It would be cliched and redundant to say that Blue Valentine is a heartbreaking film. That much is clear from its title. It is heartbreaking, devastating, a punch-to-the-gut… all that. Yes. But this is also a deeply observant film, with things to say not just about one couple and their problematic relationship, but about how we as a culture (or at least a particular segment/generation of it) think about things like romance, chivalry, marriage, love.
Valentine is about a young couple in contemporary New York who fall in love, and then find it hard to maintain. He (Ryan Gosling) is an idealistic romantic who likes art, music, dancing, and works jobs doing physical labor so that he can afford his real purpose in life: Being a dad and husband. She (Michelle Williams) likes the same things he does, but is a bit more practical. She values stability. She cares about conventional things as well as ukulele dancing, and ultimately wants a husband to be not only loving, but also ambitious. As a couple, the signs of their future discord are evident from the outset, as obvious as is the genuine nature of their attraction to one another. They fall in love, for good reasons… As anyone does. And the struggles they eventually face are familiar, not unique to them. Do they make all the right choices? No. Do they give up too easily on their marriage? Perhaps. I think it’s clear that Blue Valentine doesn’t view its characters or their choices as perfect or prescriptive. We’re not meant to absolve these characters of their conduct, but neither are we meant to judge. It’s not a morality tale.
What it is is an observation of two people trying to live out a real romance in a world that serves up fictional narratives of love at every turn–a world where hearts and valentines and love stories are ubiquitous, pumped into our bloodstream from birth through an unceasing IV drip of romantic comedies, Disney princesses, soap operas and love songs. It’s a world of dissonance between the romanticized love-as-escapism on one hand and the lived reality (divorced parents, rampant infidelity, porn) of love-as-disappointment on the other. Keenly savvy to the dissonance, younger generations approach love with a necessary bit of detachment and irony, no less entranced by the emotions of romance as their parents were, but perhaps with lower expectations from the outset. “Marriage” is more a romantic trope than a meaningful sacrament.
In Blue Valentine, Gosling and Williams play out their romance against the backdrop (literally) of idealized, quaintly nostalgic romantic iconography. In the film’s key scene–the moment when the couple’s bond is sealed–Gosling plays “You Always Hurt the One You Love” on his ukulele while Williams does a little tap dance in front of the windows of what looks like a 1950s wedding boutique. Here they are, having an unconventional little romantic moment of self-proclaimed goofiness, while a vintage wedding dress and tux stare down at them from their grandparents’ generation. Earlier in the film, both Gosling and Williams have moments of interacting with elderly men and women, questioning them about their experiences of love, looking at faded photos and lockets of lovers from a simpler time. These moments are characterized by earnest appreciation and nostalgia, not cynicism, but they are nevertheless moments in which lines are drawn between “the way things were” and “the way things are,” with perhaps a faint outline of “the way we’d like things to be.”
As much as these characters take pleasure in admiring the conventions of old-school love and marriage (especially Gosling), they know it’s not necessarily for them–at least not in the same way. Instead, their love is ardently unconventional, full of quirky dates and ironic nights at kitschy “future”-themed love motels, a courthouse wedding that includes a blue vintage leisure suit and a pregnant bride. The unconventional, oddball nature of it feels like a defense mechanism, as if their uncharted, different-from-the-rest romance inoculates it against the patterns of failure that seem so otherwise inevitable. Of course this isn’t the case, sadly, and the unraveling of the romance plays out far more conventionally.
Blue Valentine doesn’t offer any breakthroughs on the secret to love’s success, which it shouldn’t be faulted for. Nor should it be faulted for being cynical or bleak (I would contend it is neither). Insofar as I can see, all it aspires to be is a film about two particular modern-day American youths who, in the way they talk and flirt and think through love and romance, represent a broader swath of modern-day American youth. And to that it succeeds unquestionably.
Ryan Gosling and Michelle Williams are the absolute perfect actors to play these parts. Two of the best actors of their age, Gosling and Williams represent both the ardent idealism and the world-weary skepticism of their generation, and have played those parts, respectively, before (he in Half Nelson, she in the stellar Wendy & Lucy). In Blue Valentine, amidst ubiquitous American flags, meatloaf, fireworks and city skylines, they lend a potent realism to the melodrama of the classic American love story, subverting it even while they salute it, joyful and mournful in equal measure.