As loving and joyful as it is eventually devastating, Blue Valentine is a raw and powerful portrayal of a marriage on the rocks and stars Ryan Gosling and Michelle Williams, who was nominated for an Academy Award for her performance. Juxtaposing scenes of first love and youthful sensuality with those of later disenchantment and discord, the film is carried by the tenderness it finds within the complexities of contemporary American relationships.
Blue Valentine (dir. Derek Cianfrance) is a slow burn. On the surface it’s about Cynthia ‘Cindy’ (Michelle Williams) and Dean (Ryan Gosling), a married couple with a young daughter, Frankie. The film presents their story in a non-linear fashion as the contrasting tale of a young, romantic couple who is now older and unhappily married. But really it’s about relationships which don’t turn out as expected, even despite the stars being aligned, and the fickle, complex things called ‘feelings.’ If Cindy and Dean seem familiar it’s because we have at the very least, witnessed a relationship like theirs, if not experienced one ourselves.
The present day narrative focuses on the struggle of Cindy and Dean to feel connected with each other. After more than 5 years of marriage, their romance has fizzled out. But beyond just romance, they are struggling with their primal feelings toward one another. In contrast, the flashbacks show them finding their way to each other, falling passionately in love and finding ecstatic but genuine joy in each other’s company. As we see them become closer to each other in the past, they grow farther apart in the present day. The chemistry between Gosling and Williams is electric and carries the film squarely on its shoulders. Whether it is the shy creeping joy a young Dean and Cindy share as they first discover their love or the emotionally exhausting marriage they eventually find themselves in, both performances, physical transformations included, are so convincing and on point, that you truly root for the characters, as individuals - when Williams brings forth Cindy’s unhappiness with her life, and Gosling expresses genuine sadness at the possibility of losing her, all you want is for these two characters to find some, any respite.
Cindy and Dean, much like the two narratives in the film, are very different from each other. Dean is romantic in an almost selfish way. He believes ‘men are more romantic than women’. This staunch belief explains his disposition as a partner, and even as a person. He makes passionate, overly romantic gestures to express his love and compassion; but sporadically. A dreamer beaten down by the harsh truths of a working class life, he is unable to pay heed to what Cindy needs from him on a daily basis; Dean simply can’t understand why an impulsive road trip or booking a hotel room for the night isn’t enough to alleviate the dissatisfaction his wife feels about their relationship. Cindy on the other hand, owing to the complicated and unhappy marriage of her parents, has always been slightly weary of the idea of love. She fell in love with the charming and spontaneous young Dean, but now she feels like he doesn’t care enough about her to put any effort into their family life. She needs a sense of stability in her relationship, which Dean cannot seem to provide with the passive, complacent lifestyle he has settled into. The romantic gestures which he thinks will help their marriage, just seem all the more careless and insensitive to Cindy who wants a permanent change in him, not a temporary flash of respite in their married life.
Blue Valentine looks exactly the way it feels, the film’s visual palette complimenting its melancholic tone. Even the flashbacks which show Cindy and Dean falling in love with each other are not explicitly warm or cheerful, as if in anticipation of the turn their relationship will take. And yet, the colours in the film are not dull, but rather cool and soothing, giving the messy and complex relationship of the couple an unexpected clarity. Interestingly, the same palette is also used to create deep intense moments, especially in the present day narrative, in which scenes are often flooded, literally, with a bright aquamarine blue, the hue of modern day heartbreak.
The film isn’t didactic in it’s stance on relationships. Despite the hedonistic romance of Cindy and Dean’s first meet and courtship, the film doesn’t try to write them off as star-crossed ‘meant-to-be’ lovers. Similarly their eventual downfall isn’t romanticised. They were simply not compatible, with different ideas of what ‘the one’ should be like and eventually different expectations from their partner. Much like we do in real life, the characters in this film experience disillusionment and make mistakes. We attach ideas of permanence to love and seek someone who will be with us forever, always by our side, forgetting that relationships and feelings are as susceptible to change as the people they involve. When that bubble of ‘eternal’ love breaks, and we realise it is temporary, as is sometimes the version of the person we fell for and our love for them, what do we do? We desperately try to cling on to it for as long as we can, like Dean, or we become exhausted and forget what we fell for in the first place, like Cindy. Either way, we can’t help but recall the simpler, sweeter times, like the film does, nostalgic sometimes heartbreaking reminders that it’s a process, a slow burn - falling in and out of love.
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Derek M. Cianfrance is an American film director, cinematographer, screenwriter, and editor. At 23, he wrote, directed, and edited his first feature film, Brother Tied, which was well received at film festivals including Sundance. Blue Valentine was his second feature. Gosling worked with Cianfrance again on The Place Beyond the Pines (2013), which follows a motorcycle stunt rider (Gosling) who becomes a bank robber to support his newborn son.