Back to the Future: Time in Blue Valentine
9 January 2011
Blue Valentine is a non-linear experiment in cinematic storytelling. Unlike films adhering to continuity, Blue Valentine intentionally interrupts time by jumping from past to present without warning or mention. In this film, the effect is often revealed before the cause; the audience sees the answer before knowing the question.
This discontinuity is remarkable, in part, because of the challenge it poses the film’s audience; perception and understanding are continuously reevaluated as more pieces of the plot are revealed. Blue Valentine eventually communicates all its pieces, but leaves it up to the audience to decipher the way(s) these pieces fit together.
Take for example the first time Bobby, Cindy’s ex-boyfriend, appears in the film. He runs into Cindy, unexpectedly, at the liquor store. It is clear Cindy has a history with him, but exactly what the nature of their relationship is/was remains unknown. Shortly into their conversation, Bobby asks Cindy is she is faithful to her husband. Since the audience knows nothing about Bobby and Cindy’s history together, the question could easily suggest Bobby is making a sexual advance toward Cindy. Her response supports that interpretation because, although she says she is faithful, her body language divulges just how smitten she is with this attention from him; Cindy is all smiles and as gitty as teenager.
In later scenes, the audience learns Bobby and Cindy dated years earlier and, from Bobby’s perspective, Cindy cheated on him with her now-husband, Dean. Knowing the history completely changes Bobby’s intention when questioning Cindy’s faithfulness. With the pieces assembled, Bobby clearly meant to hurt Cindy with his question. Moreover, he carries anger and resentment toward her after all these years, a far cry from a premature interpretation he was trying to have an affair with her. Because the film shows the liquor store scene prior to revealing the back-story, the audience’s misperception must be reconsidered, requiring conscious and independent work to arrive at a more complete meaning.
Unlike reinterpreting Bobby’s question to Cindy, fitting the pieces of the film’s conclusion together is not simple. It appears the film’s final scene, Dean walking down the road, is as far as we go with Dean and Cindy; the audience leaves this couple unsure if the two will stay together or divorce. However, earlier in the film, we saw something beyond that scene, something in the future.
The room Cindy and Dean get in the hotel is the future, literally (in theme) and figuratively. What happens in the future room is likely symbolic of what happens in the couple’s future. This is yet another way the film, in resisting continuity, lays out pieces of the puzzle for a diligent audience to put together.
In the future Cindy and Dean do not stay together. Although Dean picks the future for them— which the audience knows because Dean selects the future room— Cindy ends the relationship. Unable to find happiness with him, but determined not to stay unhappy, Cindy physically removes herself from Dean’s presence, first locking herself in the bathroom and later departing for work. In the future, Cindy leaves Dean.
Blue Valentine requires the audience’s willingness to reflect and reconsider. While there is not one correct way to attach the pieces of this film together, ‘reading between the cuts’ and reworking how the pieces match (or don’t match) is vital. In some ways similar to a Post-Impressionist piece of art, without reflection and audience input on how the disjointed scenes create and recreate meaning, the film will remain incomplete.