The story of love in modernity is one of growth and decay. Derek Cianfrance captures this sentiment beautifully in Blue Valentine. Through a series of flashbacks interspersed with present day, we are given glimpses of how love persists between Dean, (played by Ryan Gosling) and Cindy (Michelle Williams) – two people who no longer understand each other, nor are they able to provide for each other’s emotional needs. How do you not stand by the person who stood by you? How do you turn away when you have made a vow stating, “for better or for worse,” in a society that views the dissolution of relationships as a personal failure?
From the film’s opening scene, we are confronted with rural isolation and domestic misery. Dean and Cindy’s young daughter, Frankie, calling out for her dog Megan who is no longer there, echoes Dean’s pleas for Cindy to love him again. When Dean tells Frankie that Megan is not dead, just off becoming a Hollywood star, it is clear how his belief in Cindy’s love keeps him from seeing the truth of its death. The lies we tell children about missing dogs are the same lies we tell ourselves when love has faded; the memory of love persists long after its deterioration. This is obvious in the way Cindy tries to comfort Dean over the loss of Megan, in the way he does not listen to what she says, and how she allows him to push her into going to a cheesy sex hotel with the hope of reinvigorating their marriage.
The kismet of their meeting – by chance in a nursing home and then, again, on a bus – fits the mold of an idealistic fairy tale romance. The best dialogue in the film is between Cindy and her grandmother:
You ought to be careful that the person you fall in love [with] – that they’re worth it to you. How do you trust your feelings when they can just disappear like that?
The film jumps to the past in sharp relief to the grief of its present. There are bright spots – as there always are – in the beginning. Dean charms Cindy with music, but only her. He is not some Lothario out for quick action. He is a romantic, in love with the idea of finding the one girl he wants to marry. Cindy is a young woman looking for authenticity of feeling – to believe in the true and undying nature of love despite its seeming lack of existence in her parents’ marriage. She hides in the safety of Dean’s love from her abusive father and ex-boyfriend.
When Dean stands by Cindy in her unplanned pregnancy, they create a bond forged in fire and blood. Cindy’s discomfort in the clinic where she plans to have an abortion is so subtly portrayed that any person who has been in a similar position empathizes with her. “Let’s be a family” is a seductive offer when the only other option is single motherhood. Obvious incompatibilities seem surmountable through the lens of young love. The clinic is the turning point of the film – when everything becomes clear. This is the point where the audience realizes that Cindy has traded one abuser for another.
The framing of Cianfrance’s film is so powerful that it delivers like a punch to the gut. Cindy and Dean are brought together, while simultaneously being torn apart. Underscoring the unraveling of their marriage in the present are The Platters’, “Smoke Gets In Your Eyes” – a classic song about how love blinds us from seeing the truth. The young woman who fell in love with Dean no longer exists – his alcoholism and emotional abuse have destroyed Cindy’s image of him – the sensitive artist and her personal champion. This is most obvious when Dean attempts to arouse Cindy with the idea of making a baby together while on their sex retreat. Any woman who has experienced an abusive relationship knows the fear of being tied down by a child and effectively stuck with their abuser forever.
The film begs an answer to the question: what constitutes love? It challenges the notion that love and abuse are mutually exclusive. How can you leave someone who loves your child? Who fights for you when your boss makes inappropriate advances? Who provides escape from an abusive home? The decay of love does not diminish its depth, veracity, intensity, nor does it make its experience any less real. It does not make leaving easier. In the words of Junot Díaz, “The half-life of love is forever.”
Liz has a background in film & television production and has worked with NBC, Comedy Central, VH1, and Spotify. Her interests include diversity/representation in media, gender & sexuality politics, social justice and the impact of pop culture in shaping popular opinion. She also slays at drunken karaoke. You can follow her on Twitter @telitlikeitliz