Friday, May 20, 2011

Blue Valentine: An atypical movie with a typical message

It’s been quite a while since I have written a movie review –lots of noteworthy movies have come out since Superman in 2006! -- but recently, M and I watched an independent film, which I cannot help but want to write about for so many reasons. “Blue Valentine,” is the story of a marriage at its sad conclusion. It has been hailed as a film that anyone who has been in love and fallen out in the end can relate to. In very vivid, sometimes more explicit than necessary, flashbacks, the film takes us back to the root of this failed relationship between Cindy (Michelle Williams) and Dean (Ryan Gosling), who are extremely convincing and effective in their roles, despite some very awkward moments shared onscreen. The contrast between the two young lovers who impulsively decide to get married sharing a tearful exchange of their vows and the married couple visibly aged and disenchanted six years later parting ways in total defeat could not be more stark.

The film is an obituary of a relationship that offers an uncomfortably intimate look into a marriage that was troubled before it began. The cause of death (in my estimation): impulsivity, a lifelong commitment made on the basis of feelings, selfishness, a lack of effort to reverse course and desire to make things right, and the absence of faith – factors all too common nowadays in an age where celebrities and mental health providers alike are proselytizing that marriage is no longer beneficial, realistic or advisable and where the divorce rate is alarmingly high, even among Christians.

From the opening of the film, it is clear that Dean’s proclivities, which may have once seemed charming now grate on Cindy’s nerves. The very first glimpse of Cindy, in which she is awakened by her husband and young daughter, who eagerly and playfully rouse her in her bed, reveals how unhappy, disenchanted, and bitter she has become. Dean, on the other hand, is content as a father and husband and with the fact that he can drink before going to work at 8 o’clock in the morning to paint houses. He has no ambition for the future apart from wanting more children and this clearly bothers Cindy who works as a nurse, having abandoned her youthful ambition to go to medical school, which, we learn, was the result of becoming a mother after an unplanned pregnancy (a choice she makes in the middle of attempting to undergo an abortion). It is obvious that Cindy has no respect for Dean and that the fact that his love for her and her child are all he desires out of life causes her to despise him. While it is easy to relate to some of Cindy’s misgivings about Dean, there is never any doubt that his love for his family is genuine. He admits that he never aspired to become a husband and a father but now takes pride in the fact that he honored those commitments and has become who he was meant to be. Who he has become is precisely what Cindy despises. Whereas their marriage and family represents Dean's identity, for Cindy, it embodies the loss of her own.

Over the course of the film, we learn that Cindy’s decision to have her daughter has resulted in a marriage premised on little more than that decision and a few brief encounters spent in reckless abandon between two teenagers in way over their heads. The feelings which marked her early relationship with Dean have turned into such disdain and resentment that she clenches her fists and squeezes her eyes shut during their lovemaking to the point where Dean feels so rejected that he can’t continue - a stark contrast to the sexual encounters that preceded their marriage, including an unnecessarily graphic scene, which lingers uncomfortably long – far longer than needed to make its point. Passive aggressiveness has replaced the passion Cindy once felt and the tenderness Dean once displayed and now seems to reserve mostly for their daughter. The more attentive to Cindy he is, the more she seems to despise him. We do not know what has led to these feelings but the glimpses we get of Dean make it easy to imagine what it is about Dean that Cindy finds it difficult to get past.

To say that Blue Valentine is raw and honest is an understatement -- too honest at times. While I understand the contrasts the director is attempting to draw and appreciate his artistic vision and desire to make the movie as true to life as possible, I wish that today’s filmmakers didn’t feel such an overwhelming need to showcase sexuality so graphically. All too often, such scenes add very little to a film (i.e., the unnecessary scenes in Black Swam which added nothing to the storyline that couldn’t have been conveyed without being so over-the-top and graphic). Hollywood will inevitably continue to push the envelope, but it seems to have reached a level where the public has become as de-sensitized to sex as it has become to violence and cursing. It is one thing that Blue Valentine’s NC-17 rating was downgraded to R. It is another that the viewing public has yawned at the downgrade and argued that the sexuality depicted is “not that bad.” In truth, many scenes in the movie are positively pornographic. I digress…

In an early scene in Blue Valentine, we learn that Cindy has inadvertently caused the death of the family’s dog, which in a rare moment brings the couple together in love as they hold each other and weep at their kitchen table. This is a sharp contrast to the exchange between the couple when they try to rekindle their romance – something Cindy obviously wants no part in – at a cheesy hotel in a room called very appropriately titled “the future room.” It is an even sharper contrast to the terms on which the couple leaves off. Their sorrow over the death of their dog seems greater than the sorrow experienced at the death of their marriage. Just as Cindy consoles Dean after the death of their dog, she consoles him at the death of their marriage, seemingly feeling nothing but certain that divorce is the only option available to her -- the only hope for her to regain her identity or reinvent herself in a life without him, a life not tied to a painful past or quite so many regrets.

The events leading up to the end include a chance encounter on the way to the “future” with a lover from Cindy’s past that gives more context to the father-daughter relationship between Dean and the couple’s little girl than the audience initially suspects. The emotional strain produced by the death of the family dog, this chance meeting which digs up so many past hurts and regrets, and the failed attempt at romance in the cheesy hotel room with the spinning bed, balloons into a violent confrontation at Cindy’s job which results in the end of Cindy’s career as she knows it, as well as the couple’s marriage later that day. In the final scene, we see the couple’s young daughter running after Dean, distraught that the only father she has ever known is being made to leave. While the audience is left with a remaining shred of hope that the characters may ultimately be reconciled to one another, the film gives very little reason to believe that this is a realistic possibility. Blue Valentine certainly conveys a very pessimistic view of love and moreover, of marriage.

While the film does reflect a lot of truth in the way that so many relationships nowadays conclude, sadly, the lesson seems to be that having children complicates good relationships, that marriage takes the fun out of sex, that love doesn’t last, and that individual happiness in the moment is far more important than providing a stable and loving home for children. It is not difficult to imagine that many viewers left the film thinking that if Cindy had gone through with the abortion, her life might have turned out better. How sad is that? The film arguably promotes the concept that marriage inevitably becomes an unbearable hell. While feelings undoubtedly change as surely as they wax and wane over time and in the midst of various circumstances, marriage was never meant to be premised on feelings or happiness alone. The message in popular culture nowadays seems to be that love is little more than a feeling undeniably intertwined with lust and that being in love (i.e. perpetual butterflies) is the primary purpose for becoming and staying married. This is not to say that feeling in love and feeling happy aren’t worthy purposes or a part of marriage but to say that they are the only purposes is an understatement of the greatest magnitude.

In typical movies, most movies, definitely not this one, we usually see the best parts of candy-coated relationship, perpetuating the idea that the best relationships are those defined by constant bliss. Those of us who have loved and gone through life or marriage know that love, marriage and life in general are rarely like that. So while I give the movie credit for attempting to be honest in showing that marriage has its drawbacks and creating something that feels real on so many levels, at the same time, I wish that it did not further promote the message that marriages naturally should end when the initial sparks fade.

Marriages that are able to survive the dark and troubled times grow stronger and the passion deepens over time and with experience and becomes something so much better and more beautiful than "butterflies." Still, I suspect that if the film had shown Cindy and Dean go through counseling, find faith in Jesus, commit to praying for their marriage and working through their problems, honoring their commitment to each other and their obligation to their child, and fighting for their family, it would be less dark, disturbing and thought provoking in the way it was intended to be.

The movie is beautiful precisely because it is dark and haunting; because it gets under your skin and makes you think. I imagine that it caused a lot of married couples facing difficult times to reflect on their own relationships and unique challenges. I can only hope it will not encourage the same outcome...

Blue Valentine was Rated R on appeal for strong graphic sexual content, language, and a beating; originally rated NC-17 for a scene of explicit sexual content.