"I feel like men are more romantic than women. When we get married we marry, like, one girl, 'cause we're resistant the whole way until we meet one girl and we think I'd be an idiot if I didn't marry this girl she's so great. But it seems like girls get to a place where they just kinda pick the best option... 'Oh he's got a good job.' I mean they spend their whole life looking for Prince Charming and then they marry the guy who's got a good job and is gonna stick around."
Dean, Blue Valentine
In the chaotic final scenes of Blue Valentine, our male hero Dean (Ryan Gosling) wears a worn t-shirt with a large print of a bald eagle. He himself is worn-out, a pudgy disintegrating version of the spry young man who once fell head-over-heels for Cindy (Michelle Williams), the seeming epitome of the girl-next-door. In that eagle t-shirt Dean finally comes to terms with the dissolution of his marriage and the despair into which he has led himself. Dean leaves behind the only happiness he has ever known, and walks off into fireworks and American flags.
Derek Cianfrance's film is visually and conceptually complex in a way you don't really expect romance films to be. But therein lies the rub: Blue Valentine, in case the trailer didn't clue you in, is not a romance. It is a film about the very idea of “romance,” the idealization of marriage, and how these things influence interactions between men and women. It is particularly interesting in its dissection of masculinity in relation to widely held ideals of love. Dean says in the beginning of the movie, “men are more romantic than women,” and the rest of the picture will attempt to both prove him right, and then uncover the true meaning of that statement.
One such scene, which occurs just as Dean is about to meet Cindy for the first time, involves him helping an elderly man move into his new room at a nursing home. It, whether intentionally or not, references Gosling's role in the sap-tastic The Notebook, which only serves to deepen its commentary. We watch Dean as he delicately recreates the glories of this man's life, displaying his items in his new room to reflect only the very best of his past. His military uniform, a picture of his wife and nick-knacks from his worldly travels. It is the picture of the wife which seems to especially affect Dean. In this one brilliantly staged scene Cianfrance establishes his character as one that, almost stubbornly, finds romance in the everyday.
Yet as we traverse back and forth between the beginning and end of Dean and Cindy's relationship, the fuzzy texture of the transitions into the past give them an other-worldly feel – as if they are bonafide dreams, rather than memories. Thus the romance is immediately called into question, immediately challenged to prove itself. And over the course of the film it will repeatedly succeed and fail to make itself real.
Dean is not exactly living the life when he happens upon Cindy in that nursing home. He works for a moving company and is lonely in a big city. He is looking for someone, or something, to rescue him from the boredom and seeming inevitability of his life. He finds everything he wants in Cindy and does not hesitate. It's as if now he can forget about having to contribute to society in any other way, as he will later so passionately defend, because he is on the road to being a loving husband and father. An all-American man. What more is there?
This is perhaps the film's most biting observation: the allure of American male heroism is rooted in self-consciousness, a hint of laziness and an overwhelming need for power to justify living in fear. Virginia Woolf once more eloquently observed:
“Without self-confidence we are as babes in the cradle. And how can we generate this imponderable quality, which is yet so invaluable, most quickly? By thinking that other people are inferior to oneself. "
In one of Blue Valentine's climactic scenes, which takes place at a surreal sort of love shack, Cindy attempts to push Dean to pursue something new in his life – to try and be something more. She not only encourages him but genuinely seems to believe that he has real talent and possibilities. But this support in the eyes of the perpetually insecure man feels like an affront to his masculinity and his ability to control, which is so central to his persona. Thus the immediate reaction is defensiveness, and then later, sexual aggression.
Dean is not an abusive person – at least not yet. He, on the contrary, takes some pride in the way he treats his wife. When she seems ambivalent to his sexual advances he shouts “do you want me to rape you? Do you want me to hit you?” in order to make a comparison between that extreme and the extent of his love for Cindy. He would never hurt her, because he is the American gentleman. Of course the film contrasts that idea with the actuality of the images – drunk, decayed Dean towering over his wife laid out limply on the floor of this shady motel room. We are terrified that he just might do something. The truth is, Dean has been taking advantage of his wife for a long time now, and for Cindy, giving up her body at this moment is preferable to having to spend another minute pretending to love.
Dean justifies his lack of ambition through the idealization of the “sacrifice” he made years before. He stuck with the girl, raised the kid and got married. He was told this would equate not only happiness, but acceptance from the outside world. He now has neither and, instead, anger has seeped into his life. This pent up frustration begins to manifest itself more and more often. He reverts to the most basic response to the seeming attacks on his masculinity. Indeed, near the very end of the film, as he physically lashes out at his wife's co-worker, he says “be a man,” as if pleading with his own heart.
This scene is especially powerful as it takes place between Dean and a doctor at Cindy's workplace (she is an aspiring nurse there) who has just recently revealed that his adulation for her work is based on sexual desire and not actual regard for ability. There are no positive male figures in this film – no one who seems to really look at Cindy and see her as a complete person. It paints a sad portrait of our society: the frustrated woman surrounded by males unsuccessfully, and at times violently, trying to be “men.”
Cindy has been duped, tricked into this life. How was she to resist prince charming in her hour of peril? She is such a young person when she becomes pregnant and subsequently decides to keep her child. And in such an agonizingly vulnerable moment, Dean is the one who holds her and makes her feel strong. He, in comparison to her horrible jock boyfriend and raging father, is nearly perfect. Even sexually, Dean wants to please her while her ex was only concerned with himself. It's a no-brainer. Thus she jumps into what we are taught to believe, especially women, is the ultimate happiness: love, marriage and parenting.
Yet there were signs, even then. In the face of love, we often overlook certain things. It is the brilliance of the feeling really, that it can allow us to look past fear. There is Dean punching a wall, then threatening suicide in order to manipulate her, but it is not enough to dissuade her. After all, picture-perfect scenes like the one outside the abortion clinic, where Dean commits himself to Cindy, don't just happen everyday. We are told, these are special moments in our life, worth more than all the rest.
Throughout the film Cindy stands, sits and lays lifeless as Dean attempts to hug or caress her into caring for him, but there are two amazing scenes in which Cindy shows us just how horribly things have turned out. Once, as they are driving to the motel, Cindy stops the car and runs into the forest. She tells Dean she has to pee, but in reality she just hides behind a tree. She is struggling to breathe – Dean suffocates her. And then once they are at the motel, after she has locked him in the hallway, screaming for her to let him in, Cindy leans against the other side of the door and franticly looks around the inside of her motel room. As if looking for an escape route.
The commitment – the marriage – is what traps her. Beyond that, everything that the marriage represents. The institution that it is. The force that it is. Do we dare disturb the universe? To walk away from this relationship is to walk away from supposed perfection. This was everything that they wanted, wasn't it?
Of course, Cindy is not powerless, and in the end, she will remember her own agency and escape. Despite none of the men in her life taking her seriously, Cindy is still able to see her own value. This is a testament to her will power, and her care for her daughter (who floats in and out of the story), but it's devastating that it takes her so long to get to that point.
Dean asks his buddies if they believe in “love at first sight.” One says that he does not, but Dean – big surprise – does. He is reflecting on his first meeting with Cindy and he claims “I know her. I know I don't, but it felt like I did.” He isn't convincing, and again I want to say that it is a stubbornness that existed from the very beginning, not romanticism, that led him down this path. It is so much easier to believe that love is easy like that - destined - than to actually work at it over the course of a lifetime (Grizzly Bear provide the soundtrack and poignantly their heartbreaking tune "Easier" is used to reinforce this point). Dean is intentionally opting out of his life at that moment.
The final scene then, in this context, is especially harrowing. Dean walking away into the flags of July 4th, his daughter running after him – still worshipping him. Is this America? The cycle of hopelessness. Romantic hopelessness. Who or what will save us? In our laziness we answer: Only love. Never ourselves. Never each other. Only love.
The end credits appear over a series of images of Dean and Cindy at the beginning of their romance, decorated with fireworks. It's a challenge to the viewer. Of course the idea of it all, falling so desperately in love in the American heartland, is still appealing. We can't deny it. These end images are pretty, they make our hearts leap and in some other movie, they make us cry tears of joy. But here, can we still glorify this stuff when we know it can lead to all the trauma we just witnessed on screen? Can we continue to avoid living our lives, pretending that this is all we want? How do we reconcile it all?
Blue Valentine is a remarkable film that asks tough questions, and it's a film we'll still be talking about years from now.