Who was it who said we get married because we want a witness to our lives? That may provide an insight into the troubled minds of the married couple in "Blue Valentine," which follows them during their first six years of mutual witness. Did Dean and Cindy get married because they wanted to be sure someone was watching? Or was that Dean's need, and did Cindy lose the thrill of the watch?
Here is a film that watches pretty well itself. Derek Cianfrance, the film's writer and director, observes with great exactitude the birth and decay of a relationship. This film is alive in its details. Toward the end of the six years, when Cindy is hardly able to remember why she wanted to marry Dean, Cianfrance observes the physical and mental exhaustion that has overcome her. And the way that Dean seems hardly to care — just so long as Cindy remains his wife and his watcher, which in his mind was the deal. Dean thinks marriage is the station. Cindy thought it was the train.
They're played by Ryan Gosling and Michelle Williams as a Pennsylvania working-class couple with a daughter, Frankie. She was born right at the start. Cindy is a nurse. Dean is a house painter. When they met, and for some time after, work was hardly central to their lives. It was where they went to and where they returned from. In effective physical transformations, Williams and Gosling give us Dean and Cindy at two ages: their age at present, and at the beginning, when they were filled with that dreamy knowledge that the touch of the other brings quick sensuality. It is easier for an actor to play the same character at 24 and 60 than at 24 and 30. Though some bodily change occurs, what really happens is a transformation of inner certainty. Williams plays a woman who sits inside her body and no longer knows what it's for and what she wants to do with it.
All marriages have milestone moments, events of startling clarity that allow the new lovers to see themselves as a couple who have been defined. Dean is capable of grand goofy romanticism, and Cindy likes that. She yearns toward it. They first meet at her grandmother's retirement home. Have you ever had one of those chance meetings with a stranger in a place neither one of you belongs? A space empty of your lives, so that you start new with your first conversation and plunge straight ahead into a suddenly new future?
That's what it's like that day. Soon they're playing at this new toy, their love. They do things together as if they were children doing them. Then they get married and have (the unplanned but welcomed) Frankie, and the realities of making a living and work schedules and child-raising and real marriage settle in. Dean seems stuck. He seems to stay fixed at the initial stage. Can you see the difference between (1) "He loves me as much as he always did," and (2) "He loves me exactly like he always did"?
"Blue Valentine" moves between past and present as if trying to remember what went wrong. From Dean's point of view, maybe nothing did. He wanted to be married to Cindy, and he still does and he still is. Cindy can't stand that. He never signed off on the grow old along with me part. He doesn't think the best is yet to be. He thinks it's just fine now.
Williams plays Cindy as a woman who has lost her pride of body and self. No, she doesn't become a drunk — he's the one who drinks too much. But that's not the problem. It's his infuriating inability to care for this Cindy, right here, right now, because when she married him, she became exactly the Cindy he required.
I wonder what kind of script conferences Cianfrance had with his co-writers, Joey Curtis and Cami Delavigne. They were writing about something ineffable, a void, a need. This wasn't a story with convenient hooks involving things like, you know, disease — things stories are familiar with. It was about inner defeat and the exhaustion of hope. I've read reviews saying Cianfrance isn't clear about what went wrong as they got from there to here. Is anybody?
The Philosopher’s POV: Blue Valentine: An EnigmaJuly 2, 2011
As the title suggests, Blue Valentine is a sad love story. It’s love at first sight for Dean when he sees Cindy in her grandmother’s room at an assisted living facility. He gives her his number, but when she does not call, he returns and talks with the grandmother to find out who Cindy is. The grandmother tells him her name and promises to tell Cindy that he asked about her. Dean then meets Cindy on the bus and woos her with sincerity and song, not the least of which is the ominous, “You Always Hurt the Ones You Love.” Later, Cindy finds out that she is pregnant, but not with Dean’s child. She has been having sexual relations with Bobby Ontario (and more than twenty other men since she was thirteen), and the child is Bobby’s. Dean marries her anyway, and they have a girl named Frankie, whom Dean adores. Dean and Frankie build a doghouse together for Megan (their beloved dog), they eat raisins from Frankie’s cereal bowl off the kitchen table pretending to be leopards, he is prompt to her pre-school singing recital, and he tells Frankie that maybe Megan moved out to Hollywood to be “a movie dog,” thereby sparing her the hurt of learning that her dog had been hit and killed by a car.
Clearly, Dean also loves Cindy. He reminds her several times to fasten her seat belt as she gets ready to take Frankie to school, and in the final break-up scene says, “I love you so much.” He wants not just to have sex but loving sex with her. He plans a weekend with her at a motel that has rooms dedicated to different sexual fantasies. He has a choice between Cupid’s Cove and the Future Room, and chooses the latter when Cindy refuses to make a choice. She clearly does not want to go. She is a nurse and uses the excuse that she is on call the next day, but Dean ignores her protests.
A central scene in the film takes place at the motel and is shot in blue light. Cindy tells Dean that he is good at everything he does and asks him whether there isn’t anything else he’d rather do. He answers, “Than what? Than be your husband? To be Frankie’s dad?” When she asks him whether he wants to realize his potential, Dean rightly asks, “Potential for what?” He tells Cindy that he is living his dream in being her husband and Frankie’s dad and wonders why she wants him to use his potential to make money. She responds, “We rarely sit down and have an adult conversation because every time we do you take what I say and you turn it around into something I didn’t mean. You just…twist it. Start babbling: blah, blah, blah, blah, blah.” It’s true that Dean interpreted Cindy to mean that he should use his potential to make money instead of wasting it as a house painter, when she meant that it would be good in itself for him to develop his capacities. However, she also ignored Dean’s sound point that he was realizing his potential for what he found most important, namely, being a good father and husband. He could equally have accused her of turning the conversation “around into something else” and of “twisting it.”
When later Dean and Cindy have sex, we see her having it with clenched fist and scrunched face. Clearly, she is not enjoying it. When she gets a call to come to work at the medical center, she leaves without telling Dean, who is passed out drunk on the floor where they had sex. She simply tapes a note to the wall that Dean reads when he wakes up. He is angry, goes to the medical center where she works, gets in an argument with the doctor with whom Cindy works, and punches him in the face. Cindy slaps Dean, swears at him, tells him that she is “so out of love” with him, that she has “nothing left for him,” that she hates him, and says that she is more of a man than he is.
Cindy and Dean leave her work together and have an emotional conversation at the home of her father who has been taking care of Frankie. She tells Dean that she “can’t do this anymore.” He begs her not to leave him, apologizes, and says he will do anything she wants. At one point Dean tries to convince Cindy to stay together by appealing to what’s best for Frankie. Being from a home where his mother left his father when he was ten, Dean thinks it would be bad for Frankie to be “from a broken home.” Cindy grew up in a home where her father was a monster and her parents did not love each other. When Dean was courting Cindy, she told him that she liked her grandmother because, “She makes me laugh. Nobody else talks in my family. And when they talk, they just yell.” She thinks that the worst thing for Frankie would be for her to grow up in a home where the parents treat each other badly. Cindy says, “I don’t want her to grow up in a home where her parents treat each other like this? We’re not good together, we’re not good anymore. The way that we treat each other.” In the end, Dean walks away into the fireworks of the Fourth of July. Frankie tries to follow him, but he tricks her into racing back to her mother. Her mother picks her up to comfort her, and Frankie says that she loves her dad. It’s a sad love story.
It’s also an enigma. Why does Cindy fall out of love with Dean? Earlier in the film Dean said that most girls look for a Prince Charming but end up marrying “the guy that’s got a good job and who’s gonna stick around.” Maybe that’s what Cindy did when she found out that she was pregnant and that Bobby Ontario was not going to support her. But she also genuinely loved Dean in the beginning. So why did she fall out of love with him even if she married him because she knew he’d stick with her? Did she fall out of love with him because she did not enjoy sex with him, and did she not enjoy sex with anyone because someone raped her when she was thirteen? That would explain why she always said “ow” before, during, or after sex and sometimes said “no, no, no, no” during sex with Dean even when they were courting. But there is no evidence in the film that any rape occurred when she was young.
Cindy once had a conversation with her grandmother about whether she loved her grandfather, and at the same time Cindy reflected on how her parents did not love each other. Her grandmother told Cindy that she was in love with her husband for at most a brief period of time in the beginning. This led Cindy to ask her grandmother, “How can you trust your feelings when they can just disappear like that?” Her grandmother replied, “I think the only way to find out is to have the feeling.” Cindy’s feelings for Dean disappeared, if not “just like that” at least over the five years or so after Cindy gave birth to Frankie. Why? It’s true that Dean is childish in the way he plays with Frankie, for example, pretending to be a leopard as they eat raisins off the kitchen table while her mother tries to get her to use a spoon. And it’s true that Dean drinks too much, drinking before he goes to work as a house painter and getting drunk before having sex with Cindy at the motel. Still, Dean could be very adult in protecting Frankie from the hurt over losing her dog and in getting her to run back to her mom when he was leaving the family. While his drinking was not good for Dean, it does not seem to have caused him to treat Cindy badly. When he learns at Frankie’s recital that Megan is dead, he does not console her but instead rebukes her saying, “How many times did I tell you to lock the fucking gate? Huh?” But that remark is understandable given his hurt (he sobs uncontrollably after burying Megan), and surely not enough to cause Cindy to stop loving him.
We might speculate about what was going on behind the scenes, but nothing in the film explains why Cindy stopped loving Dean. The Carson River flows down the eastern slopes of the Sierras and used to flow into what is called the Carson Sink. Before a dam was built, the river would eventually just peter out as it flowed eastward across the parched sand. Settlers on their way to California would get their first fresh water from the river. Many times we can explain why people stop loving each other: perhaps one of them has been abusive or unsupportive, or has had an extra-marital affair. But many times we can’t; it just seems that the love peters out. As far as we can tell, that’s what happened to Cindy.
The song that begins playing when the credits roll is called Grizzly Bear: Alligator (choir version). Its lyrics are:
It’s a fear, it is near, the shape becomes ever clear.
It bares teeth, extra sharp, that’ll cut you in the heart.
It attacks really quick, try and fight it with a stick.
It’s no use, give it up, this is life and this is love.
Dr. Bruce Russell is a professor of philosophy at Wayne State University. His major areas of interest include ethics, epistemology and the philosophy of religion (the problem of evil). Dr. Russell has published extensively and most recently has found a way to combine his keen interest in these areas with his love of film.The Philosopher's POV