Blue Valentine: Derek Cianfrance’s thoughtful dissection of a crumbling marriage

Blue Valentine

Why do some marriages fail? Different people have different reasons. Or they think they havethe reasons. One of the worst things that can happen to you is getting married to somebody and then years later forget why you wanted to marry that person in the first place. This is the dilemma faced by Dean and Cindy, (played by Ryan Gosling and Michelle Williams respectively) in Derek Cianfrance’s thoughtful and devastating relationship drama Blue Valentine. These are two souls who didn’t really think things through before marrying each other and Cianfrance shows you what happens when you rush into marriage without making a thorough evaluation of the person you are going to marry. I’ve noticed that the best relationship dramas are those that do not pick sides and instead show the good and bad of both partners. One perfect example is Robert Benton’s Kramer vs Kramer. Cianfrance does the same thing here .


Instead of following a conventional textbook format and going from A to B, he tells his story interestingly through a unique narrative structure.  He begins the film by showing the state of the couple’s relationship in the present, which is almost on the verge of collapsing. Their marriage has become like that bus in the climax of The Italian Job (starring Michael Caine) doing a see-saw act on the edge of a cliff and you are sitting uncomfortably on the edge of the seat wondering if it’s going to fall off any minute. It’s been five years since Dean and Cindy got married and from the looks of it, the love between them seems to have vanished into thin air. In the opening scene, we see Dean’s daughter Frankie waking him up because their dog has gone missing. We learn later that it has died after getting hit by a car. I wonder if Cianfrance opted to begin the film this way to show us that this dog symbolizes their lost love. In flashbacks that run concurrent to the present timeline, we learn how Dean and Cindy met. He used to work for a moving company and met her one day while he was helping an elderly man move into a nursing home.


They begin dating and one day she learns that she is pregnant. She tells Dean that this child may not be his as she was in a relationship with another guy before she met him. Although initially she makes up her mind to abort, she eventually decides to not go through with it. Dean tells her that he has no qualms about raising the child as his own and they then decide to get married. Cut to five years later, Dean is working as a painter and we notice that there is a noticeable rift between the two. Dean makes attempts to revive the relationship by asking her to take some time off from their busy schedules and go out with him to a motel to have some alone time for themselves and sort things out. It’s during their stay there that we learn how much their marriage has deteriorated. This is not an easy film to watch. There are plenty of uncomfortable and excruciatingly tense moments which you would normally see in a suspense thriller. You are trying to figure out what went wrong with this couple and why they are behaving the way they are doing now. On one hand, you want to see everything resolved neatly and on the other, you want them to get out of each other’s way even if it means putting a disastrous end to it.


On first look, it feels as if the film is misogynistic and that it takes the side of Dean. However, on close inspection, you realize that that’s not the case. Both are victims and both are perpetrators. We learn that both of them came from dysfunctional families. Dean’s neglected childhood has turned him into a young and naïve guy who is yearning desperately for love and attention. His character reminded me so much of Charles Forster Kane from Citizen Kane. These men were neglected by their parents and as a result, spend the rest of their lives wanting to love and be loved back. His personality has so many flaws. He has a drinking problem and also you see that he is not very interested in taking caring of himself. His lack of motivation for self-development and his inability to change ticked her off and probably this is why she has grown tired of him after all these years. And then you have Cindy, who seems like a perpetually unhappy person. She has self-esteem and confidence issues and got married to Dean because she thought he was her savior. She thought she could depend on him for the rest of her life. Maybe she expected Dean to change his ways but he didn’t. She sought stability from him but then realized much later that she can’t expect that from a guy like him.


From his point of view, she just used him and dumped him when she understood that he is no longer useful to her. He thinks he has done so much for her. According to him, he has been a loving husband and father and yet she complains. And we know that Dean has been all that. What we see are two people who are trying so hard to be not like their parents or grandparents but ultimately they find themselves falling into that same pattern. Something went wrong somewhere. If they knew what went wrong with their families, how is it that the same thing is now happening to them? Their biggest mistake is that they chose to reveal only their good qualities and not the bad before they got married. How many people actually do that? One of the most heartbreaking scenes comes towards the end when he begs her to not go away. He tells her, “You said for better or for worse. Now, this is my worst, okay? You said that. You said it. It was a promise. Now this is my worst, okay? This is my worst. But I’m gonna get better. You just gotta give me a chance to get better.” And she keeps rejecting him. I literally cried during that scene. I couldn’t hold back my tears after seeing Gosling giving such a raw and honest performance. Right there, you see Gosling having his De Niro or Day-Lewis moment.


Seeing these two go at each other verbally in such brutal fashion is so painful to watch. You are not watching actors anymore; you are watching real people. Cianfrance’s filmmaking style and his ability to extract intensely realistic performances have so much in common with John Cassavetes’ and I think many critics did notice this similarity. You are instantly reminded of films like A Woman Under the Influence. You can’t wrong with actors like Gosling and Williams in your film. It’s a pity that these two didn’t win any Oscars for it. These two were outstanding! By the way, I can’t understand why the MPAA slapped an NC-17 rating on it. The oral sex scene is relatively tame compared to what we see in some other films coming out today. For Cianfrance, working on this film was like therapy considering the fact that his parents got a divorce when he was 20. He worked on it for 12 years. So through this film, he was trying to confront some of his worst doubts and fears. We can only guess and make theories about why a couple would want to split after being with each other for so many years. Only they know the real reasons, which could be many. Or do they?


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