I was playing a typically female role. She’s the one with ambition, isn’t satisfied, is looking around. He’s trying to make it work and focused on the home.
—Ryan Gosling, 22 December 2010
“Tell me how I should be. Just tell me. I’ll do it.” Dean (Ryan Gosling) stands in a kitchen doorway, his voice breaking and his hair receding. His wife Cindy (Michelle Williams) stands by the sink, her face taut.
This scene comes late in Blue Valentine. While Cindy and Dean are looking hard at each other, neither can see a way toward the other. Though he crosses the room and embraces her, she keeps her arms pressed against his chest and he keeps his eyes closed, whimpering, hoping for a chance even as she say, repeatedly, “I’m sorry.”
Even if they can’t articulate it, Dean and Cindy’s loss is indicated in a long shot of their figures, seemingly collapsed into one another. Derek Cianfrance’s film turns again and again to their inability to speak to each other, to explain how they’ve come to this point—which means that Williams and Gosling’s performances feel especially intense, forged out of glimpses and gestures rather than words.
Early in the film, Dean and Cindy argue about their dog, Megan, gone missing. Both grieve for at her loss and worry about how to tell their young daughter Frankie (Faith Wladyka), and they also feel anger: as Cindy cries quietly in the audience at Frankie’s school pageant, Dean seethes beside her: “How many times did I tell you to lock the fucking gate?” The metaphor isn’t subtle, but it’s still hard to see the love that’s run away.
Or more precisely, it’s hard not to see it. As Blue Valentine shows scenes from the beginning and end of the couple’s six-year relationship, it doesn’t show what happens in between, how Dean and Cindy have arrived here, missing the dog in the audience at Frankie’s play. Cutting between then and now, the movie asks you to sort out what’s gone wrong, whether they faced a particular crisis or missed general cues along the way. The narrative fragmentation is smoothed over by soundtrack cues: songs that bleed over from past to present and vice versa, but the device simultaneously underscores disparities: tenderness turns into bitterness, frustration refracts trust.
Their brokenness is visible again and again. “We’re inside a robot’s vagina,” Dean announces as they walk into a cheap pleasure motel—for which he’s kept a one-night’s-stay coupon. Tacky and dark, despite the shiny walls and cheesy tech effects, the room is resolutely foreboding, and yet they enter. With Megan gone and Frankie staying at her parents’, Cindy has agreed—very reluctantly—to Dean’s last ditch effort. But the Future Room’s décor is only grim: their forks clattering on their take-out dinner plates, Cindy asks, “Why don’t you do something? Isn’t there something you want to do?” He tries to formulate for her how vitally his future changed when they met: “I didn’t want to be somebody’s husband and I didn’t want to be somebody’s dad, that wasn’t my goal in life,” he begins. “But somehow it was.” Now, he says, “I work so I can do that.”
Even as he says it, Dean knows he’s disappointing Cindy, a nurse at a women’s clinic. But he rejects her premise, that he’s not ambitious enough. “Why do you have to fucking make money off your potential?” he asks, “Potential for what? To turn it into what?” Forlorn in the Future Room, Dean gazes across the table at his wife, his vulnerability rankled into exasperation. As baffled and emotionally bruised as he looks here, he’s only the older version of the man she absorbed earlier, the man who took a literal beating from her ex and held her close on a late-night bus ride.
What’s most striking in the cutting between the past and present scenes is not how different they are, but how similar. Trying to please Cindy in the Future Room’s dingy shower, he kneels, but she rejects this gesture, perhaps remembering their past sex (Dean went down on her, where a previous boyfriend preferred sex from behind and coming inside her—the metaphor as clunky as the lost dog).
Repetitively, the couple’s end is discernible in their beginning: they can’t say what they want or whom they need. Each has a confidant, of sorts: Dean carries on with a coworker, their conversation overlaid as they move furniture (“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 she reads bodice-rippers to her grandmother (“He was going to kiss her: that was what she wanted, wasn’t it? So why did she feel as if she trembled on the edge of a precipice ready to topple over in an instant?”). But neither finds a way to speak honestly with the other: the seeming moment of their commitment appears through a window, so you don’t hear what they’re saying as they wrap their arms hard and beautifully around each other.
Here, of course, it may not matter what they say. She wants only, she says in voiceover, not to be like her parents. “I know they must have loved each other at one time, right?” she wonders as her father gripes about dinner and her mother apologizes. “Did they just get it all out of the way before they had me?” In Cindy’s eyes, their marriage is a series of disappointments and mistakes, but still, she brings her daughter to stay with them. Certainly, she looks out of options, her own home or her parents’ home equally toxic, with light seeping away into corners and doorways forming tight frames rather then exits. When she tells Dean, “I don’t want her to grow up in a home where her parents treat each other like this,” the worry seems all-purpose, as if she can’t imagine a world not “like this.”
Indeed, Dean’s offer to be “better,” if she can only tell him “how to be” is both wrong and inevitable inside Blue Valentine. Earnestly trying to impress her during an early bus ride, he insinuates his own limits: “In my experience, the prettier a girl is, the more nuts she is, which makes you insane.” She looks at him as if from a distance, sharing the seat but wary: “I like how you can compliment and insult somebody at the same time, in equal measure,” she assesses.
Their simultaneous closeness and disconnection, their mutual attraction and their reluctance, are all typical in a movie romance. That you know already where they’re headed shapes your understanding, if not their expectations. The sex scenes—shot in tight, blurry frames—suggest honesty (and initially drew an NC-17 rating from the MPAA, who backed down following a case made by lawyers), but also performance and familiar anxieties. It’s this mix of effects—the film’s use and critique of clichés, its ability to “compliment and insult at the same time”—that makes Blue Valentine both engaging and frustrating. It’s not so much that gender roles are reversed as they are exposed, and so increasingly unfixed and sometimes unnerving.