Blue Valentine (2010, Derek Cianfrance)
!!!!! AVOID !!!!!
Billed as a sort of modernist romantic tragedy, Blue Valentine was the debut feature film by director Derek Cianfrance. It simultaneously shows the beginning and end of the same relationship — an abrupt marriage following a fling and a pregnancy that dissolves into emptiness, dread and despair. Cianfrance and his D.P. Andrij Parkeh take the interesting step of shooting the modern-day sequences on a RED camera, the flashbacks on 16mm film, thus — in what were still the early days of all-digital commercial filmmaking — conjuring a cinematic, resourceful utility for the limitations and distinctions of both formats. The central couple is portrayed by Ryan Gosling and Michelle Williams, both attractive and moony and haunted-looking, both slickly photographed with a simultaneous nod to gritty reality and gorgeous commercialism, with Grizzly Bear’s twinkle-prog indie rock blaring along mournfully all the while. In its 16mm sequences, the film means to evoke the hazy, devotedly self-absorbed sensibility of early adulthood; in the digital scenes it gives a sensation of claustrophobia, of a desperate yearning to get away that one doesn’t dare put to the test.
In both cases it’s wholly successful. What we’re getting at is that Blue Valentine is a tremendously well-directed, persuasive narrative; it is also a film that is truly and irredeemably evil. As with so many technically masterful, crafty pictures from young directors, its awfulness is only magnified by its auteur’s brilliance and enthusiasm. What it finally does is dress up its horrendously cold-hearted message and devastating commitment — to reinforcing every bad perception people in this shitty world have of love, sex and marriage — in a beautiful airiness: the splendor of depression, of neediness and manipulation, of emotional terrorism. It makes suffering and victimhood into something pretty to gawk at and cry over.
Take a quick walk across the annals of internet-based filmspeak circa 2010 and you will see many patterns emerge in the response to this movie. Put simply, people found it heartbreaking; there was talk of curling up in a fetal position after it ended, of an overwhelming sense of bleakness about one’s own past and future in love; of, at last, a realistic film about love for our people. What “people” are meant precisely in that context is hard to suss out. Is it generational? Is it a question of elitism? Is it that these people are “real” and most characters populating American romances are phony? If it’s the latter, it’s hard to argue, but I strongly resent it easily as much as any other implication, simply because I don’t particularly want to be expected to identify, and thus to endure guilt by association, with a monster like Gosling’s Dean in this film — a monster the film seems to believe we will find complex, troubled, deeply compelling.
He is, in actuality, a horrible human being, and if this movie were truly about convincing us of his immense horribleness, his absolutely psychotic absence of understanding or compassion for his wife, his all too believably banal and endless, even seemingly performative at times, flexing of control and of meaningless point-scoring, it could be a masterpiece. It is to its credit that it attempts to put a terrible husband and master manipulator on display as a human being rather than a flat villain, because of course it is the cunning harnessing of humanity and charm that puts guys like this in such a cackling position of misplaced authority to begin with. There is an absolute truth in this narrative that this film’s numerous defenders cannot possibly ignore, and it is that Dean is an abusive husband, a violent and dangerous scumbag. The question becomes whether or not the film becomes complicit in his behavior and expects us to sympathize with him, or if — like The Shining or Love Me or Leave Me — it simply documents the nature of this abuse, exposes it, sets it up as folly to be taken down.
We should pause briefly to note that Gosling and Williams give unforgettable performances, Williams particularly brilliant as she nearly always is, and that the film captures the sensation of memory colluding into and contrasting with the present quite dreamily. One easily understands why it was regarded as being so intimate and revealing. One does not easily understand its routine classification not as a drama about a man systematically destroying a woman’s life and soul over the course of many years but as a “romance.” The baffling conventional wisdom seems to be that Blue Valentine amounts to a raw, unflinching examination of how Relationships break down into a charade of unstated resentments and coolly delivered (and received) eye-rolling insults and coded hatred, contrasted “heartbreakingly” with all the promise of new love from the distant past. In said distant past, Gosling improvs on the ukulele while Williams’ Cindy dances in the street. She copes with a nightmarish home life with an abusive dad who literally screams and throws things because he doesn’t like the fucking meat loaf, and engages in bored-looking doggystyle sex (for those unaware, that’s movie code for “meaningless, animalistic sex,” because no one in the history of the world has ever fucked someone from behind for any other reason apparently) with a bonehead jock who can’t bother to pull out. Dean, by contast, goes down on her and is like a clingy puppy dog and their sex scenes in the early stages of their relationship are shot with the gauzy textures of a David Fincher perfume ad. When a little girl is born, he even vows to form a family with Cindy. Whattaguy.
Seven or eight years later, things are bad; you can tell by all the color filters. Cindy works herself half to death, bugged and badgered by a husband who snoozes on the recliner by night and constantly makes her out to be the bad guy in front of their daughter, Frankie, who loves her dad because he goofs around and plays with her and seems never to exert any serious authority over her or participate in any kind of unpleasantry that might upset her. (He sidesteps informing her that her dog has died, making a joke of it.) Ignoring Cindy’s pleas that she has to work, Dean books a room for the night at some sleazy themed suite so they can “rekindle” or spice things up with drinking and a bunch of probably slow-motion fucking. It goes pretty horribly, needless to say, and after a romance-free night of fighting, alcohol and bad, unfinished, non-consensual sex, things escalate until Dean confronts Cindy violently at work the next day, causes a major scene, and gets asked for a divorce. As he walks off into the distance with the pointlessly stoic stature of a John Wayne, Frankie failing to understand and trying to follow him, we fade out and the film ends, and it would certainly be wonderful if we could assume not only that this awful marriage has ended but that he falls into the nearest manhole cover and disappears forever as soon as we lose sight of him.
So this is a depressing movie, yes, but not in the way people seem to imply. It’s not depressing that this destructive, catastrophic charade comes to an end. What’s depressing is that we’re supposed to be sorry it had to end like this. The film closes with a cornball montage of happy moments and fireworks, as though the depth of loss is really supposed to be falling over us right now. That might be an appropriate ending for the film that critics seem to constantly insinuate this movie to be, which it absolutely isn’t: a realistic portrait of a once successful relationship between two good people fading away. That could be really devastating, like Eternal Sunshine was; even with that film’s many flaws, it does show decent people doing their best. Or we can meet this movie halfway and cite Sunrise, wherein a man decides to kill his wife but realizes the immense evil of his own heart and tries to redeem himself. Dean might never try to strangle anyone, but he can’t manage a modicum of self-analysis or reflection to realize that he is anything but the perfect Nice Guy force in all of his personal affairs. All he’s trying to do is keep the family together, maaaan; why can’t the bitch give him a break?
A central problem is that the relationship portrayed in Blue Valentine was never a good or healthy one; that doesn’t mean one doesn’t sympathize with Cindy for wanting sex that excited her more, or a romance that swept her off her feet, even if she was basically coerced into giving Dean the time of day. The “present” as shown in the film is an abhorrent lie because of its generalized, unstated argument that a “normal” relationship leads to the point shown, when existent abuse becomes outright public in nature, when a man feels entitled to berate, and hit, and gaslight, and take his wife’s happiness as hostage. That isn’t the sad, tragic natural order of things; that’s a monumentally fucked up, unforgivable state of affairs. And the “past” is a lie because even in the beginning, Cindy and Dean’s relationship is clearly toxic because he is a controlling, deceptive, self-regarding creep. It doesn’t matter how well he sings, he is human garbage.
If I sound overly passionate about this, it’s because I am. My anger escalated throughout this film and I exploded like the fireworks over the credits. I had trouble sleeping afterward. I truly believe I am right that there is nothing but ugliness at the core of Blue Valentine, but anyone sharply disagreeing deserves some sort of explanation, hence the digression that follows. I have never been in an abusive relationship. I have never been in a relationship with a bad person. I have had bad things done to me in relationships; I have done bad things to my partners. I have been in deeply flawed relationships that were flawed from almost the beginning, relationships that hung on by a thread of sheer security-blanket reinforcement. I have been in relationships that were extremely successful but still ended. And now, I have been married for two and a half months to a person I’ve been in love with for nearly seven years. The ends of my previous relationships were painful beyond belief and I do believe breaking up is one of the bitterest blows in life. I hope never to endure it again and I truly forsee a lifetime with my wife but of course, there are unknowable aspects of the future and it’s naive if not downright unromantic to expect otherwise. Even as wife and husband, we decide every day to be together. But at the worst times of my life as a person in love, there has never been violence of any sort. My wife and I occasionally disagree and have little bouts of misunderstanding, but we do not “fight,” we do not snipe at one another, and we do our best to be accommodating, warm and kind at every moment, which is not difficult. I say this not to boast about it but because the reversal of this film’s narrative deserves to be as normalized as the bullshit it propagates. And moreover, I bring it up because I wish I could say the same were true of the house in which I grew up.
Dean is my dad. He is my dad through and through. Dad was a diminutive guy who never hit or physically hurt anyone, but he threw things. He yelled. He screamed. He stomped his foot. He slammed doors. He would look at you with these narrowed, condescending eyes that made you feel like you were a piece of dirt and he would cut you down for seemingly no reason. He wasn’t always like this. He wasn’t even often like this. That’s the whole thing. That’s how they pull you in. He seemed like such a nice, charming guy; most people would never believe this side of him even existed. Even one of my own siblings, who managed not to witness it as often as I did, didn’t fully believe it. And he tried to guard it and hide it from the kids, but I knew about the time he threw the bedroom door open so hard it left a mark. I knew about the time he put a gun in his mouth and threatened suicide unless my mom gave him his way. I knew about the time he chased her to a class she was taking and stood outside in the parking lot screaming and waving his hands, desperate for her to pay attention to him instead of doing something for herself. And occasionally, he would break and let me see it directly, like when he thought I had fucked around with the cords on the back of his VCR (no shit) in a way he didn’t comprehend and I watched him literally kick and scream at me about it until I just left the room. I woke up to hear him yelling at my mom almost every day for two years, and it’s not like it wasn’t happening before that. He just kept it quieter, was controlling himself more then, but even then my parents fought on a constant basis, serious and dramatic quarrels that would go on for entire evenings or longer, and I actually assumed this was normal. And if I hadn’t lived around that, there was plenty of media to reinforce the image that marriage is essentially a series of drag-out fights with someone you secretly despise.
So therefore, no. I can’t sit back and smile and find it charming when Dean hounds Cindy at a rest home where she’s taking care of her grandmother, trying to hit on her through a door she clearly wants to be closed. I can’t enjoy it and think it romantic when he pressures her into letting him sit next to her on a bus and then proceeds to ignore every signal she’s giving that she doesn’t want to talk to him. And all I can feel is rage when he asks her why she’s upset and, unsatisfied with her answer, threatens to jump off a bridge until she relents; oh, lordy, that one fucking got me. I can’t look upon it as just a symptom of a typical fraying relationship when Dean literally interrupts everything Cindy says, every three seconds, and never once listens to a word she has to say, but constantly accuses her of not listening to him (and after each one of these infractions, for the first half of the film she always apologizes for making him feel bad, so accustomed is she to dealing with and mitigating abusive men). I very definitely could not deal with the unwarranted jealousy and control he puts on display when she mentions having run into an ex, and the power play he dives into in the one-sided conversation that follows. All this is disregarding a scene in which Dean essentially rapes Cindy at the “future room” hotel suite, despite her protests and punches, though he stops because it hurts his little feefees that doesn’t seem to be enjoying it. And we won’t touch the moment when he shows up at her job — a doctor’s office — in a rage and creates havoc, frightening and hurting her coworkers in addition to the continuation of his now-routine aggression against his wife. This is not a great love gone awry; this is an America’s Most Wanted recap.
Again, this could be a harrowingly real portrait of abuse, and in the abstract it is; but how to respond to the fact that nearly every critical review of the movie mentions feeling sorry for Dean? How to respond to the fact that the director himself claims to regard the film as a love story, of a great love squandered? How to deal with the gendered, old-fashioned perception of male “heroism” and of Dean as a romantic who takes all the punches for “his” woman when her ex comes and beats him up and he gets subtle revenge by covertly raising his attacker’s child as his own? In the lovelorn, prettied-up context all this is given, Blue Valentine can’t be mistaken for anything but a tacit encouragement for the values of a culture that allows this idea of marriage to exist; in other words, it is an irresponsible normalization of fucked up behavior, and if one seriously believes it to be a portrait of true and sweet romance gradually dying, I am tempted to argue that something is quite wrong.
Yet even as the level of wrongheadedness here startles me to the point of nearly indescribable hatred, I also cannot ignore that I am very very far out in the wilderness on this one; I’m used to this position, as I think Blade Runner is one of the dumbest films I’ve ever seen and I can’t understand why no one else found Richard Linklater’s Bernie as offensive as I did. I could find only a few IMDB comments, blog posts (here’s a fine piece laying all this out far more concisely than I did) and other small offhanded remarks as appalled I was by the abusive behavior and the treatment of same in Blue Valentine. Perhaps it all just hits close to home… or too far from home. Maybe the best comparison, in the latter case, is another Linklater project: the Before series, about the progression through the years of a fling and romance between a pair of well-meaning normals played by Julie Delpy and Ethan Hawke. I like those movies, but in terms of how I relate to them from my own love or family life, they may as well be about two Martians; I’m not arguing that my personal life is, ever has been or ever will be perfect, but I do wonder if the sheer inscrutability of love keeps us from seeing many truly realistic films about it, or if everyone’s experience is so singular that a universal portrait is absolutely impossible. Either option is, I feel, ultimately an optimistic one, but that doesn’t make Blue Valentine any less uncomfortable or risible for me personally. To put it charitably: this might be someone’s idea of a great love, but it’s not one I’d ever want to share.