In the early days, Dean’s willingness to do anything for Cindy strikes her, and us, as charming and brave. He will play the ukulele on a dark street, endure a dinner-table third degree and a savage beating, save what money he can, and commit to a future of accidental but nonetheless devoted fatherhood. But the very qualities that seemed so appealing to Cindy at first are nearly intolerable six years later. She wants him to do something with his life, to show some drive or initiative, but all he wants is to be with her and Frankie. He once looked like the nicest guy she had ever met, and now he seems like the weakest.
He also drinks and whines, while she works herself to exhaustion and rarely smiles. The sexual spark that he tries to recapture with a night away at a cheesy “fantasy” resort motel has turned soggy. What went wrong?
In suggesting an answer to this question, Mr. Cianfrance supplies both too much information and too little. Mr. Gosling is convincing as the run-down, desperate, older Dean, and maybe a bit less so as the younger version, but in any case it is hard to intuit what connects one to the other. The drinking and the violent temper he displays in one overwrought climactic scene seem to come from nowhere, to be willed into being by the director’s narrative conceit rather than arising organically from the character’s life.
Ms. Williams is, as ever, heartbreakingly precise in every scene, but if Mr. Gosling’s character is burdened with too little story, hers is saddled with too much. Mr. Cianfrance is capable of drawing nuances of feeling from his actors, but he does not trust the story enough to let it move according to any internal emotional logic. Instead, a lot of pretty obvious and not always convincing stuff needs to happen. Cindy’s boyfriend and father need to be made into caricatures of male insensitivity, and narrative bombs need to be carefully lighted and detonated, as if ordinary love were not explosive enough.
Viewed from a certain, admittedly uncharitable, angle, “Blue Valentine” looks like a grim, dirty-realist, festival-circuit version of (and sequel to) “Knocked Up.” Like “Biutiful,” another unsparingly harsh movie that opens on Wednesday, it has a naturalism that is almost entirely a matter of visual texture and social milieu. The grainy, washed-out colors of the breakup phase, which contrast with the somewhat brighter palette of the courtship sections, create an illusion of immediacy and rawness that is underlined by the scruffy Keystone State locations. And Ms. Williams and Mr. Gosling are exemplars of New Method sincerity, able to be fully and achingly present every moment on screen together.
But Cindy and Dean remain, for all their sustained agony and flickering joy, something less than completely realized human beings. Mr. Cianfrance’s ingenious chronological gimmick, coupled with his anxious, clumsy plotting, leaves them without enough oxygen to burst into breathing, loving life. A recent German film called “Everyone Else,” directed by Maren Ade (and released in the United States this year), shows, with minimal embellishment and absolute honesty, how potentially fatal fissures begin to develop within a young couple’s relationship. “Blue Valentine” mystifies the emotional logic that Ms. Ade presents with bracing clarity and leaves its audience, along with poor Cindy and Dean, in a muddle of hurt feelings and vague disappointments.
“Blue Valentine” is rated R (Under 17 requires accompanying parent or adult guardian). It has swearing, smoking and sex — some hot, some sad.
Opens on Wednesday in Manhattan.
Directed by Derek Cianfrance; written by Mr. Cianfrance, Joey Curtis and Cami Delavigne; director of photography, Andrij Parekh; edited by Jim Helton and Ron Patane; music by Grizzly Bear; production design by Inbal Weinberg; costumes by Erin Benach; produced by Jamie Patricof, Lynette Howell and Alex Orlovsky; released by the Weinstein Company. At the Angelika Film Center, Mercer and Houston Streets, Greenwich Village. Running time: 1 hour 54 minutes.
WITH: Ryan Gosling (Dean), Michelle Williams (Cindy), Faith Wladyka (Frankie), Mike Vogel (Bobby) and John Doman (Jerry).
WritersDerek Cianfrance, Joey Curtis, Cami Delavigne
StarsRyan Gosling, Michelle Williams, John Doman
Running Time1h 52m
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Last updated: Nov 2, 2017
I recently saw Derek Cianfrance's Blue Valentine, starring Michelle Williams and Ryan Gosling as Cindy and Dean, a couple whose relationship starts out happily enough, but ends quite painfully. I liked it very much; thought the acting was naked and honest. Although the deterioration of the marriage was agonizing to watch, it was authentic.
Stephen Whitty summed it up aptly in the Star-Ledger: "It's a painful, pathetic, gruesomely fascinating exercise--like coming back from that final session with the divorce lawyers and making yourself watch your wedding video." The only adjective I disagree with is "pathetic." There's nothing pathetic about the characters or what happens to them, at least in comparison to humanity as a whole. Each of us can relate in some way or another to Cindy and Dean. Their stories are terrifyingly real. That's what makes Blue Valentine so "gruesome."
As a forensic psychiatrist who frequently conducts custody evaluations, I often encounter litigants who expect me to see things only from their perspective. But I can only rarely oblige them; I don't believe in easy explanations for failures of intimacy. In my experience, the distinction between victim and perpetrator, or guilt and innocence, depends on your point of view. Blue Valentine illustrates this perfectly. The most obvious explanation for what happened is that Dean victimized Cindy-- with his drinking and general irresponsibility. This certainly makes sense, but...
Dean's personality traits were pretty clear from the outset, so why did Cindy choose him as a partner? All of us enter into relationships with the hope that our needs will be met. Perhaps Cindy--unexpectedly pregnant, with an abusive father and a passive mother-- thought that Dean could help her. He wasn't perfect, but maybe she thought she could change him. Then, when Dean didn't change--and Cindy's short-term need for stability was satisfied--she dumped him.
From Dean's perspective, he stepped up in Cindy's moment of need, and she dropped him when he was of no further use to her; she didn't appreciate the sacrifices he'd made, and she refused to accept him for who he really was. Dean might even say that if he'd been with someone who'd been more willing to accept him, he might have turned out "better."
I know this explanation seems to let Dean off the hook, and of course I don't really think he should get a pass. Remember, no innocent victims here. But if you step outside the individual characters' perspectives and look at the relationship system as a whole, it's obvious that Cindy and Dean were a bad fit from the beginning. Had they been together longer, and not been forced into a hasty marriage, they might have figured that out, and would likely have broken up before the wedding took place. Dean and Cindy loved each other, whatever that means, but their "love" wasn't sufficient to sustain their relationship.
Ira Reiss's "Wheel Theory of Love" focuses on love as a developmental phenomenon that involves four interpersonal processes that continuously interact with each other. Love starts with "rapport," the ability of two people to feel at ease together. That one came easily enough to Cindy and Dean. The next process is "self-revelation," the disclosure of more intimate and personal issues. Like most other people at the beginning of a relationship, the characters in Blue Valentine revealed the "good" parts of themselves but not the "bad." Cindy never let Dean know how desperate she was for stability, and how she expected him to provide this; he never informed her of his drinking or lack of ambition. But since they kept these less attractive qualities to themselves, Cindy and Dean were able to move into the next process, "mutual dependence," at which point they began to rely on each other so as to become a "couple." Dean agreed to help raise a child that wasn't his; the two moved in together; they got married.
Reiss's final process is "fulfillment of personality needs," the ability of partners to satisfy each other's needs. That's where the relationship really faltered, because Dean and Cindy, due to their failures of self-revelation, didn't really know what the other needed. Dean's abandonment issues made him almost pathologically romantic; he needed to be loved and in love. Nothing else mattered; not his personal development nor the needs of those around him. He was, like Cindy's father and ex-boyfriend, willing to coerce her, as exemplified by the scene on the bridge, to meet his needs.
Dean's need (to be in love) was benign, but in his own way he was just as selfish and insensitive as the other two men in Cindy's life. His neediness and selfishness were ultimately unacceptable to her. Her past experience taught her to be wary of becoming too dependent. She needed a stable, reliable, loving partner. In the end Dean was incapable of meeting this need; he couldn't understand how she might want more from life than his affection. But intimacy takes place within a dense psychosocial context, and love is just one aspect of that milieu.
Go see Blue Valentine. And don't give up on marriage; just be smart about who you marry. Get to know the person really well. Don't have unrealistic expectations; remember that what you don't like in your partner doesn't always get better. And don't rush into marriage.
Alan Ravitz, MD, is a pediatric psychopharmacologist and senior director of forensic psychiatry at the Child Mind Institute. For Dr. Ravitz's take on everything from Bieber Fever to Miley Cyrus' possible run-in with the hallucinogen salvia, visit childmind.org.