“It ought to make us feel ashamed when we talk like we know what we’re talking about when we talk about love.” —Raymond Carver
Essentially, we’re hard-wired to root for love. We want relationships to work out, both onscreen and off. We want to believe couples make it, because we want to make it, too.
We want to meet cute. We want to fall, head over heels. We want to write songs and have songs written about us. We want to love and be loved. We want things to work out.
We want happily ever after, or at least a chance to believe that exists.
Which is exactly why a film like Blue Valentine is so hard to watch. Hollywood, long complicit in the perpetual fueling of our happily-ever-after fantasies, here turns around and slaps us in the face. This time, we get the whole story. The beginningandthe end, along with all the highs and lows between. It’s draining. It’s painful. It’s heartbreaking. And it’s also one of the finest relationship movies I’ve ever seen. Not because all relationships are awful—some are, some aren’t—but rather because, so often, they’re such hard work. And so rarely do we get to see that tremendously hard work—the messy and complicated rollercoaster of a living, breathing relationship—onscreen.
The toll that a life takes, together or alone. The way the years add up to a point where some days they outnumber the reasons to stay. The way keeping a family together takes everything you’ve got, but how you still have to wake up each and every morning and find a way to give a little bit more. The way cute becomes cloying, lust wears itself out, spontaneity gives way to endless routines.
And that silly, stubborn part of you that refuses to let it all go.
It’s like an old Raymond Carver story writ large for the silver screen: Decent and well-intentioned people accidentally imprisoning one another; a worn-down relationship coming apart at its seams; lost souls drinking a bit too much, caring for each other deeply, but never quite seeming to get it right; an innocent child caught in the midst of two colliding parental orbits.
Blue Valentine traces the flow of a particular relationship, showing you it’s bright flickering beginnings and it’s sad, hollowed-out, gut-punch ending. It follows Dean and Cindy’s courtship and conclusion in a non-linear fashion, alternating sublime scenes of their honeymoon-lit start together with claustrophobically sad scenes from the relationship’s final days. By doing so, the film highlights the painful inevitability of so many of these relationship dances we all try to do with partners that, in the end, are just not quite right for us, no matter how promising the relationship’s start. Blue Valentine is a seduction and a warning all at once, showing us the allure and danger of love in much the same way Trainspotting showed us heroin—how magical and soaring that first high, how awful and destructive the crash.
And yet most of us try to recapture the magic of love’s first high in some way. I’s not hard to see why: it’s a magic that moves mountains, creates art, starts wars; a balm that allows us to go on. At its very best, it’s a feeling of everything, finally, working out. An integration. A completion.
And to lose that—to have it and to know it and then to lose it—that takes something awful out of us. We are never quite the same. We recover, we go on, we heal, but we remember. We beat ourselves up with what-ifs and should-haves, trying to pin down the exact moment where it all went wrong. As if such a singular moment ever existed.
We regret being so vulnerable, putting ourselves out there, and we wonder if it’s ever worth risking ourselves, our hearts, again. (It is.)