Dir. Derek Cianfrance. USA. 2010.

Talking Pictures alias







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If you are just starting out in a relationship and are looking for a primer on what doesn't work, you need not look any further than Derek Cianfrance's Blue Valentine, an intimate look at the disintegration of a marriage that often feels more like an artistic concept than an organic experience. Outstandingly performed by Ryan Gosling and Michelle Williams as the challenged couple, the film bounces around from the happy beginning of their relationship to its bitter last stages, where instant oatmeal becomes a metaphor for childish rage and all the viewer is left to do is to pick raisins off the table. 

Dean is a working class guy whose career path has gone from helper at a moving company to house painting, while the more upwardly mobile Cindy is a nurse who has gone to medical school. They live with their 6-year old daughter, Frankie (Faith Wladyka), (a child that is not his) in an unimposing suburban house in Pennsylvania. When we first see them, tension boils to the surface when Cindy, a late arrival to Frankie's school recital, tells Dean that she has discovered the family dog lying dead on the roadside after he escaped and ran out into the street. Instead of comforting her and talking about how to break the news to their six-year-old, he chastises his wife for leaving the gate open, which brings on tears.

While the film provides no information of what has transpired in the last six years of their marriage, we can surmise that his reaction is indicative of how small transgressions have been ballooned into major incidents. Shot with a hand-held camera, the only happy moments seem to have been when they first met in Brooklyn. Dean sees Cindy at the residence where she is visiting her grandmother and is immediately struck by her charm and her good looks. Though she does not call him after he leaves his card with her, they meet again on a bus a short time later and begin a relationship that at first is playful and spontaneous. 

He serenades her on a dark street with his ukulele as she dances to the music which is prophetically, “You Always Hurt the One You Love”. She sees in him qualities of caring as shown by his willingness to raise the child that Cindy is pregnant with as his own. His good qualities become less endearing, however, when he begins to drink and fails to do anything creative with his life. In a futile effort to rekindle the spark, they leave Frankie with her grandparents and book a motel room just to get out of the house. Their hopes of a nice quiet evening of drinking and making love in the cheesy motel's blue “Future Room” are dashed when their lovemaking brings to the surface their fears and insecurities. 

Blue Valentine offers no message or food for thought and can be quite depressing. From what we can see and our information is often scanty, the warring couple seem to have no interests in common, never share their feelings with each other, and do not become involved with the world outside of themselves. More importantly, whining and complaining substitutes for empathy and understanding. They don't listen to each other and their communication has little nuance or attempt to break through the other's defenses. What is lacking is the understanding that though a relationship has its ups and downs, if the ground of being is one of love and commitment, then beyond the thoughts and the feelings that come and go, that commitment will always be there, ready to be called upon when needed. 

In Sonnet #116, Shakespeare said, “Love is not love which alters when it alteration finds, or bends with the remover to remove: O, no! It is an ever-fixed mark that looks on tempests and is never shaken.” That experience is not automatically there, however, but is something that must be recreated every day. What is missing in Dean and Cindy's marriage is not only affection and gentle kindness, but that sense of commitment, the experience that the words “for better or worse, till death do us part” are not just an empty promise, but a solemn vow that remains “the star to every wandering bark.”


Howard Schumann

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