The Philosopher’s POV: Blue Valentine: An Enigma

July 2, 2011 14 Comments


As the title suggests, Blue Valentine is a sad love story.  It’s love at first sight for Dean when he sees Cindy in her grandmother’s room at an assisted living facility.   He gives her his number, but when she does not call, he returns and talks with the grandmother to find out who Cindy is.  The grandmother tells him her name and promises to tell Cindy that he asked about her.  Dean then meets Cindy on the bus and woos her with sincerity and song, not the least of which is the ominous, “You Always Hurt the Ones You Love.”   Later, Cindy finds out that she is pregnant, but not with Dean’s child.  She has been having sexual relations with Bobby Ontario (and more than twenty other men since she was thirteen), and the child is Bobby’s.  Dean marries her anyway, and they have a girl named Frankie, whom Dean adores.  Dean and Frankie build a doghouse together for Megan (their beloved dog), they eat raisins from Frankie’s cereal bowl off the kitchen table pretending to be leopards, he is prompt to her pre-school singing recital, and he tells Frankie that maybe Megan moved out to Hollywood to be “a movie dog,” thereby sparing her the hurt of learning that her dog had been hit and killed by a car.

Clearly, Dean also loves Cindy.  He reminds her several times to fasten her seat belt as she gets ready to take Frankie to school, and in the final break-up scene says, “I love you so much.”  He wants not just to have sex but loving sex with her.  He plans a weekend with her at a motel that has rooms dedicated to different sexual fantasies.  He has a choice between Cupid’s Cove and the Future Room, and chooses the latter when Cindy refuses to make a choice.  She clearly does not want to go.  She is a nurse and uses the excuse that she is on call the next day, but Dean ignores her protests.

A  central scene in the film takes place at the motel and is shot in blue light.  Cindy tells Dean that he is good at everything he does and asks him whether there isn’t anything else he’d rather do.  He answers, “Than what?  Than be your husband?  To be Frankie’s dad?”   When she asks him whether he wants to realize his potential, Dean rightly asks, “Potential for what?”  He tells Cindy that he is living his dream in being her husband and Frankie’s dad and wonders why she wants him to use his potential to make money.  She responds, “We rarely sit down and have an adult conversation because every time we do you take what I say and you turn it around into something I didn’t mean.  You just…twist it.  Start babbling: blah, blah, blah, blah, blah.”  It’s true that Dean interpreted Cindy to mean that he should use his potential to make money instead of wasting it as a house painter, when she meant that it would be good in itself for him to develop his capacities.  However, she also ignored Dean’s sound point that he was realizing his potential for what he found most important, namely, being a good father and husband.  He could equally have accused her of turning the conversation “around into something else” and of “twisting it.”

When later Dean and Cindy have sex, we see her having it with clenched fist and scrunched face.  Clearly, she is not enjoying it.  When she gets a call to come to work at the medical center, she leaves without telling Dean, who is passed out drunk on the floor where they had sex.  She simply tapes a note to the wall that Dean reads when he wakes up.  He is angry, goes to the medical center where she works, gets in an argument with the doctor with whom Cindy works, and punches him in the face.   Cindy slaps Dean, swears at him, tells him that she is “so out of love” with him, that she has “nothing left for him,” that she hates him, and says that she is more of a man than he is.

Cindy and Dean leave her work together and have an emotional conversation at the home of her father who has been taking care of Frankie.  She tells Dean that she “can’t do this anymore.”  He begs her not to leave him, apologizes, and says he will do anything she wants.  At one point Dean tries to convince Cindy to stay together by appealing to what’s best for Frankie.  Being from a home where his mother left his father when he was ten, Dean thinks it would be bad for Frankie to be “from a broken home.”  Cindy grew up in a home where her father was a monster and her parents did not love each other.  When Dean was courting Cindy, she told him that she liked her grandmother because, “She makes me laugh.  Nobody else talks in my family.  And when they talk, they just yell.”  She thinks that the worst thing for Frankie would be for her to grow up in a home where the parents treat each other badly.  Cindy says, “I don’t want her to grow up in a home where her parents treat each other like this?  We’re not good together, we’re not good anymore.  The way that we treat each other.”   In the end, Dean walks away into the fireworks of the Fourth of July.  Frankie tries to follow him, but he tricks her into racing back to her mother.  Her mother picks her up to comfort her, and Frankie says that she loves her dad.  It’s a sad love story.

It’s also an enigma.  Why does Cindy fall out of love with Dean?  Earlier in the film Dean said that most girls look for a Prince Charming but end up marrying “the guy that’s got a good job and who’s gonna stick around.”  Maybe that’s what Cindy did when she found out that she was pregnant and that Bobby Ontario was not going to support her.   But she also genuinely loved Dean in the beginning.   So why did she fall out of love with him even if she married him because she knew he’d stick with her?   Did she fall out of love with him because she did not enjoy sex with him, and did she not enjoy sex with anyone because someone raped her when she was thirteen?  That would explain why she always said “ow” before, during, or after sex and sometimes said “no, no, no, no” during sex with Dean even when they were courting.  But there is no evidence in the film that any rape occurred when she was young.

Cindy once had a conversation with her grandmother about whether she loved her grandfather, and at the same time Cindy reflected on how her parents did not love each other.  Her grandmother told Cindy that she was in love with her husband for at most a brief period of time in the beginning.  This led Cindy to ask her grandmother, “How can you trust your feelings when they can just disappear like that?”  Her grandmother replied, “I think the only way to find out is to have the feeling.”  Cindy’s feelings for Dean disappeared, if not “just like that” at least over the five years or so after Cindy gave birth to Frankie.  Why?  It’s true that Dean is childish in the way he plays with Frankie, for example, pretending to be a leopard as they eat raisins off the kitchen table while her mother tries to get her to use a spoon.  And it’s true that Dean drinks too much, drinking before he goes to work as a house painter and getting drunk before having sex with Cindy at the motel.  Still, Dean could be very adult in protecting Frankie from the hurt over losing her dog and in getting her to run back to her mom when he was leaving the family.  While his drinking was not good for Dean, it does not seem to have caused him to treat Cindy badly.  When he learns at Frankie’s recital that Megan is dead, he does not console her but instead rebukes her saying, “How many times did I tell you to lock the fucking gate?  Huh?”  But that remark is understandable given his hurt (he sobs uncontrollably after burying Megan), and surely not enough to cause Cindy to stop loving him.

We might speculate about what was going on behind the scenes, but nothing in the film explains why Cindy stopped loving Dean.  The Carson River flows down the eastern slopes of the Sierras and used to flow into what is called the Carson Sink.  Before a dam was built, the river would eventually just peter out as it flowed eastward across the parched sand.  Settlers on their way to California would get their first fresh water from the river.  Many times we can explain why people stop loving each other: perhaps one of them has been abusive or unsupportive, or has had an extra-marital affair.  But many times we can’t; it just seems that the love peters out.  As far as we can tell, that’s what happened to Cindy.

The song that begins playing when the credits roll is called Grizzly Bear: Alligator (choir version).  Its lyrics are:

It’s a fear, it is near, the shape becomes ever clear.

It bares teeth, extra sharp, that’ll cut you in the heart.

It attacks really quick, try and fight it with a stick.

It’s no use, give it up, this is life and this is love.


Dr. Bruce Russell is a professor of philosophy at Wayne State University.  His major areas of interest include ethics, epistemology and the philosophy of religion (the problem of evil).  Dr. Russell has published extensively and most recently has found a way to combine his keen interest in these areas with his love of film.

The Philosopher's POV
14 Comments to “The Philosopher’s POV: Blue Valentine: An Enigma”
  1. jwwmo4 says:

    I think your arguments are persuasive…the beauty of this film is its use of non-dialogue to make it’s poignant point…I think the thesis statement is (Dean’s song): “You Always Hurt the One You Love”..note it is not “DO you always hurt the one you love” (yes, no, maybe) or “WHY do you always hurt the one you love” but simply a la ukelele accompaniment “You always hurt the one you love”….maybe Dean and Cindy did not yet posssess the depth or maturity to deal with the hurt…I also agree that there is evidence that they did in fact (in their own quite differing ways) love each other…that’s the Blue in Blue Valentine and what makes this film so sweetly sad…..

  2. Bruce Russell says:

    Did you think that Dean hurt Cindy, who is surely someone HE loved? Through his failure to console her and, instead, to blame her for leaving the gate open? But not helping isn’t the same as hurting. Or his getting angry and behaving badly at the medical center? That made her angry, but I don’t think it hurt her. The lyrics of the song that plays as the credits roll seems to be a companion piece to “You always hurt the ones you love”!
    Here are the lyrics to “You always hurt the one you love.”

    You always hurt the one you love
    The one you shouldn’t hurt at all
    You always take the sweetest rose
    And crush it till the petals fall
    You always break the kindest heart
    With a hasty word you can’t recall
    So If I broke your heart last night
    It’s because I love you most of all

  3. Robert MacDonell says:

    Interpreting the motivation and behavior of film characters can be an unsettling endeavor, especially without the light of full character development. Such is the case in Blue Valentine where we are but voyeurs in a critical 48 hours in the lives of Cindy, Dean and Frankie. By way of flashbacks we are provided some pieces to the puzzle of their lives, but without enough material to make any firm conjectures about how they got there, or how it will turn out. So I am inclined to agree with your evaluation that Blue Valentine is a bit of an enigma. It would be interesting to know if the writers and director intended for it to be so.

    For me, an excellent drama is one that draws you into the lives of its characters in a way that makes you feel you are there with them in the moment. This Blue Valentine did for me to an uncomfortable extent. I felt the anxious need of wanting them to resolve their conflict in the present, only to be put on hold with flashbacks that hinted at a promise of understanding, without ever fully getting me there.

    I believe it was Viktor Frankl who said that to ask the question what is the meaning of life? is to ask the wrong question. The real question is: How do we put meaning into our lives? Whether we do so is a choice. How we do so is an expression of our self. A mature, intact self, even when it does not always succeed in creating the meaning it wants, has the capacity to adapt and pursue the challenge. That neither Cindy or Dean seem capable of putting forth the effort to create meaning in their relationship is, I believe, at the heart of the enigma that is Blue Valentine.

    Dean seems entirely content with his present life as husband, father to Frankie and blue-collar laborer, and sees no need to change. Dean can be a responsible adult, but he is also content to exist in the familiarity of his present routine and circumstances. He seems to have reached a level of emotional maturity that he cannot evolve beyond. Though there is little doubt that he loves Cindy dearly, what is the nature of that love? I wonder if Dean’s childlike playfulness with Frankie is parental, or more sibling like in its nature and expression. If so, what is the implication of that in the nature of his love for Cindy? I found myself at the breakfast table feeling like Cindy was the mother of two children, and that it was wearing her down.

    Cindy, on the other hand, seems entirely discontent: discontent with her own frustrated ambitions (she once hoped to go to medical school); discontent with Dean’s contentment; and discontent with her own inability to sort out the meaning of it all. At this stage in her life she too seems to have hit a plateau she finds difficult to move beyond. And it is more than just Dean. Cindy seems paralyzed with fear that she has become trapped in the same loveless relationship her parents had. This fear and paralysis are starkly evident in the sex she experiences with Dean in the future room at the motel. The ordeal must have been for her a nightmarish foreshadowing of her future with Dean. It was painful to watch the panic wash over her as she submits, endures and then withdraws. At one point she tries to escape the emotional pain by initiating a sado-masochistic turn of events. When Dean doesn’t go along and gives up, she feels so suffocated by the whole experience that she locks herself in the bathroom to hold herself together until morning. This whole episode says as much or more about her own emotional conflicts and maturity as it does Dean’s.

    Cindy needs the love of a husband that is nurturing and supportive of her dreams and ambitions, and that will mature, along with her, in a life-long partnership. She does not need a man who’s idea of love is that sex and alcohol in some seedy motel is all that is needed to put all their troubles behind them. Would Dean ever be capable of that? It’s hard to envision it. Would that in fact be enough for Cindy? Would she ever be content? Her level of maturity in her relationships with men suggests she has a long road to travel in that direction.

    So in the end we are left wondering how the lives of Cindy, Dean and Frankie will turn out. The one thing that seems certain is that it will not be together.

    At the end of the film I felt wrung-out. Like I was witness to a tragedy. It’s hard to watch people go their separate ways when you wish there could have been a way to work it through without abandoning the relationship. But people walk away from relationships every day.

    Or do they? Is it really a relationship if there is no shared meaning?

    One thing is certain, there is pain in broken relationships…and there are often innocent bystanders. That is always a tragedy. And trying to understand the meaning of it is truly an enigma.

    I continue to wonder about their plight.

    Robert MacDonell

  4. Bruce Russell says:

    Robert, that was a great comment! But I disagree with Frankl! I don’t think that we can always choose to put meaning in our lives. When big tragedies happen to certain people (the loss of a child, the loss of one’s limbs, the loss of one’s looks(?, etc., to parents, athletes, models, etc.), they can be so devastating that these people can’t find meaning in their lives. That’s why sometimes suicide is a rational choice for quadriplegics as the film “The Sea Inside” makes evident. Some people can find meaning in their lives even if they’ve lost loved ones in the Holocaust, but not everyone can. Frankl might be overgeneralizing from his own case!

    And you find the main enigma to be the lack of capacity in Dean and Cindy to put forth the effort needed to give meaning to their lives. It’s the lesser enigma for me because I can see how Cindy would lack the motivation to have a better relationship with Dean if she no longer loves him and why inertia is a reason not to change unless some significant event triggers a motive to change. Dean lacks the motivation to change because he is living his dream…sort of, if only Cindy would cooperate!

    The greater enigma for me is why Cindy fell out of love with Dean. Maybe the clue is in the scene in the motel. It can’t be an accident that the director filmed it in blue light and the film is called Blue Valentine. Dean disappoints her, but why isn’t his love for her and Frankie enough? That’s an enigma! It’s even more of one if she could CHOOSE to give meaning to her life by loving Dean the way he wants but doesn’t. But it’s obvious that our choices to give meaning to our lives are limited.

  5. jwwmo4 says:

    Wonderful comments….it still seems to me that much of what has been said(also by Chuck in his comments from the couch) swirl around the idea of the need to withstand (the ego psychology guys would probably say and then integrate–but that’s a bit too intellectual and dry for me)the pain that is unavoidable in any deep relationship (back to the song and hurting the one you love)…somehow a couple who can feel EACH OTHER’S pain(and not just there own) has a chance…but that takes alot of empathy and strength..not sure that Cindy or Dean are emotionally grownup enough to pull that off…like Robert said so well, the tragedy is that we like them and are rooting for them to find a way to make it (so help them Chuck!)…but it doesn’t feel hopeful…very sad that our choices to give the meaning that we want to our lives can be soo limited…sometimes and sometimes we can learn and grow from the saddest situations…..maybe “Blue Valentine” the Sequel might be Green Valentine(Blue + a little more yellow), but probably not quite Pink….Jolyn

  6. Bruce Russell says:

    So the way I see the discussion having gone is: (1) I think Chuck and I disagree about whether Cindy ever loved Dean, but (2) he agrees there was a sort of immature love at the beginning but that no mature love developed in Cindy, and (3) Robert and Jolyn agree that neither Cindy nor Dean developed a mature love for each other. Finally,(4) there’s the question about what they could do about it (here Jolyn calls on Chuck!) and Chuck and Robert are pessimistic about whether anything can be done. This leads to more general discussions where the nature of mature love is assumed (uh, tell me more!)and the limits of giving meaning to our lives are questioned (by me!). Jolyn takes it as a given that You Always Hurt the Ones You Love. Suppose we take it as such, too. And now what to do? Feel the other’s pain (as Bill Clinton used to do) says Jolyn. And then? Learn and grow. How: become more compassionate, find new meaning in your life? Not so easy, say I. These things are not within the scope of our will. Or if you can’t: become a stoic or a hedonist or go to Las Vegas and drink yourself to death like Nicholas Cage (in Leaving Las Vegas?). How did this one little film take us so far? It’s an enigma!

  7. jwwmo4 says:

    Great summary of the major points of discussion from all contributors….but, I’m not sure I agree with the conclusion that becoming more compassionate or empathic and understanding is not “in the scope of our will”…I’d ask Chuck to respond to this one, but when I work with couples sorting out the difference between “I won’t’ and “I can’t” can be very useful….even WANTING to TRY to see it the way the other person does is a big Dean and Cindy seemed so reluctant to make,,but could they? would they?..when they are just soooooo sure of their POV and pain it can be hard to even try to look at it from the other’s perspective…but what if they would try? Or even express a “willingness” to do so…it could be a first step and eliminate the trip to Las Vegas…..I do agree that “will” isn’t sufficient though…that emotional attachment stuff that is so hard to quantify (but it’s pretty easy to tell when it’s not there)….I don’t think it was there much anymore for Cindy….at least not enough to grow a relationship with Dean….

  8. Bruce Russell says:

    OK, let’s try this with Cindy and Dean. “Cindy, do you see that what’s most important to Dean is being a good and loving husband and father to you and Frankie. Developing that potential is what is important to him.” Cindy: I see that, but why doesn’t he do something more worthwhile than house painting? Why doesn’t he develop his other potentials? Dean: You don’t really understand; they’re not important to me. Didn’t you hear what Jolyn said? Cindy: you don’t understand how important it is to me to become a good nurse and how disappointed I am that I was not able to go to medical school. Dean: I do understand, and I’m not standing in your way. Cindy: why don’t you want to develop your talents? and so on. They leave and look for a divorce lawyer! I tease…some. After giving his pragmatic argument for belief in God (it pays!), some people asked him how they could come to believe because they could not just will to believe in God. He said that they should take holy water and associate with religious people. It’s true; there are some things that are within the scope of our wills. But there is always a gap between those things we can will to do and achieving the emotional states or character traits we desire, and that are the reasons for taking actions that are within our power.

  9. Bruce Russell says:

    I was referring to Pascal when I mentioned the person who gave the pragmatic argument for belief in God. I forgot to name the “his/him”!

  10. Robert MacDonell says:

    I remember Pascal from my Intro to Philosophy course I had at UM. If I remember correctly, it was known as Pascal’s wager. Not so much a belief really, but a mental resolution to try to believe based on a fear of the consequences of not believing (hell). Soviet citizens must been in a similar frame of mind regarding their ‘belief’ in Marxism/Leninism.

  11. Bruce Russell says:

    It is called Pascal’s Wager, but Pascal argues that it pays to believe. Why? Well, there are two alternatives: belief and non-belief and two possible states of affairs: God exists or he doesn’t. He argues that (1)if you believe and God does exist, then you can expect eternal blessedness. On the other hand, (2) if you don’t believe (either remain agnostic or disbelieve), then you can expect eternal damnation (it doesn’t affect the argument if you can expect to just die and not receive eternal blessedness). The other alternatives don’t really matter: (3) believe and no God or (4) don’t believe and no God because the payoffs are insignificant in comparison to those in (1)[and (2)on the hell interpretation]. So it’s really the prospect of eternal happiness that drives the argument, not the prospect of hell. And he really is recommending belief. That’s why he gives advice about how to acquire it indirectly (holy water and associating with religious people)since no one can succeed in believing something by directly willing to believe it.

  12. Bruce Russell says:

    Bob, just for the heck of it I thought I’d ask what you think of Marx’s “theory” of justice. He said: from each according to his ability, to each according to his needs. So imagine that you and I are picking fruit (strawberries, cherries…whatever). I have a congenital back problem that prevents me from picking as fast as you. But since it’s not my fault, shouldn’t I receive the same for my day’s work as you do if we both put forth the same effort? From each according to his ability, as Marx says! Now because of my back problem, I have medical needs that you don’t. Shouldn’t I have those needs met since my back problem is not my fault? To each according to his needs, says Marx. Marx’s view sounds pretty reasonable don’t you think? It would seem unfair for you to get more because, luckily, you don’t have a back problem and so can pick faster. It would seem unfair for my needs to be unmet since that would make me even worse off through no fault of my own.

  13. Robert MacDonell says:

    Hi Bruce,

    I’ve been on vacation so I just read your message.

    What do I think of Marx’s theory of justice?
    As usual, you pose very interesting and provocative questions (your business as a philosopher); and you do it well.

    Well… there’s the short answer and the long answer. Here I’ll stick with the short answer, but I sense the potential for a great deal of back-and-forth over a longer term to do the topic justice.

    The trouble with hypotheticals such as the one Marx proposed about social justice(that you stated succinctly above), is that they are formulated and stated in ways that bias the proposition as well as attempt to narrow the thinking and responses of those to whom they’re addressed. Marx was a master at doing it.

    His statement about ‘from each according to his ability; to each according to his need’ assumes that labor is labor. No differentiation. In the fruit picking example above it assumes both have to do the physical labor of fruit picking and that neither has other employment or economic opportunities other than in the example. The injured laborer in the example in reality would have more economic opportunities not so physical in nature. His opportunities, though not entirely limitless in the real world, are also not entirely limited.

    So I guess my short answer is I do not think much of Marx’s proposition or ‘theory’ of justice. Nor do I think much of Marx’s philosophies of history, politics or economics.

    I’m very pragmatic when it comes to ‘theories’. If they don’t play out in the real world in ways that are effective in what they purport do describe or accomplish, they’re really nothing more than hypotheses that should be rejected.

    I’d put Markist theories in this camp of hypotheses that can be justifiably rejected. One of the main problems, for some people of the world, is that their governments/dictators have not done so.

    Best regards,

  14. Bruce Russell says:

    I didn’t mean to address only Bob in the comment to which he responded (though I’m glad you’re back, Bob, and did respond!). So everyone feel free to join the discussion.
    I try to construct simple examples that have the same structure as real life cases. I tell my students that some people have no skills or abilities that they could develop and use to compete well in the free market. They are like farmers who go to a farmers market with produce (fruit and vegetables, say) that are not as desirable as what is offered by other farmers. They go home having sold little, if any, of their produce through no fault of their own (say, they inherited infertile land and cannot afford to buy better). Many people are like these unfortunate farmers. Why should people like us, who were born with abilities we could develop and perhaps born to families that supported and encouraged us, receive more than those who were born less fortunate, either regarding their natural abilities, the social position into which they were born, or the upbringing they received? So while my example of the fruit pickers leaves out other options, it is relevant to the actual world in which many people do not have very good options available to them. And the numbers are increasing as fewer people become more productive, thus diminishing the need for more people in the workforce.
    When it comes to testing NORMATIVE hypotheses, you have to be careful. First, you have to make sure that the people who supposedly were trying to implement such hypotheses really were. Maybe they were not really trying and so a failure means nothing. Second, if a genuine attempt fails, you have to wonder why. What is the best explanation of the failure? Corrupt or incompetent implementers, resistance driven by self-interest, etc.? And then, of course, you have to see how other theories of social justice have fared and compare the results appropriately. I’d say that if we have a theory of social justice that is not open to rational criticism, we should try to implement it and address the obstacles to its successful implementation if bad results ensue. After all, if a country tried to ban slavery and bad results followed, we should not conclude that, after all, slavery is not an unjust institution. We know that it is, and we should continue to try to implement the ban, addressing the obstacles to its beneficial implementation. Social justice concerns the distribution of the benefits and burdens of social cooperation, and we know that some distributions are unjust, others just. We should try to implement the just ones and prohibit the unjust ones.

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