Blue Valentine




This cleverly told story of a doomed marriage is underpinned by two outstanding central performances…


Somerset Maugham began his novel The Razor’s Edge by remarking that “death ends all things and so is the comprehensive conclusion of a story, but marriage finishes it very properly and the sophisticated are ill-advised to sneer at what is by convention termed a happy ending”. As with quite a few things, that wise old cynic was wrong; many of the great dramas truly begin after the curtain has come down on a wedding. Nearly all of Jack Lemmon’s films, for instance, concern disastrous marriages, and his second picture was called Phffft!, an onomatopoeia for the sound of a marriage expiring like a dying match. Derek Cianfrance’s Blue Valentine, which he co-scripted with Joey Curtis and Cami Delavigne, is an account of the passionate, protracted Phffft! that concludes the marriage between Dean (Ryan Gosling), a blue-collar worker from Brooklyn, and Cindy (Michelle Williams), a medical student from a lower-middle-class family in Pennsylvania. It is a romance that begins in the first years of the Bush administration and ends with the coming of Obama, but the political events and social currents of the time do not significantly impinge on the characters’ lives.


Blue Valentine adopts that now venerable form advocated by Jean-Luc Godard, another commentator on crumbling relationships, when he said a film should have a beginning, a middle and an end, but not necessarily in that order. The piece begins as the film’s marriage is finally disintegrating. Dean and Cindy’s six-year-old daughter, Frankie, is in the garden of their small house in the Pennsylvania countryside calling for the family dog which has disappeared, a faintly obtrusive symbol of loss and break-up. Dean, woken from the couch on which he’s sleeping, comforts her. They wake up Cindy who’s still in bed, and breakfast is accompanied by an argument over the way to serve and eat oatmeal, an apparently minor affair that subtly reveals a major fissure. After breakfast she goes off to her job as a nurse in the gynaecological department of a local hospital and Dean goes to his job as a house painter. When they later meet at a concert at Frankie’s school, both seem on the edge of a breakdown. The camera works close in on the characters, and the cinematographer, Andrij Parekh, uses a lens that simultaneously condenses the space between them and draws our attention to it.


Not until the end do we see the happiness of their simple wedding at a marriage parlour with Dean neatly dressed in a striped summer suit and tie and Cindy wearing a white dress. But where Harold Pinter’s Betrayal goes steadily back in time from the bitter end of a relationship to its seemingly propitious start, Blue Valentine hops around over some six or seven years as the couple reflect on their lives. The flashbacks are not announced in what used to be a traditional way, and many viewers will be initially confused until they realise that the film’s style itself reflects the pains and joys of experience and memory.


There are two crucial, complementary episodes in the couple’s relationship, both acutely observed, to which the film constantly returns. The first is their initial meeting, when Dean’s job driving a removal van brings him from Brooklyn to a Pennsylvania old people’s home, transporting the possessions that represent the life and memories of an elderly widower. Cindy has just wheeled her frail grandmother to a room on the same corridor and reads her a romantic novel. Both are kindly and concerned, and a bond of sorts is suggested as they briefly see life from the point of view of someone approaching death. The other key episode occurs close to the end of their relationship, when they attempt to recover their earlier passion by spending the night drinking and having sex at a tawdry hotel where the individually themed rooms appear to have been designed by some cut-price fetishist. Rejecting the fantasies offered by “Cupid’s Cove”, Dean chooses the windowless “Future Room”, which is like the set of a low-budget SF movie with a circular revolving bed, stainless steel walls and vistas of nearby planets. The couple are like aliens in an alien world. The garish surroundings emphasise everything that’s false about their marriage, and the effect is at once excruciating and horribly funny.

Both Williams and Gosling give excellent, detailed performances, at once spontaneous and carefully considered, playing people who cannot understand or properly articulate their position. They have been in love and found sexual satisfaction, but they’ve failed to come to terms with their own troubled families and are essentially incompatible, incapable of changing and growing together. The light-hearted, chain-smoking Dean believes he can realise his potential by being a husband and father. The ambitious Cindy is increasingly bitter about being trapped socially and biologically in a marriage that has denied her the opportunity to realise her potential and become a doctor.

In some ways Blue Valentine is a lower-class version of Annie Hall without the wry humour and Allen’s acceptance that nothing truly lasts, and that love inevitably fades. One particular sequence brings Allen to mind. It’s when Cindy and Dean first go out together and is as affecting and memorable as anything I’ve seen this past couple of years. She performs an impromptu dance at night in the street outside a shop selling cut-price wedding clothes as he sings the Ink Spots’s “You Always Hurt the One You Love”, accompanying himself on his ukulele. It’s almost unbearably poignant and is reprised over the final credits.