Are we slaves to the gender roles we inherit from our parents? Is our parents’ relationship a deeming factor in the forms our own later romances take? Despite many reviews claiming otherwise, this film is not about the end of love. It is a sad depiction of wounded people looking for security, shelter and significance and mistaking dependency for love.
“Blue Valentine” moves between the past and now, fluctuating between images of youth and hopefulness and maturity and utter despair. Happiness in life is not quaranteed, and does not come easy, at least for the couple of this story. From the beginning the audience senses that something is not quite right; the equilibrium is shaking from its roots.
In flashbacks from the past, Cindy (Michelle Williams) is a bright young student from a middle-class family, aiming for medical school. Her vice, however, is bad boys. Brutish fellow student, Bobby Ontario (Mike Vogel) uses her as he pleases, yet she is unable to turn him down. His treatment of her seems atrocious to us, but somehow she is willing to accept it with a resigned look on her face. Ontario is physically and emotionally aggressive, and in his arrogance he resembles Cindy´s father. This clearly eviscerates director Derek Cianfrance´s message: daughters seek fathers in their lovers.
The other side of the unlucky couple, Dean ( Ryan Gosling), is first presented to us as a carefree young drifter, working as a furniture remover intermittently. He works for a small change, moving in and out of people´s homes while idealizing life and love. His background appears troublesome, having his father leave him when he was 10. One day suddenly, he finds the woman he thinks will give him what he is after: the true meaning of life, pure love. He enters her life in a convenient time – she has just left bad boy Ontario and is questioning herself. Cindy appears awkward of the attention Dean showers her with, yet she goes along with it. Suddenly she finds herself pregnant to her arrogant ex, but she cannot go through with the abortion. In a moving scene at the abortion clinic, we find out she lost her virginity at the tender age of 13, and has had sex with a multitude of men. It is painfully clear that she has sought attention and male approval which has been denied from her in her home. Dean consoles her, promises to marry her and take care of things. Solution appears easy, and Cindy agrees to it. In a bittersweet scene, we see Dean playing the mandolin to her, while singing the song “we always hurt the ones we love”.
The couple is shown us again years later. Their dog dies after having escaped from the yard. Neither of the two take responsibility. Accumulated problems arise to the surface and a disastrous 24 hours follow. Cindy is worn out of the hectic family life and works as a nurse. Having given up her intellectual pursuits she is bitter and resentful towards her husband. Having lost his looks and even temper, Dean is slowly succumbing to alcoholism. Having a family is too much for him, and he appears lazy and cynical. Dean denies the financial situation they face and seems ill-equipped for the realities of life. In a moment of desperation he books a room in a cheesy motel; a theme room named “future” seems ironic, since the real future for the couple seems bleak and nonexistent. A horrific night follows, during which Dean tries desperately to hold on to her wife, who has given up long ago. (If she even ever was as committed to their marriage as him). The idea of love is a pure obsession for him, and he is painfully dependent on Cindy.
Cindy demands him to show some ambition and direction in his life. Dean does not comprehend this: ”why do I have to make money out of potential?” While he tries to have sex with her, she seems paralyzed and trapped, denying him of any access to intimacy. The messiness of their situation culminates in a fight Dean later tries to start with Cindy´s boss: he is more angry at himself than anybody else and can´t seem to find a way to fix something that was broken from the very beginning.
Derek Cianfrance´s movie is a serious attempt to depict a malfunctioning marriage, and how our innate desire to belong somewhere and be loved can lead us astray. The movie has shades of Sam Mendes´ brilliant “Revolutionary road”, yet it captures a very realistic view on people´s motives and defense mechanisms in the face of abandonment. The autopsy of a dead relationship is never pretty, but in this movie, it becomes sickeningly repulsive.