Blue Valentine has a sweet story with a happy ending: It’s about a smart girl with an awful family and asshole boyfriend who meets a nice, caring guy who just wants to fall in love and make someone happy.
“Opposites Attract” is a standard theme in romance stories, from Romeo and Juliet to whatever movie Kate Hudson is starring in this month, and it’s at the centre of Blue Valentine: Cindy (Michelle Williams) is a smart, scholarly girl aiming for med school. Dean (Ryan Gosling) works for a moving company, and isn’t particularly career-minded. But he’s sweet and considerate – they meet when he’s helping an old man settle into his new home – and given that almost everyone Cindy knows is a horrible human being – her father is Major Rawls (John Doman), for god’s sake – he’s a calm harbour in her otherwise stormy life. She’s reluctant to open up to his advances, but eventually accepts that he has no ulterior motives: He only wants to make her happy. They overcome the obstacles in their way and live happily ever after.
Or not. In the real world, “Opposites Attract” is rather simplistic. Different personality types can complement one another, but sometimes people are just too different, and their lives are meant to go in different directions. Unless you’re one of those people who married your high school sweetheart and lived happily ever after (I both envy and pity you), you’ll have experienced this to some extent. Sometimes it comes out on the first date, sometimes it’s after you’ve been dating for five years.
Blue Valentine has a second story. It’s about two people who are married with a young daughter. He paints houses, she’s a nurse. They are miserable, resentful of each other, and only ever one small comment or action away from a fight. Twilight Zone Twist: It’s the same couple.
Needless to say, watching two people who love each other coming to realize they can’t be together makes Blue Valentine one of the bleakest, soul-crushing movies you’re likely to see. Williams and Gosling both bring rounded, likable, deeply flawed characters to the film; we want them to be happy together, even if we understand why it doesn’t work.There’s an interesting chicken-and-egg feeling to the film: The relatively happy early days make the tragic end all the more depressing, but knowing how it ends makes the beginning feel doomed.
Then I remember that the first story is pretty much Say Anything, and I get depressed again.
Ignore, for a moment, the surface differences between the two movies. Say Anything is a teen romance from 1989, while Blue Valentine almost got saddled with an NC-17. Neither John Cusack, charming though he may be, nor Ione Skye, who I always found endearingly wooden, are up to the thespian standards of the Blue Valentine stars. But they’re thematically similar: Say Anything, after all, is about a smart girl with a less-than-ideal family situation who meets a nice, caring guy who just wants to fall in love and make someone happy. They fall in love even though she’s “going to be part of an international think tank, and he’s going to be kicking punching bags.”
When Dean tells Cindy that all he wants out of life is to be a husband and a father, it’s eerily similar to Lloyd telling Diane’s father that his plans for the future are all based around spending time with Diane. In Say Anything, it’s kind of sweet, if simplistic. In Blue Valentine, it’s crushing: Dean has everything he wants (more or less), but settling for it means he can’t keep it.
Unlike most romantic comedies, Say Anything ends with a bit of ambiguity, with Lloyd and Diane taking a flight to London and the Great Unknown. “Nobody thinks this is going to work, do they?” Diane observes. But the story ends there, so we can think, yes, this is going to beat the odds. These two crazy kids are going to be the exception to the rule, they’re going to live a long and happy life together even if they have almost nothing in common. At least, that’s what I thought until I watched Blue Valentine. Now I’m worried.
Blue Valentine isn’t unique in its depiction of a relationship in crisis. Many of my favourite movies are about people falling out of love: Annie Hall, Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, 500 Days of Summer. Before Sunset was an effective 10-years-later look at the magical night of Before Sunrise; while it was ultimately an optimistic movie, it explored the emotionally crippling effect young love can have.
What sets Blue Valentine apart is that it is not ambiguous or optimistic. It is not better to have loved and lost than never to have loved at all; here, love will make you miserable. There is virtually no chance Dean and Cindy will be happy together in the future. This is the end and you’re going to have to accept it, even if it feels like being punched in the gut. The only optimism to be found here is that maybe, once Cindy and Dean are finally apart, they can move on with their lives. But we can’t see that day: Like Say Anything‘s hopeful ending, Blue Valentine traps us forever in the now, saddling us with the sorrow and misery of a failed marriage and a sad reminder of what it once was.
When Blue Valentine stops, there’s no happiness to be found. Resignation and acceptance are the best you can hope for, along with hurt, regret, exhaustion, and emptiness. Sometimes, you have to deal with the ending you get instead of the one you always dreamed you’d have.