Many romance films tend to only span from the initial meet-cute to the couple's decision to start dating. These films, especially those about Valentine's Day, often present an idealized viewpoint on romance, leading viewers to assume that on-screen relationships continue stress-free beyond the events of the film. However, this is not an accurate portrayal of reality, as the courtships depicted in most romantic films are not enough to sustain lasting relationships. Derek Cianfrance's 2010 Blue Valentine explores this after-period, thus serving not only as a commentary on other films and their idealistic nature, but also as a reflection of the problems many couples face in terms of maintaining long-term intimacy. The film illustrates that though intimacy in some form is needed, it should not be the basis of an entire relationship.
The film focuses on two parallel storylines: the declining marriage of Dean (Ryan Gosling) and Cindy (Michelle Williams) and the events leading from when the couple first met to their wedding day. Presently, Dean paints houses for a living, while Cindy works as a nurse. When the family dog dies, Dean takes Cindy to a cheap love motel to escape from their situation. What starts as an attempt to rekindle their love for each other ends in an aggressive argument and confrontation, which continues at Cindy's work the next morning. Unable to withstand each other, the couple decides to get a divorce. The film ends with the two of them unsure of their future.
Though not much happens in terms of the plot, the film expertly explores the characterizations of the two leads through its narrative structure. As the film goes on, we see how they meet and what the roots of their marital troubles are. Many of the issues that Dean and Cindy experience stem from their disagreement over the definition and interpretation of love. Cindy, the serious and practical half of the couple, is more concerned with maintaining her career and raising her child than spending money on what she sees as frivolous displays of affection. Her love and affection for her family is displayed through her responsibilities as a mother and a worker. She is very reluctant to drive to the love motel with Dean, focusing on the logistical issues of the trip, such as the length of the drive and her work obligations the next morning. Though such a romantic gesture would be an opportunity for the two to spend some time alone together, she is more focused on its long-term consequences.
Dean, however, serves more as the emotional core. He lives his life more on emotions and is only concerned with what makes him feel good in the present moment, as opposed to more substantive matters. He views love superficially, and believes that going to the motel would help repair their emotional relationship.
Considering their clashing personalities, it is surprising at first glance how the two of them even got married. This is the advantage of the film's narrative structure. By switching between flashbacks and the present timeline, the film slowly reveals to the viewers what Cindy and Dean initially saw in each other. Cindy comes from an uncommunicative family, filled with tension and anxiety. Because she grew up in that environment, she is enticed by Dean's charm and charisma. He serves as the antithesis to her family, providing her with the emotional connection she wishes she could have experienced with her own family. However, Dean's idea of love, though enticing, is not substantive. Just as Dean misinterprets his own actions as displays of affection, Cindy readily accepts his actions, and eventually his marriage proposal, because she believes they are her only alternative.
By illustrating the troubles of Cindy and Dean's relationship, Blue Valentine demonstrates the harm in misinterpreting infatuation as love. Many couples are enticed by the idea of love, mainly through silly romantic gestures, as opposed to the true understanding and appreciation of another person. However, the film does not disparage the superficial display of affection, but rather suggest that while such silly actions are enjoyable and worthwhile, they should not form the basis of a long-term relationship. Not even intimacy alone can med the long-term and deep emotional wounds that may arise from love.