In the opening moments of Derek Cianfrance‘s 2010 film Blue Valentine, we meet Dean (Ryan Gosling) and Cindy (Michelle Williams), two people stuck in a broken marriage. Their daughter Frankie appears to be the only thing keeping them together, and not even her presence can ease the strain on their relationship. Meanwhile, Dean’s immature attitude during the morning routine only makes things worse, undermining Cindy in front of Frankie and forcing her to be the only responsible adult in the room.
What follows is a collage of memories, as we cut back and forth between the early stages of their relationship and the final collapse of their marriage. Leading up to a crushing final scene in which Dean walks away from Cindy and Frankie for good. But as heartbreaking as this ending is, watching these two desperately broken people reconcile with years of resentment, it’s also the logical conclusion of everything we’ve just watched.
From their very first meeting, Dean’s actions raise a number of red flags. Before he even meets Cindy, Dean converses with a co-worker about love at first sight, confessing that “maybe I’ve seen too many movies.” Basically, he’s an old romantic type, although the cracks quickly begin to emerge when he meets Cindy. Their place of meeting, a home for the elderly where Cindy visits her grandmother, is hardly the most romantic of settings. And Dean’s immediate advances here are inappropriate, at best.
When their eyes first meet across the hallway, Dean collects his wages after helping Walter move in, and quickly goes on the defensive, asserting that he was not stealing from him. He proceeds to brag about how he could afford to take her out, ignoring her telling him to go away and jamming his foot in the door to continue talking to her. These unsolicited advances are of course huge red flags, but the fact that they come from a smiling Gosling (who still hadn’t fully shed his heartthrob image in 2010) helps the film hide them in plain sight.
Dean’s emotional immaturity leads him to quickly fall for Cindy, and even to tracking her down when she doesn’t return his calls. He goes back to the home under the guise of seeing Walter, asking after Cindy to her grandmother. When they do meet again, their interactions are surprisingly sweet, with little mention of how he effectively stalked her. A collection of scenes, including the famous song and dance moment, demonstrate Gosling and Williams’ tremendous chemistry and show the beginnings of Dean and Cindy’s relationship.
In many movies, Dean’s actions would be framed as perfectly normal ways of pursuing a romance. But by showing the endpoint of their marriage alongside this, the film highlights how unbalanced this relationship was from the beginning. Dean might seem like a “nice guy” on the surface, and a better alternative to Bobby, Cindy’s abusive boyfriend from the beginning of the film. But he’s just abusive in a quieter, more destructive way, and his actions when they first meet confirm what we already know– that this relationship will not be a healthy one. And the film’s willingness to deconstruct that idea is what sets it apart from so many others.
The most telling indication of this comes when Cindy discovers she is pregnant. She goes to visit Dean, who can tell something is up because of his apparent intuitiveness. And when she doesn’t tell him he recklessly climbs a railing, threatening to jump off a bridge. His childish manipulation works, but his reaction to her pregnancy is to shut her out and take his anger out by punching the same railing. This entitled behavior carries over into the present day scenes, where he acts like he deserves sex from Cindy, raping her and then acting like a saint for stopping. He gets defensive at the suggestion that his life could be more fulfilling and a part of him still holds his violent attack at the hands of Bobby against Cindy.
There, however, is a sense that these two people, at some point, did care deeply for one another. Although the place that both characters are in when they meet suggests that neither can be there for the other in the way they need. Dean and Cindy are both emotionally stunted in different ways– they both carry baggage from their upbringing and how their parents were to each other, which carries over into the way they navigate relationships in later life.
The film is even-handed in this sense, ensuring that we still care about these people and can relate to their desperate attempts to keep their doomed relationship afloat. And that the final gut punch lands on an emotional level, while also acknowledging the inevitability of this troubled and toxic relationship. Blue Valentine, then, is less a warning against the very idea of love, instead a reflection of how unstable and misguided relationships are often just not built to last. Which is still quietly devastating in its own way.