Dead Dogs and Divorce: A Look at Blue Valentine

February 18, 2011 § 1 Comment

In the climax of his sophomoric novel A Farewell to Arms, Ernest Hemingway says, “When you love, you wish to do things for. You wish to sacrifice for. You wish to serve.” However, the bleak room of an east coast “theme motel” reeking of vodka and broken hearts paints a different picture. It’s a scene from Blue Valentine, in which we, the audience, witness the death of love.  However, I don’t think, “witness” really captures the essence of the scene. Perhaps “experience” is a better word.  After all, the term we fetchingly call “escapism” is nowhere to be found in this beautiful mess. Because, when it comes down to it, this film is in no way an escape. To put it delicately, it’s an invasion of privacy, and that is why it’s so captivating.

Blue Valentine is a cautionary tale that asks its audience, “Is this you?” Director Derek Cianfrance explores the dichotomy of the 21st century relationship with Dean and Cindy (Ryan Gosling and Michelle Williams), a married couple raising their five-year-old daughter in upstate New York. From the beginning of the film, it’s clear that their marriage is teetering on the edge of disaster, an obvious indicator being the short-lived character of Meagan, the family dog. Although only seen as a post rigor mortis corpse, Meagan provides the cataclysmic event that brings about the couple’s inevitable divorce.  The proposed event is her untimely death, and Dean’s subsequent attachment to her.  And while that’s not to say that dead dogs are prime factors in the causation of divorce, it’s a representation of the snowball effect, showing minor problems escalating into drastic measures.  It’s simple cause and effect logic, which at its core is the general structure of the film itself.

Within that structure lies the challenge that our characters face: for better or worse.  Better, in that, interspersed throughout the story is the subtext of how the couple fell in love, and subsequently married.  And, while those sweet and tender moments show us how fun and anomalous love is at the beginning of a relationship, it’s not what makes the film so enthralling. What makes the story resonate is actually the Worse.  Dean and Cindy are fighting, not just with each other, but also for the preservation of love. They’re fighting to keep it alive.  Because really, when it comes down to it, love is anthropomorphic; it’s a living, breathing entity.  Like every Joe Schmo in the world, it’s born out of curiosity, has it’s high and low points, subsequent character flaws, and at it’s weakest moment, if not cared for, it will breath it’s last breath.

In a typical love story, these characters would be the proponents of the idyllic nuclear family.  However, Blue Valentine isn’t in any sense a typical love story. In fact, it’s quite the opposite.  It’s the assumption that love is no longer the force to be reckoned with that it once was, but rather a reconnaissance mission.  A test run if you will, to see what would happen if we truly trusted another person with our heart. Yet even more so, it’s the revelation that the idyllic nuclear family no longer exists.  In that sense, Dean and Cindy are the visual depiction of that ideal.  They are the act of service; caring for, and supporting one another in the “better” times, yet simultaneously, they are the casualties of their own sacrifice; letting their love dissipate in the cavalcade of emotion that is hardship.  At one point in the film, Dean says, “I didn’t want to be somebody’s husband and I didn’t want to be somebody’s dad, that wasn’t my goal in life. But somehow it was.”  “Somehow,” is a strong word. Sadly, it’s not strong enough to save a crumbling marriage.

The brilliance of Blue Valentine is that, try as you might, you can’t convince yourself that it’s just a movie.  It’s a knife that cuts both ways. It’s the gut wrenching thought that the characters on screen aren’t really characters at all. They’re you. They’re us. They’re people. In the end, the ugliness inside them is not a work of fiction; it’s human. It’s tangible.  And, It’s terrifying to watch.  It’s not a story of true love, but rather a true depiction of love and sacrifice.  In that sense, it teaches us that perhaps the greatest sacrifice lovers can make is the act of love itself.  Perhaps the greatest sacrifice the film makes is that it doesn’t provide any answers, only questions. Such is life.

By Zack Campbell, Staff Film Writer.

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