Blue Valentine (Movie Review)

Blue Valentine

Last weekend, Alicia and I went to see Blue Valentine. It tells the story of a husband and wife whose relationship is falling apart, and it manages to convey this so believably that it’s honestly unsettling. Maybe it wasn’t the best choice for the first movie to watch together after becoming engaged, but both of us are glad we saw it.

 

I want to keep this article much shorter than my other recent ones, and besides, most of what I want to say about the movie is based on spoilers. So I’ll be direct here: The acting, casting, directing, and writing are all excellent. Blue Valentine tells a story that is way too rare in movies, and makes its human drama absolutely convincing. In fact, the characters and setting are thought through so well that they can let many important things go unsaid. I assume you’re familiar with the feeling of a movie that starts to unravel as soon as you think about it afterwards, or one that you can’t even discuss afterwards without noticing all the plot holes. With Blue Valentine, everything fits together even better as you think about it. Alicia and I talked about it for a while afterwards, and every time one of us said that we didn’t understand a certain person’s motivation, or how something fit together in the timing or setting, we would talk it through and realize that it made perfect sense. The movie just hadn’t held our hands the whole way through it. In fact, I woke up the next morning with new insights into the characters and fresh opinions about their situation. I can’t remember the last time anything (other than reality) let me know people with such intricacy.

Blue Valentine receives a solid A- grade, and you should see it. If anything, I’m being too harsh in my grading. I’m going to discuss a central theme in spoilery detail below the cut, but you shouldn’t read that until you’ve seen the movie. Because this is one of the rare ones that deserve to be experienced.

Blue Valentine alternates between Dean and Cindy’s present-day troubles and the story of how they met and fell in love. This doesn’t just provide an ironic contrast; the seeds of the issues that will eventually tear them apart are clearly there from the start. Even without the gift of 20/20 hindsight, it’s easy to imagine that if we were there when they first met, we’d try to talk them out of it. Dean is clearly headstrong and irrational, fooling himself into seeing a soulmate where there is only a blank slate willing to respond positively to his advances. And for Cindy, the fact that her new man is offering her a way out instead of further trouble blinds her to all of Dean’s red flags.

However, would we really be warning them against it? These flashback scenes are structured as the perfect romantic movie story, and people are used to swallowing down such plots without thinking. Blue Valentine’s genius is that at the same time it is telling a story with powerful, realistic people, it is also deconstructing the tropes of similar movies. This is not an accident: The trailer focuses on those flashback scenes to make people expect a comforting, twee indie movie, and the poster simply says “A Love Story”. Yet the movie itself shows how poorly realistic characters fare against the backdrop of a romantic comedy.

Look at how they met: Dean is collecting his pay after moving an old man into a retirement home, and Cindy sees him picking up money from the doorway in her grandmother’s room. He runs across the hall to assure her that he isn’t stealing it, and then asks her out on a date before she’s said more than three words to him. Though she wilts a little in that adorable “I appreciate your attention” manner, she mainly just insists that he leave her alone and repeatedly pushes on her grandmother’s door until he takes his foot out of it. There was no light joke from her, no twinkle in her eye, not even a break from the insistence that she leave him alone. Yet Dean is so struck by her that he spends the next month drunkenly telling everyone how perfect she is. He drives (two hours!) back to talk to the grandmother and learn how to find Cindy. Then he approaches Cindy on a bus and announces that he’s been talking to her grandma!

Yes, the scenes that follow are understandably romantic, and I can see how they fell in love. But I can’t for the life of me understand why Cindy didn’t run from him right there. They had one awkward meeting in which she closed the door on a possible thief, and now a month later he admits to stalking her! Dean was very lucky to obsess over a girl who makes such bad choices.

This is the kind of relationship that only works in movies, so why should we be surprised that it fell apart over the years? Other movie clichés come up, too, but are dismissed just as deftly. The jealous ex-boyfriend that picks a fight with Dean is never resolved, but just fades from the picture leaving unresolved scars. It is particularly effective when set against the present-day scene that first seems like petty jealousy. A fumbling conversation where Cindy mentions that she ran across an old boyfriend just seems like one data point among many at the time, and Dean’s anger over it appears unjustified. But later, when we learn that this is the actual father of the child that Dean has been raising so lovingly for years, who physically assaulted Dean, and that Cindy is willing to nervously flirt with him even while refusing to have sex with her husband… well, her surprise that Dean would be hurt by that comes across as completely uncaring and self-absorbed. Not that the movie lets Dean off the hook, either: He has no idea how to put any of this hurt into words, as the only narrative he is willing to consider is that he and his wife are perfect movie-style soul-mates.

These days, we’re swamped with books and movies that re-tell fairy tales with the question “but what happens after ‘Happily Ever After'”? Blue Valentine does this same thing for romantic movies. But while most stories like this are so caught up in their own cleverness that they have to shout out every genre trope that they are skewering, Blue Valentine plays it completely straight. This is a tense drama, populated by completely believable people. The contrast with “movie people” is there, but the film doesn’t connect those dots for the audience any more than it spells belabors details in the rest of the scenes. Blue Valentine‘s post-modern cleverness works so well because it is done matter-of-factly, not because it wants to dwell on it.

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