A young couple's crumbling marriage is explored through scenes cross-cutting the unhappiness of their ordinary life together with their young daughter, and the blissful early days of their romance.
What we thought:
We’ve been fed too many love stories. Too many romcoms. To say we’ve been tainted with a naive, albeit optimistic, view of 'true love' and how the story goes is an understatement. Dean (Ryan Gosling) says it perfectly when he tells his work pal that women grow up wanting prince charming, and end up marrying the guy with the good job who sticks around. I suppose you could say Blue Valentine is about what happens when the girl does indeed marry her Prince Charming, and how the fairytale is seldom what it’s cracked up to be.
The story beautifully frames the lives of Cindy (Michelle Williams) and Dean from the time they met to where they are now: some years later and married with a young daughter, Frankie. The beginning depicts a very typical family. Mom sleeping in while the little girl calls for the dog, and dad lies napping on the couch. A good dad, albeit a bit rough ‘round the edges. The usual, warning imagery you is there: booze and cigarettes, an unshaven face. Cindy, who grew up in a tough home environment and wanted to be a doctor, is now a nurse at the local clinic and a good mother and wife. Dean has remained a romantic, with no big dreams, who’s happy to have his job as a painter and content with his lot in life, which he thinks is being a loving husband to his wife and daughter.
Essentially speaking, nothing huge happens. It’s not a fast-paced movie with lots of action. It’s about people. It’s about our inherent humanity and that idea that we’re never satisfied; we’re never content. Is anything ever good enough? Is love really unconditional and ever-lasting? And, for that matter, effortless?
Cindy has the misguided traits of someone who desperately wants love and affection, but who at a young age already seems to have settled with the idea that men will always disappoint her and probably treat her like shit. As time moves on, through the genius editing and screen shots by Derek Cianfrance, she becomes a slowly awakening volcano. Neither her dreams nor her low expectations in life are being fulfilled, and she looks stuck in the limbo between the fantasy life she doesn’t have and the abusive home she was used to as a child.
Gosling is superb, as usual, as the very content Dean. His sacrifices for the woman he fell so madly in love with and his continuing desire to keep loving her and have a happy family make you want to forget his flaws. That he drinks too much. That he has no ambition. That he doesn’t give Cindy the fiery challenge she evidently needs to keep her interested. I will leave room to say Gosling’s brilliant performance might be responsible for that bit of bias, but I do think it’s intentional. I think Cianfrance wanted to show us the truth. He wanted us to see there is no ultimate bad guy and protagonist. We all make our choices and have our needs. And Blue Valentine shows how those affect the people we’re closest to.
The humanity Cianfrance paints, and how he paints it, is what makes Blue Valentine so good. Normally it’s the really disturbing movies that stick with you - where scenes will pop into your thoughts at all hours. It’s nothing like the flashbacks you get from Requiem for a Dream, for example, but Blue Valentine did that to me. For days after seeing it, the film still echoed in my mind. And it’s because it’s so honest and so frightfully real. Cianfrance uses "real" light and the yellow haze makes the hurt and risks so palpable. The lighter days when Dean and Cindy fall in love are so beautifully filmed. You actually coo with delight at how seemingly perfect it is - it’s so tender. The blue light in their Valentine's Day motel room contrasts and acts as a kind of shuttle from their settled world of complacency to the end of a very burnt tether. He’s punctuated the movie so well through the frame changes, that the time shifts accentuate the changes from young and in love to jaded reality.
Blue Valentine illustrates how, no matter how low they may be, we all have expectations. And we don’t like being surprised - we don’t like being wrong. What makes such a young, beautiful woman so tired that she surrenders to her circumstances and settles to be just like her mother? What makes her hate her husband for not turning her into her neglected and verbally abused mom? What makes a talented musician and helpless romantic decide to marry a pregnant girl? I think Cianfrance tries to say it’s love. Love drives Dean to a point where he thinks there’s very little else to life - he gives up on the rest of it. Cindy expects love to give her security, but to also disappoint her. Love to her has become a frustrating, suffocating burden. He’s showing love as it really is: not a flowery word to be written on Valentine's cards, but a real human emotion that means different things to different people. Not the red hearts of ideological romantic movies; the blue hearts of an emotionally exhausted couple - bruised. What happens when you fall in love, and when you fall out of it.
The movie world figured out how to make a love story. It’s true love. And real love. That’s why Blue Valentine is so scary - such a memorable movie, such a captivating movie. It doesn’t need affairs and melodrama to keep you glued. It’s scary to think someone giving their whole heart, but nothing else, might not be enough. It’s scary to think you’ll wake up one day suffocated by your life, in all its simplicity.
Despite its heaviness, Blue Valentine isn’t difficult to watch - in fact it’s rather riveting. It’s not a movie weighed down by its intensity. I’ve never seen a story so ordinary and had it capture me for days. Don’t miss this movie - it’s sheer brilliance. It’ll keep your heart beating.
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