(Spoilers and the c-word ahead.)
Blue Valentine is a mirror image of (500) Days of Summer. Both tell the story of a relationship’s rise and fall; both hop back and forth in time. The latter movie, a comedy, front-loaded the joy of the beginning of the relationship, then showed most of that joy to be one-sided. It had a great feel for infatuation but had less to say about sorrow, and ended up something of a slight novelty item because of that.
Blue Valentine makes its bed in the grim end of the marriage. The joy of the relationship is long gone in the present-day scenes, which unfold in Aristotelian compactness in a very bad 24-hour period that include a badly fumbled attempt at sexual connection (in the wake of a dog’s death!) and a raving, violent blow-up. But the “happy” early days, spread over a long courtship, already crack under the weight of foreshadowed misery. Even at his most charming — for example, persuading Michelle Williams’ Cindy to dance to a Tin Pan Alley tune on the ukulele — Ryan Gosling’s Dean is obviously a bad bet.
Dean is slippery and defensive, using apparent vulnerability as a shield and a weapon to always maintain an advantage. Another Peter Pan figure, his playfulness captivates Cindy, but even at the start there’s an edge: he starts off with a classic neg, “In my experience the prettier a girl is, the more nuts she is. Which makes you insane.” She sees right through it, saying “I like how you can compliment and insult someone at the same time. In equal measure,” but he’s in.
His manipulations don’t let up. In a present-day scene, set over breakfast, Cindy tries to summon him back to his better self. “Why don’t you do something?” she asks, a little insensitively. He pounces. “What does that mean? Why don’t I do something?” As she imagines genuinely fulfilling pursuits for him, he rejects her initial assumptions:
Listen I didn’t wanna be somebody’s husband and I didn’t wanna be somebody’s dad. That wasn’t my goal in life. For some guys it is… Wasn’t mine. But somehow, I’ve found what I wanted. I didn’t know that and now it’s all I wanna do… I don’t want to do anything else, it’s what I want to do. I work so I can do that.
Cindy asks if he doesn’t feel he’s squandering his potential, and Dean twists “potential” into an accusation that every pursuit must be monetized. It’s Dean at his worst — he presents himself as a kind of open-minded “new man” while he’s really arguing in bad faith to avoid uncomfortable emotional connection.
This scene also brings out one of the least discussed aspects of the movie, which is both microscopically intimate and impressively social. However, the critics I’ve read have avoided the social parts of it. Dean’s stew of self-loathing has a base of uncertain masculinity. There’s something honorable in his rejection of masculine expectation, but without a model to replace it, he’s an asshole.
In a long interview in Salon after the publication of Indecision in 2005, Rebecca Traister and Benjamin Kunkel riffed on the very situation Dean finds himself in, investigating a “broader sense of male apathy” that “has to do with the difficulty of finding something that seems meaningful to do in the world.” Kunkel sees men foundering in the gains of feminism:
I suppose because the fact that nearly the whole universe of jobs is open to women is a tremendous gain in possibility for them. For men, there’s been no corresponding gain. In fact, we live in this world that for reasons that are kind of hard to explain, [though] I think Hannah Arendt has gone some distance in explaining them, it seems that meaningful action is harder to take than it has been in previous historical times. I think this is the sense even of people who have no historical sense. It’s something that they feel.
and Traister wonders about
a crisis of masculinity in our generation, a generation in which opportunities were truly available to at least middle-class women. We weren’t just told we could do anything; we were expected to do everything. But we were always told how difficult that would be, that we would confront challenges and pay high prices for our satisfactions. I don’t know that men of our generation were sent the same message. So when things get tough, women don’t enjoy it any more than men, but they are not surprised. Whereas men — at least some of the ones I’ve known — have been paralyzed by life’s hardships.
To really aggrandize these generalizations we’ve been making, you could claim that a great historical crossover has occurred, that a sense of tragic, dignified realism has become the [mark] of femininity while men have become head-in-the-clouds dreamers who want things to be ideal if they’re to be at all.
This is precisely what’s going on here. Critics have raised eyebrows at Dean’s ukulele playing, a fashionably hipster choice pasted on a character who’s supposed to be genuinely working-class. Blue Valentine explains it reasonably well — Dean’s father was a janitor who loved music. It’s not hard to imagine this father as a paragon of an earlier, stoic manliness, a union member with health benefits who could support a family in a blue-collar, menial job and add music to his head-of-household duties to fashion a self. But Dean can’t.
Cindy knows it. In the movie’s climax. Dean confronts her at her workplace, and she lays right into his manliness in the harshest terms possible. “Fuck you, fuck you! I’m more man than you are, you fucking cunt.” Dean responds by admitting how lost he is — “What is it with this shit and being a man? What is that? What does it even mean?!” and whipsawing into a vulgar, brutish masculinity, wrecking the office and punching Cindy’s boss.
Blue Valentine shows a couple lost in the swirl of unstable gender roles. Dean struggles to tailor manliness to his own needs with a patchwork of semi-responsible stay-at-home fatherhood, intermittent employment, vague artistic gesturing, and violent aggression. It’s a bad fit.
Cross-posted with longer, cool-looking screenplay excerpts at Joshua Malbin