I like to think that Blue Valentine is not quite as morally reprehensible as it strikes me. To some degree, I know that to be true. This is an earnest attempt to portray two flawed humans with admirable familial intentions and the cold fact that sometimes things do not work out quite so well. We never see what causes the fallout between Dean (Ryan Gosling) and Cindy (Michelle Williams), but we see the courtship and the eventual dissolution of the marriage, so we can reasonably assume that maybe people occasionally get tired of each other. A more complex reading that Derek Cianfrance hints at thanks to his dovetailing of the two timelines is that every virtue may have a hidden vice that comes with it.
Largely, that’s true too. The highly-saturated flashbacks (shot on super 16mm, compared to the Red One of present scenes) show the same two people with the same two personalities in a happier time. Their fights are minor, short, and rare; his charm and happy-go-lucky nature liberate her. In the present, the contrast is much lower, everything is steeped in blue, and lighting is generally much lower. She sees those once-good traits as a lack of ambition, an excuse he uses to get drunk first thing when he wakes up. Very little has changed, but perception has morphed almost unrecognizably.
But Blue Valentine never dedicates itself to that level of intelligent duplicity. I have heard on multiple occasions that males tend to sympathize more with Cindy and females more with Dean. If the generalization holds true, it can be attributed to how monstrous both can be under more a more appealing guise. Males side with Cindy because Dean is exactly the person they tell themselves they will not become—controlling, inconsiderate, irresponsible—and, likewise, women distance themselves from Cindy’s bouts of coldness and secrecy. These characters are introduced with just enough good traits for us to see something of ourselves in them and then gradually vilified until there is no one to root for anymore. In the past’s most revealing and climactic scene, we turn against Cindy for her promiscuity and irresponsibility. In the present, we turn against Dean for his sudden and disproportionate rage. The male viewer thinks he would be better than Dean and avoid setting off Cindy; the female viewer thinks she would be far more open and get to Dean’s sensitive core.
And that’s where Blue Valentine falls into a most unusual pit. Michelle Williams’ note-for-note perfection actually works against her while Gosling’s more generalized and less believable acting paints his biggest mistakes as being “out of character.” When we see the horror and grief on Williams’ face, we believe it, but we also believe her when she is fiery and impatient. Gosling’s acting is far too close to the center line to make his more emotional moments affecting, so his fits of rage seem unusual rather than characteristic. In other words, she’s a bitch, and he’s having a bad day. This, and because Cianfrance and his co-writers, Cami Delavigne and Joey Curtis, make Dean the family man but pollute Cindy with hints of unfaithful temptation and less love for the couple’s daughter gives Blue Valentine a soft but unmistakable misogyny. Cindy is not given the same consideration Dean is. We see much more of him in the past than her, and so Cindy’s comparably shallow character is villainous.
But characters as a whole are a problem for Blue Valentine. Dean acts like a child while Cindy swings suddenly, without motivation, from love to frustration. Expectedly, both are plagued with childhood issues: Cindy’s parents are unhappily married and Dean has barely spoken to his mother since he was 10. The characters are clichéd models for troubled youth, devoid of specificity, and so there generalized troubled marriage does not speak loudly for anyone. It’s a problem that a film with three writers and two actors improvising much of their dialogue should not have, but because Gosling is so heavily outclassed by Williams once again bogs down the film. She will say something, and he can only say it back as a question. When at a loss, he opts for profanity. Never do they sound like a real couple, never does the relationship feel real, and never do we get the feeling that the film is as much about youth as it wants to be. Whether she’s still in med-school or they are in their mid-late 20s with a child, everything feels routine, never quite as happy or urgent as that part of the story wants it to be. Gosling’s too-cool version of Dean, with slicked back hair, tattoos, and aviator sunglasses is never as real as Williams’ working-woman/mother who is largely written out in favor of shallow dramatization.
What we are left with is a smartly-directed film that falls apart thematically. The visual contrast between the past and present is intuitive and the long takes add realism to a story that demands it. But in the end, interpretation largely fluctuates between two equally bothersome morals. Either the working woman ruins the family because she does not let the father’s laziness (and alcoholism) run rampant or it otherwise looks like an educated, ambitious person like Cindy should never stoop to “love” with a less fortunate and financially insecure slacker. For all its good intentions, Blue Valentine is ultimately a bereft game of “pick your poison.”
It’s worth noting that Michelle Williams starred in a much better game of “pick your poison” in Sarah Polley’s Take This Waltz.