Q: What’s the opposite of a rom-com? A: Blue Valentine, a saddening divorce-trag about the collapse of a seemingly strong relationship.
Michelle Williams and Ryan Gosling play Cindy and Dean, a young married couple whose once exciting relationship has been soured by the mundanity of life. In the early days their courtship was full of spontaneity and romance. They dance in the streets as he plays his ukulele and sings ‘all goofy’. They decide on their song, a soulful number called ‘You And Me’. But that was then. Now, she resents him for never disciplining their child and lacking ambition. He is angry that she never has time for him, either emotionally or physically. As the film develops it becomes clear that while he hasn’t changed, she is unrecognisable from the earlier stages of their relationship. Her roles as a midwife and a Mum completely eclipse her role as one half of a couple, and it almost seems as if, during the films’ myriad of flashback sequences, you are watching two different characters.
An excruciating scene where they try to rekindle their romance with a night in a motel is acted superbly. Previously the couple have merely seemed distant, perhaps because of tiredness. This is the first time that you realise that there is no longer any love there at all. As their song plays, the lyrics ‘You and me... nobody baby but you and me’ become a horrifying message of an eternity spent with the wrong person. As he tries to initiate sex, both in the shower and on the floor of the hotel room it is obvious that any attraction between them has been replaced by a sense of duty that they can no longer hide from.
The final scene uses the flashback to great effect, showing both their wedding day, and the day they decide to divorce. The day of their divorce is grey and mundane. She looks tired and old, standing by a kitchen sink, the epitome of the bored suburban housewife. He is begging with her and seems like a child, which is exactly why she can no longer be with him. Their wedding day is a complete contrast, lit by blinding sunlight, illuminating how full of joy they are. Both scenes show them crying, but while their wedding is tears of joy, their divorce has them crying tears of bitterness. The audience was welling up as well.
Blue Valentine’s closest companion would probably be 500 Days of Summer, but it lacks that film’s humour and warmth. From beginning to end, there is very little hope in the tale of this relationship, despite every person in the cinema was willing the couple to realise what got them together in the first place.
Excellent performances from Williams and Gosling, and the film’s great use of pacing, fail to make it an enjoyable watch. But then it’s not supposed to be. A bit like the central relationship, it’s a largely dispiriting endurance test of a film that will have you clenching your fists in frustration. Especially because, deep down, there’s still a spark there that means you can’t give up on it.