The dual-review film criticism site: first a spoiler-free review, then an in-depth Alternate Take.
Blue Valentine

Written by James MacDowell.

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A common criticism for those unimpressed by Blue Valentine has been that its structural conceit (intercutting the first and, seemingly, last days of its central relationship) means it cannot depict what brought Dean and Cindy to the point at which we find them in the present day. It is easy to see why some might object to this.

By implying a ‘realist’ impulse to delve below the surface, aspects of the film like its method-acting, handheld camerawork, and sometimes gritty subject matter (the aborted abortion, the almost-violent sex scene, etc.) might encourage us to expect something which the movie does not deliver: a portrait of a marriage in all its intricacies and details. As well as this, we so seldom see in-depth depictions of marriage in romance films nowadays - tending to get romantic comedies about courtships rather than (as we often used to in the classical era) melodramas about what follows courtship; thus, when encountering a movie that seems to promise a ‘truthful’ account of married life, critics and audiences are perhaps primed to expect, or hope for, an all-out autopsy of the marital state.

I would suggest though that this objection misses, firstly, the fact that the film does, in subtle and economical ways, offer reasons for its relationship’s breakdown. Equally, to criticise the movie in these terms is to criticise it for not being something it never intended to be, and to overlook its achievements in other areas.

Of the many reasons hinted at for why this relationship slides into disrepair, one seems particularly striking to me in relation to melodrama. Older melodramas often explored the pains and dilemmas of women trapped in their social roles. Pictures about motherhood like Stella Dallas (1937) and Mildred Pierce (1945) delved into sacrifices involved in maternal life; gothic melodramas like Gaslight (1944) and Rebecca (1940) represented power relations in marriage as far from equal, depicting authoritarian husbands seeking to control or even eradicate their wives, and so on. Put simply: such films debated the basic, intractable problems of pursuing romantic love, marriage, and parenthood within a culture that invariably consigned women into various forms of socially-sanctioned subordination.

Sexual inequalities have not left us, but they have certainly changed their appearance, and Blue Valentine charts similar territory to its forebears for a new gendered landscape. Neither member of the couple conforms uncomplicatedly to past regressive assumptions about their sex. Cindy’s interview at the abortion clinic, for instance, lets us know that she is by no means in thrall to moralistic myths about good little chaste women. As an aside, it needs to be said that neither does the film at all “write her off as a tempestuous slut”, as one reviewer put it; what the nurse tells her is true: twenty or so is hardly a shocking number for a twenty-first-century gal. Equally, she has a bawdy, laddish sense of humour, as made plain in her peadophilia joke on the bus, and is also the primary breadwinner of the family.

By the same token, Dean is a descendent of the sensitive post-80s ‘New Man’. In a dramatic departure from films of yesteryear, which tended to place romanticism firmly in the realm of the feminine, one of this young man’s first lines in the earlier timeframe sees him tell a co-worker that he believes men to be more romantic than women, and he later claims to have fallen in love at first sight. He may grow into an embittered alcoholic, but even at his worst we see that he follows a code which unequivocally states he never hit a woman. This marriage, then, steers far clear of the kinds of relationships familiar from, say, the persecuted-wife movies of classical Hollywood (a cycle I discuss here).

Yet Blue Valentine is nonetheless a contemporary melodrama, and thus probes some of the potential problems caused for heterosexual romance by its own period. What brings the couple to the brink of divorce? Again, to a great extent it has apparently come down to problems presented by expectations regarding masculinity and femininity, and the institutions of marriage and family.

For one thing, Cindy seemingly has a (potentially healthy) sado-masochistic streak that Dean is unwilling to engage with: in the hotel she suggests play-fighting (which receives a darker echo in the blows she delivers to him later), and the sex scene implies that she regularly requests a degree of violence in their lovemaking that he is reluctant to indulge. Perhaps in a bid to not be the kind of husband that Cindy’s father is suggested to be, Dean clearly sees even consensual force against his wife as beyond the pale. This in turn seems to be because he cannot let go of seeing her in idealised terms; “no one could be good enough for you,” he has tenderly, but troublingly, told her on his first visit to her parents’ house. At the height of their bitter row in the hospital Dean goads Cindy on, asking her if she is going to hit him; “yeah,” she spits back, “I’m more of a man than you are, you fucking cunt.” This appears to tip him over the edge; “What the fuck does that mean? Being a man?” he yells, before enacting a parody of masculinity - impotently knocking over furniture, tearing things off the wall. Instead of lashing out at Cindy, Dean punches fences, walls - or, later in this scene, a man he considers a rival. This is a kind of violence that allows him to maintain the romantic view of his love which he clearly clings to even in his lowest moments: it permits him to see himself as the “prince charming” he mentioned in conversation with his co-worker, fighting for the honour of his princess. It was, after all, partly a battle with Cindy’s ex that spurred on their romance in its early days.

Amongst other things, Blue Valentine depicts a man and a woman struggling to come to terms with being a man and a woman, and a couple, in an age in which traditional ideas associated with these roles have been rethought, but still contain a tenacious power. Of course, none of us are merely slaves to social forces, but Cindy, and particularly Dean, seem to have played the hands they have been dealt rather badly.

During what is suggested to be a typically awkward dinner (at the hotel), Cindy laments the fact that Dean has no ambition in him other than to be a father and a husband - chiding him for ignoring his “potential”. This isn’t about earning more money, she makes clear, but rather about his lack of drive, of striving, of a capacity to evolve. “Let’s be a family,” Dean has said as he and Cindy were on the bus away from the abortion clinic. In this dinner scene when Cindy questions his desire to achieve nothing more than simply a family, all he can say is, “I don’t want to do anything else”.

While Cindy is still capable, even after years of seeming disappointments, of encouraging Dean towards bettering himself, and by extension their marriage, Dean merely shuts down such conversation. Though he may not conceptualise the family unit in the manner of many of his forbears, and Cindy’s father (with the man as its ultimate head), he nevertheless seems entirely invested in it as a sufficient goal in its own right. As Roger Ebert puts it in his review of the film, “Dean thinks marriage is the station. Cindy thought it was the train.” This, then, seems to be a difference between a character who is unable to imagine that there is anything more to the social institution than its mere achievement, and one who views it as a convention to which she is content to conform, but who recognises that it is not itself an answer.

The film’s poignancy lies in its contrasting of these moments, when the pair seem so trapped in particular roles, against an earlier time when romance appeared to promise the hope of escape. Were Dean and Cindy able to have better navigated the demands of marriage, the wedding scene to which the earlier timeframe inexorably builds could have truly been a cause for celebration. As it is, their inability to find answers to the difficult questions a wedding inevitably poses - no less so in 2011 than in past decades - means that the film finally again resembles Andrew Britton's description of melodrama as a being concerned with “the bloody aftermath of the happy ending”.

This Alternate Take was published on January 26, 2011.