I have been married for seven wonderful years. My wife and I are still happy together, it seems so to me at least, and looking forward to many great years to come. We have, for the most part, a happy home. I say this because we recently watched Blue Valentine on Netflix, a film we both wanted to see upon its release, but for one reason or another, never did. Well we finally got around to it, and it has made me ever more aware that these simple things–a happy marriage, a family, a future–need not be so.
It’s been a few days now, but Blue Valentine will not release me from its cold grasp. Blue Valentine, subtitled, “A Love Story”, is Derek Cianfrance’s expertly written and directed 2010 debut film. Acted with bravura by its leading couple, Michelle Williams and Ryan Gosling, the story details the rock-hard trials of marriage, interlaced with a budding relationship beginning six years earlier. It is nearly perfect in its execution, and thus worth all the effort it demands.
Also, I hated it. Not hate in the terrible movie way, like I hated Man of Steel but in the much more erratic and complex way that great movies and complicated storytelling can conjure. I hated it in the way that I hated The Master: I can’t stand what I saw, and still can’t break free from the power it contained. Blue Valentine has consumed me in the way every filmmaker hopes their film does. But I do not really like the feeling.
Nothing in Cindy and Dean’s relationship reminds me of my own, except the very pedestrian details–met in early 20s, married, etc. They were together about five or six years, and the film doesn’t really tell us why. We see how, but not really why. Maybe they did love each other, maybe it was the right thing to do. Fear or circumstance or relative ease. Regardless, watching the start of this relationship makes the end of the film nearly impossible to avoid. And without flinching, that ending is tough to behold.
In his review for the film, Roger Ebert said that “It is easier for an actor to play the same character at 24 and 60 than at 24 and 30. Though some bodily change occurs, what really happens is a transformation of inner certainty.” I read to make sense of Blue Valentine and this thought was most able to penetrate why I think the film has so pricked my sensibility. When I remember the instances of the film’s past that are beautiful, filled with exuberance and joy–awkward attempts to impress or nervous but wonderful sex– it is all the more difficult to conceive that the present occurs only a few years later.
This difficulty is made unbearable by these performances, of a rare caliber even for such gifted actors. Gosling and Williams are terrifying and simple and tragic. The performances are truly breathtaking.
In our movies we are used to seeing successful or failed lovers flash-back to their origins for clues about the future; but rarely do we see such intimate transformations, as Ebert calls them, of inner certainty, and over such a brief time lapse. It’s not that they’ve gotten old; they haven’t. They’ve just gotten to know each other, perhaps, or found resentment that early intimacy can hide.
Blue Valentine is a difficult film to watch. The more so once I realized that its outcome was so likely. You see a tough marriage, you see the dog lost, you find out about the ex, you find out about the child, the assault, the parents, you find out about med-school and high school, and all the tangled elements that complicate the task of making two lives into one marriage. Throughout this story, though, I thought: it must have been worth it at some point, even at some time in the past six years, or why would Dean and Cindy even try?
I was left thinking that it should not have been. I longed for Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, where, despite the decay that occurs in the love of Clem and Joel, with all the knowledge of how it all could fall apart, they still do it. Because the romantics of film and love and youth tell us all: the effort at love was worth it, in itself, regardless of the outcome. What makes Blue Valentine different is that it does not seem to think so.
The story unfolds, the inevitability starts to leak into the cracks. And my shock became lessened at the climax, the difficult, hard-felt, near manic iciness that exists in the movie starts to look like something that is necessary, the only outcome one would imagine if such a chance as this were taken. My wife and I found no tears at the story’s conclusion. I thought only of a hardened acknowledgment of reality: this was inevitable. The kind of reality from which we generally seek cinema to escape.
If for nothing else, despite how much it messed me up, and it did, I’m glad to have watched Blue Valentine. It reminds me how lucky I am that I’m happy. That is to say, I loved Blue Valentine.
Backwoods Netflix features reviews of obscure, strange, or underappreciated movies in the Netflix back catalog. Click for more in the Backwoods Netflix series.