Hollywood Romances and Blue Valentine

The Dichotomy of Marriage as Portrayed in Hollywood Romances and Blue Valentine

By: Jacqueline Justice

Writer-director Derek Cianfrance employs a sense of alarming realism uncharacteristic of the modern portrayal of romance in his 2010 film Blue Valentine. He brings up questions of what marriage has come to mean in this age, and what society now expects from a marriage. Refusing to make a bold moral statement either supporting or contradicting the norm of marriage, he rather presents a less-idealized portrayal of love, sex, and marriage, placing both spouses in equal roles of fault. His presentation allows the viewer to determine his or her own interpretation of modern romance and marriage, inviting the question of whether Hollywood’s representation of said concepts skews reality.

The reality Cianfrance aims to portray is in harsh contrast to that of modern day Hollywood. Hollywood tends to focus on unmarried couples; as a research study of R-rated films of the 1980s discovered, sex between unmarried couples was depicted 32 times for every one time between married couples.[1] However, the interactions between couples are not limited to sex; Hollywood seems to eschew depictions of marriages altogether. Carnegie Mellon University Professor, David Shumway explains modern film trends, stating: “marriage is presented as difficult and likely to fail, yet happy marriage remains at the least the implicit goal of the characters depicted”.[2] The concept of marriage is not shunned, but merely pushed into an idealistic corner that has no need to be displayed on film, since it presents little controversy. Viewers enjoy and thrive off of the tension between unmarried couples, and marriage is romanticized as an end goal after the couple has worked through any problems, which usually serve as the primary plot vehicles for the film. The kinds of relationship stories produced at any point in time, whether films, novels, or music, all have a tendency to reflect the relational norms of the given epoch.

Film scholar Virginia Wright Wexman asserts that Hollywood films are “modeling appropriate courtship behaviors”.[3] Although this statement is accurate in the sense that society takes many lesson taught by movies as guidance for life, this system, by nature is flawed. Shumway explains, “The physical beauty and glamour of the stars reinforce the allure of the romance that their films typically portray… theatrical films are experienced apart from mundane reality, in this case literally apart in a special darkened space where both sight and sound are larger than life’.[4] Cianfrance attempts to avoid this creation of a separate idealized sphere by allowing Blue Valentine to take place in a true-to-life environment and circumstance. The two main characters, Cindy and Dean, live in a realistic lower-middle class setting, meet in a non-cliche and over-romanticized way, and have major personality flaws. The characters are not portrayed as perfect or particularly beautiful or glamorous. In fact, both Cindy and Dean are both shown many times in an unfavorable light. Dean is featured smoking in nearly every scene where tension exists, placing him in a negative light by today’s standards. Although smoking has occurred almost consistently the same amount in movies as 50 years ago, typically only minor characters or those presented negatively are shown smoking.[5] By allowing Dean to smoke throughout the movie, Cianfrance shows Dean’s struggles with addiction and creates him as an imperfect and flawed character. Furthermore Dean’s reliance on alcohol to get him through not only tough moments but also through the every day also presents him negatively. When Cindy questions his need to start drinking before work every morning, he replies, “No, I have a job that I can drink at 8 o’clock in the morning. What a luxury… you know?”.[6] His dependency on alcohol displays not only a significant flaw, but also a divergence from the traditional Hollywood romance story.

However, this departure from glamorized romance runs much deeper within the movie than just the flawed characters. The striking contrast between the clips of the couples meeting and dating, and the clips of them in present day are evidence of this attempt to break with the tradition of idealization. Cianfrance intentionally created a sharp dissimilarity by filming the older scenes on film, as he explained, “The idea was about two people filling a frame, coming together as one, and when you’re rolling an 11-minute load of 16mm, you get the sense that the clock is ticking and you have to make something happen,” which worked to portray the giddy spontaneity of the couple falling in love.[7] Conversely, he shot the present-day scenes on video enabling him to film scenes repeatedly until he conveyed the effect for which he was aiming.

In the early scenes of the couple, Cianfrance focused on setting the actors up to act naturally and reflect authentic feelings, rather than forced and simulated ones. He encouraged improvisation rather than sticking to a script, which is shown in 1:09:10 when Dean tries to jump off of the Manhattan Bridge to coerce Cindy into telling him her secret. Cianfrance explains that he instructed Michelle Williams, the actress playing Cindy, to not tell her secret, no matter what Ryan Gosling, playing Dean, did, and instructed Ryan to do whatever he could to get the secret out of her. The scene contained real fear and distress, as Michelle did not expect Ryan to climb the fence, and because he had no kind of safety equipment on in the event that he fell .[8] This allowed an element of genuine surprise and danger that combined makes for an enticing clip of the film that is both believable and unexpected. Furthermore, Cianfrance uses this technique to create a lighthearted and spontaneous expression of love, when Cindy and Dean are first meeting and getting to know each other. Gosling refers to the scenes when the pair first meets and wanders around the city saying, “Derek said, ‘I’m going to follow you around from sunup to sundown and watch you get to know each other.’ None of it was scripted, it all happened originally”.[9] In these moments, showcasing the process of Cindy and Dean falling in love, Cianfrance aims to capture the carefree spontaneity that reflects the indescribable notion of love itself.

While the carefree improvisation encouraged a youthful portrayal of the young couple, the tactics Cianfrance uses to mold the actors into the tired, jaded, and brutally honest characters they portray in the latter half of their relationship necessitated a shift in direction strikingly different from the beginning scenes. Cianfrance had the couple live together for a month, after filming the early scenes, in the same house the fictional couple in the film inhabits. They were given a budget, estimated based on the salaries of both characters’ jobs and ended up having to live off of $200 for two weeks of groceries, including feeding their daughter in the movie, actress Faith Wladyka. Cianfrance aimed to have the couple really know each other and learn what it was like to become annoyed with one another, so that when they had to act frustrated with each other, they would have already experienced it. “By the time we started rolling cameras for the present they had a history. There’s nothing like having to do the dishes to erode a relationship,” Cianfrance shares.[10] Although he trivializes the day-to-day life the actors faced while living together, Gosling shares the depth it created saying, “You can feel that we lived the life in that house. We weren’t pretending”.[11] Williams explained the setup saying, “Our relationship sprung from finding the small behaviors that drive us crazy about each other”.[12] Cianfrance’s vision of creating a real relationship between the actors gave the movie a huge sense of reality, particularly in the careful crafting of preexisting circumstances that allowed the actors to improvise emotions that they either had felt when living together, or knew they would feel if they were in the characters’’ circumstances. This distinction is the powerful force that separates this film from the typical Hollywood romance story.

While much of the movie was unscripted and improvised, an equal amount was meticulously scripted and repeatedly filmed to perfection. For the most part, the earlier scenes of the couple falling in love are improvised, while the up to date scenes are scripted and painstakingly directed. The shower scene at 38:38 in the sex motel took two entire days to film. This occurs at a point in their relationship where Cindy and Dean feel both emotionally and physically distant and uninterested in one another, so Dean’s solution is reserving a room in this motel that is intended to spice up their sexual relationship. Cianfrance describes the process of filming the scene saying, “it was just kind of awkward and maybe a little cutesy and a little self conscious. But after being in that shower for two days it was not really fun anymore for them, and something else gave way”.[13] Pushing the actors to the point of extreme discomfort and vulnerability set up a scene that displayed the misery that the characters are expressing in the film. However, this did not occur without taking a toll on the actors, as Williams explains, “Those are two days that I would like to forget. It meant finding the most unflattering parts of myself and exposing them. I had to will myself to go back to work on those days”.[14] After living together for a month, Williams and Gosling had a deeper understanding for one another, so the intimate and awkward scenes were no longer just acting with strangers, but rather acting with someone they both knew well. This tension made the scenes more uncomfortable and difficult to bear for the actors, but added a heightened sense of feeling and uneasiness that perfectly depicted the emotion of the scene. In this aspect, it is apparent that Cianfrance, and the actors alike made difficult sacrifices for the authenticity of the movie. Gosling sums up his sentiments saying, “At one point I said, ‘Can’t we just make a movie and call it “Valentine”? Do we really have to get into the messy stuff?”.[15] Without struggling through difficult scenes that created an authentic depiction of a failing marriage, the film would be yet another cliched Hollywood tale of a falsely romanticized relationship.

There is a stark difference between the portrayals of sexual encounters in the early phases of the relationship and the end of the relationship.The earlier scenes represent the standard Hollywood representation of sex in an idealized romance film. At 1:05:48, the film shows Dean performing oral sex on Cindy in a romanticized fashion. The lighting is dim and their clothes remain on, so all physical imperfections are hidden. Furthermore, there are no awkward moments between the pair, as the whole sequence flows smoothly.[16] Cindy shows signs of enjoyment and giggles throughout, making Dean begin laughing as well. This picturesque sequence represents the ideals of over-perfected romance blockbusters. Nonetheless, Cianfrance refuses to leave the viewer with this impression of sex, but instead includes lengthier scenes from the present-day which portray a more realistic, but also difficult to watch depiction of sex. In the shower scene that the cast explained as being difficult to film, Dean tries to perform oral sex on Cindy, but she harshly demands him to get up and continues to shower, ignoring him and his efforts to be romantic.[17] Pairing these two representations of sex in one film, Cianfrance makes an incoherent hybrid of what sex looks like, and shows a foil to the idealized Hollywood version of it. This theme of foiling Hollywood’s unrealistic depictions of relationships occurs throughout the film and is done by including both scenes from the courting period and scenes from the marriage.

Cianfrance’s need to show marriage as flawed shows the bits of a relationship that Hollywood refuses to depict and the aspects of marriage that society overlooks. His commitment to creating authenticity and realism in his depiction of marriage is reflected throughout the film. His intentions for making the film were to help him understand his life and idea of romance and marriage, as he explains of his parents’ divorce when he was 20, “It was so confusing to me that I decided to confront it with a film and just started writing it”.[18] Not only are Cianfrance’s parents divorced, but so are both Williams’ and Gosling’s, along with the two other co-writers of the film, so this issue of broken relationships held special importance to the writers and cast members alike. With this experience in mind, Cianfrance aimed to portray each character equally at fault since this is what he saw in his parents’ divorce. “With my own parents, there was no villain in their relationship, but there was a lot of pain. It’s hard when someone breaks up to not point blame at one or the other,” Cianfrance explained.[19] In Blue Valentine Cianfrance aimed to create each character as nonpartisan as possible, blaming neither for the failure of their marriage, as Gosling explains, “Derek tried very hard to make it even, not slanted one way or the other. I think however you feel about it says more about you than it does the character”.[20] This set up allows the audience to determine whatever conclusion they want, and instead of speaking to each character’s flaws, it speaks to the flaws in the concept of marriage.

The concept of marriage is not independent from its representation in films, as it has changed in ideology and purpose with every new generation, which is often accurately depicted in the literature or film of the time. The idea of monogamy did not become the common practice until the tenth century.[21] Shumway explains the beginning of romance saying, “Romance emerged as a counterdiscourse representing at least a theoretical alternative to the repressive character of officially sanctioned marriages among the aristocracy”.[22] However, in Capellanus’s 12th-century treatise, The Art of Courtly Love he dictated the love had no place between the husband and the wife.[23] In the 17th century, the “companionate marriage” was valued as marriage “based mainly on temperamental compatibility with the aim of lasting companionship” that emphasized “friendship or affection rather than passion as its basis”.[24] Romance was beginning to become a popular and enticing concept that was included in literature, but not one that was necessitated in marriage. The literature and films of the late 19th and 20th centuries unite romance and marriage in a more apparent way than the two concepts had ever been paired together before, as this concept became popular in society as well.[25] As Shumway explains, “The new vision of romantic marriage engendered expectations that many marriages did not fulfill, in part because romance offered no vision of how marriage might fulfill them”.[26] This new concept of a marriage based upon romance ultimately values one’s own happiness over anything else, as the very idea of romance works only in fulfilling its beholder. Movies support the ideology that marriage should include romance – instead of representing marriage as sacrificial for the sake of the community – they show marriage geared towards one on personal happiness. Shumway even explains several research studies that cite the “expectations engendered by romance” as the cause of failed marriages.[27]

This placement of value on oneself paired with the lost necessity of marriage, once needed for economic reasons has caused a divorce crisis in the past century. Sociologist Francesca Cancian explains that even the early 19th century advocated the Victorian value of romance which means “the husband and wife were likely to share a more formal and wordless kind of love, based on duty, working together, mutual help, and sex”.[28] Shifting from this ideology, the new idea of marriage, particularly in response to the fleetingness of its permanence evoked the discourse of intimacy, a new ideology defined by an emotional closeness based on verbal communication, rather than a relationship that assumes the role of formal and sexual encounters solely. The word intimacy has come to mean the classic connotation of romance, an unexplainable emotional closeness that may include, but isn’t confined to sexual relations, but is instead focused on the idea of love. The term “relationship” did not emerge until the 1960s, as prior to then, the existence of an intersexual friendship other than marriage was almost obsolete. Because of this transition to the existence of a relationship outside of marriage, film has followed the trend and as Shumway describes, “The new film genre ‘the relationship story,’ takes the non-marital relationship as its focus”.[29] Hollywood focuses on this new relationship as the focus for their love stories, avoiding the representation of marriage altogether. Although Cianfrance shows the courtship scenes that Hollywood favors, he counters them with the realistic actualities of marriage that are rarely depicted.

His inclusion of these actualities allows for the mundane and monotonous struggles of daily life to be exhibited and to be taxing on the couple’s marriage. By having the actors live together on a budget, Cianfrance forces them to deal with the trying moments that economic and day-to-day life problems put on marriages, from monetary struggles to determining who does the dishes. This brings up the remnants of the pre-modern idea of marriage as solely supporting the family system from an economic standpoint. While the stresses of this idea still exist, new strains are put on marriage by necessitating romance as the determining factor in the formation of a marriage and the reason for holding it together. Cianfrance accurately depicts the struggles in both the romantic and economic realm, possibly realms that accentuate the severity of the other, furthering the crevices they form in the relationship.

The failed romance seems to occur because of drastic differences between Dean and Cindy in their standards and goals for their lives. While Cindy aspires to go to medical school and works as a nurse, Dean is content working blue-collar work for his whole life. Dean’s explanation is seeing that his primary job is taking care of his family, as he explains, “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”.[30] Furthermore, he sees their sexual relationship as a means to making a family as he says, “You wanna have another baby with me? You wanna make another baby with me? I wanna have another baby with you,” when he begins seducing her, emphasizing his idea of sex as means for procreation.[31] But Cindy prioritizes her job, demonstrated at 1:16:33 when she leaves the sex motel to go into work, neglecting her sleeping husband. Ultimately, the contemporary notion of valuing oneself over any other concern is the decisive factor that causes the split in values and eventually the family.[32] Dean prioritizes the family as that is where he derives his happiness, but Cindy’s prioritization of her career does not devalue her commitment to her family, but instead her compatibility with Dean.

Cianfrance uses the interactions between Cindy and Dean when they first meet to show the existence of love and the intense emotions it can encompass. However, he brings in the actualities of modern society by featuring the happenings and interactions of everyday life – like their dog, Megan being run over by a car, Cindy being called into work at 6am while on “vacation”, and being late and rushed in bringing their daughter Frankie to school. Furthermore, he shows the weight that the past holds on dictating each character’s life in the present. When Cindy inquires about relationships and what to do when feelings disappear to her grandma, her grandma replies, “I think the only way you can find out is to have the feeling. You’re a good person, Cindy, I think you have the right to say, ‘Yes I do trust…I trust myself”.[33] While her grandmother is talking, clips of her parents fighting fill the screen, as Cindy’s dad yells at her mom and throws a fit because the dinner she made does not meet his standards. Seeing this kind of abusive relationship and the lack of love in her grandmother’s has set little precedent for her relationship. This is apparent when she tells the nurse at the abortion clinic that she was 13 when she first had sex and she has had approximately 25 sexual partners since then.[34] Her immediate decision to keep the baby and stay with Dean reflects her need for protection, acceptance, and love – emotions that she sees her parents lacking. Additionally, Dean’s lack of parental roles explains his strong urge for a family and his contentment with working blue-collar jobs if it means he has time to spend with his family. Without the variable of everyday life, Cianfrance would have been unable to display the background and logistics that dictates both partners actions, allowing these seemingly mundane scenes to establish a strong understanding of the characters in the film.

The actualities of everyday life are what ultimately kill their marriage, not a hyperbolic Hollywood-ized dilemma like an affair or a marriage built on lies, as many Hollywood romantic films feature. Instead the disconnect between the couple in the scheme of career paths, how to parent their child, and what they foresaw as the rest of their life looking like are the factors that wear down the marriage. They turn to sex and alcohol to try to compensate, but instead of helping the spark of romance return, the alcohol makes them more candid and disappointed with each other. This is shown when Cindy tries to have sex with Dean to avoid discussing their problems, but when he senses her disinterest in it, he says, “Don’t give me this shit, this fuckin like you can have my body bullshit… I don’t want that shit… I want you… I’m not gonna do it like this. What, do you want me to rape you?”.[35] Dean uses an impactful term – rape – to show the severity of her actions and the outcome they could create. This moment addresses Dean’s boundaries of respecting their marriage and his own concept of morality, while bringing up Cindy’s disregard for the sanctity of her body. Their relationship does not require only romance, and their failed attempts to create romance again through sexual acts instead exaggerates the extent of detachment they have towards each other. This dilemma is ultimately laid out verbally in the doctor’s office where Cindy works when Dean shows up and she yells at him, “I’m so out of love with you. I’ve got nothing left for you, nothing, nothing. Nothing. There is nothing here for you. I don’t love you…”.[36] The immediate basis for their relationship was romance, and despite their attempts to recover their lost feelings, their economic and ideological differences intervene with the chance of a romance sparking. This dichotomy of marriage necessitating romance but also having crucial economic benefits and needs that cannot be ignored demonstrates the problems in modern society’s view of marriage. Cianfrance uses this film to showcase these issue, failing to offer a solution, but also revealing the issues with the Hollywood portrayal of marriage and the flawed conception of romance it depicts.

The carefree, spontaneous scenes of the early love between Dean and Cindy are necessary in showcasing the drastic change from the first sparks of their relationship to the mundane marriage six years later. The earlier scenes are directed with little script and filmed on 16mm film to give the past a lighthearted and untroubled vibe, typical of Hollywood romance films. However, instead of an unrealistic plot twist or shocking moment in the film, the simple hardships of everyday life wear down on the couple to create the tension present in the end of their marriage, which Cianfrance carefully directs to create the impression of true discontent and misery. His contrast of these two times emphasizes the role Hollywood has played in idealizing marriage and the issues in placing romance as the decisive reason for marriage.


Works Cited

Blue Valentine. Distributed by Anchor Bay Entertainment, 2011. Film.

Filmmaker, Staff. “The Way We Were: Derek Cianfrance’s “Blue Valentine”” Filmmaker Magazine, February 24,   2011.

Riley, Jenelle. “Scenes From A Marriage.” Film & Television Literature Index 51, no. 49 (2010).

Shumway, David R. Modern Love Romance, Intimacy, and the Marriage Crisis. New York: New York University Press, 2003. 16-42.

Vilkomerson, Sara. “Michelle and Ryan’s Blue Valentine.” Entertainment Weekly, November 19, 2010.

Witcher, Rosamund. “Michelle Williams: Talking Heartache with the Star of Blue Valentine.” Empire, February 1, 2011.

Young, Skip Dine. “The Search For Meaning – Psychological Interpretations in the Movies.” In Psychology at the Movies, 35-57. 1st ed. Chichester, West Sussex: Wiley-Blackwell, 2012.

[1] Young, Skip Dine. “The Search For Meaning – Psychological Interpretations in the Movies.” In Psychology at the Movies, 35-57. 1st ed. Chichester, West Sussex: Wiley-Blackwell, 2012.

[2] Shumway, David R. Modern Love Romance, Intimacy, and the Marriage Crisis. New York: New York University Press, 2003. 16-42.

[3] Shumway

[4] Shumway, 10

[5] Young, 24

[6] Blue Valentine. Distributed by Anchor Bay Entertainment, 2011. Film.

[7] Filmmaker, Staff. “The Way We Were: Derek Cianfrance’s “Blue Valentine”” Filmmaker Magazine, February 24, 2011.

[8] Filmmaker, Staff

[9] Riley, Jenelle. “Scenes From A Marriage.” Film & Television Literature Index 51, no. 49 (2010).

[10] Filmmaker, Staff

[11] Vilkomerson, Sara. “Michelle and Ryan’s Blue Valentine.” Entertainment Weekly, November 19, 2010.

[12] Witcher, Rosamund. “Michelle Williams: Talking Heartache with the Star of Blue Valentine.” Empire, February 1, 2011.

[13] Staff, Filmmaker

[14] Witcher

[15] Riley

[16] Blue Valentine

[17] Blue Valentine, 40:19

[18] Staff, Filmmaker

[19] Staff, Filmmaker

[20] Riley

[21] Shumway, 13

[22] Shumway, 13

[23] Shumway, 14

[24] Shumway, 17

[25] Shumway, 20

[26] Shumway, 22

[27] Shumway, 23

[28] Shumway, 24

[29] Shumway, 26

[30] Blue Valentine, 56:17

[31] Blue Valentine, 56:23

[32] Blue Valentine

[33] Blue Valentine, 29:24

[34] Blue Valentine, 1:11:22

[35] Blue Valentine, 1:02:00

[36] Blue Valentine, 1:28:01

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