn to a courthouse wedding.
While certain elements of that story line can feel over the top (Cianfrance goes to lengths to try and depict Cindy as wounded yet promiscuous — she tells a nurse that she first had sex at 13 and has had 25 sexual partners), the intent is to examine what happens after the well-meaning girl brings home a guy from the wrong side of the tracks — to show what happens to James Dean and Natalie Wood after they end up together. To get us there, Cianfrance includes scenes that might feel at home in an Old Hollywood romance but feel ridiculous when looked at today. Dean painstakingly decorates the room of the old man they move into the nursing home, and (playfully) threatens to jump off of a bridge when Cindy won’t tell him at first what secret (namely: her pregnancy) she’s hiding from him — all things that can feel cloying and reckless in 2010, but picture Jimmy Stewart doing either of these things opposite Donna Reed, and your view softens. Even the ass kicking Dean gets from Bobby feels like a scene from a Shangri-Las song — the high school dropout with a heart of gold getting beat up by the wrestling captain for stealing the girl, and then proving himself to be a knight in a leather jacket when he agrees to help her raise a kid that may not even be his. Actually, forget the Shangri-Las — Blue Valentine is the cinematic equivalent of a Lana Del Rey track, a sweeping tale of American romanticism and fatalism looked at under a harsh modern lens. When Cindy brings home this grubby dreamer with a black eye and fat lip to meet her parents, the lovestruck couple thinks it’s a triumph of eros and the beginning of the rest of their lives — Dean even comes prepared with a mix CD featuring what he thinks should be “their song.” But the audience and Cindy’s parents know it’s the beginning of the end, and that the two are set off on the downward spiral that we see play out in the rest of the film.
And what a downward spiral it is. After a drunken night of failed love making, Cindy gets an early morning call from a colleague asking her to pick up an extra shift at the clinic where she works as a nurse and slips out of the motel. A drunk Dean shows up at the clinic and confronts her about her stealthy exit, causing a ruckus and punching her boss, who earlier made a pass at her (seriously, Cianfrance does not want to give this woman a break). They eventually take it outside, where a fed up Cindy asks for a divorce, to which Dean responds by taking off his wedding ring and throwing it into the overgrowth surrounding the parking lot. Before they get into their car to pick Frankie up, have one last argument, and ultimately go their separate ways, Dean picks through the weeds looking for his lost ring and Cindy ends up joining him. Shot in black and white and with sentimental score, this scene might feel touching. But in the harsh light of the Perreiras’ morning after, it reads as a pathetic moment for Dean and an illustration of why Cindy has to move on. He’s just a drunk, fumbling, fully grown child who’s possibly even less mature than he was when he was younger.
Things only descend from there. The Perreiras’ have one last tearful fight at Cindy’s father’s house, and the film ends with Dean stalking off down the sidewalk while Frankie grabs at him, trying to pull him back to a family that never should have been. Dean walks in the direction of a group of kids setting off fireworks, a scene that is both celebratory and chaotic, unsettling in a much more ostentatious way than the Perreiras’ painfully intimate domestic struggles. As the credits roll, each firework burst illuminates a still from the early portion of Dean and Cindy’s relationship, when things seemed perfect. It doesn’t really jibe with the rest of the film — it feels too triumphant for a movie that’s ultimately about pain and failure, and tries to put a sparkly sheen on a relationship we now know was doomed from the start. But perhaps that dissonance is intentional — at once a vindication and condemnation of the kind of romantic myth-making Cianfrance is trying to explore.
How can something that once seemed so beautiful turn so ugly? How can a life of promise so quickly turn to a life of failure? And how do we reconcile those things? Can they ever be reconciled in the first place? Blue Valentine is a cold splash of water to the face, but it’s at least cognizant of the appeal of the illusions it tries to dissuade us from. It even seems convinced that they’re truly beautiful, too. But just because beauty exists, doesn’t mean it’ll last forever.