Thursday, May 30, 2013


Richard Linklater's BEFORE SUNRISE ends with a series of static images of locations in Vienna, Austria.  There's nothing distinctive about these places... except that each one represents a stage in the 18 hour relationship of a young couple.  Most of that relationship has taken place under cover of darkness, like a dream.  In the harsh daylight, these locations look sad and empty.  For the viewer, it's startling to realize that what made these places seem real -- or better than real? -- was the presence of Jesse and Celine in them.

I first saw BEFORE SUNRISE when I was in college.  I didn't completely identify with the two main characters -- I thought Jesse was kind of goofy and Celine was a little bit neurotic -- but I loved the way they interacted, without fear or hesitation.  Right off the bat, both characters have enough self-confidence and hope in the future to be open and intimate with each other.  Jesse sets the stage when they're on the train, by saying, "Jump ahead ten, twenty years, okay..."  He's mainly just trying to get a date, but his speech also shows that he's hyper-aware of his youth, his potential, his freedom -- and that he wants to make the most of it.  He's convinced that real "magic" comes by taking chances.  Celine follows his lead, because she believes the same thing and she needs this kind of magic in her life.  She's focused and passionate, in a way that Jesse can admire and learn from, but she's also too uptight for her own good.  Together, they balance each other out. 

It's easy for some people to dismiss BEFORE SUNRISE as one long conversation on film, but that's not how I see it.  To me, it's a movie about those periods in life -- they can last for years, or for a single night -- when you are so open to new possibilities, and the world is so responsive that everything seems unreal or hyper-real.  Setting helps, of course.  There's something energizing about exploring a foreign city for the first time.  Being with the right person helps too (because there's also something energizing about exploring another person for the first time).  I have vivid memories of a particular summer I spent in Europe with the right person, and of a moment when we were standing on a bridge in Paris and I found myself thinking: "This is a perfect moment... but when I remember it, years from now, I won't believe that it was perfect.  I will assume that my memory has distorted it into an idealized version of the truth."  When I returned to some those places alone, I was surprised to find that night had turned into day.  I was the same person in the same place, but the magic was gone.

Over the course of BEFORE SUNRISE, Jesse and Celine talk with rare honesty about everything that really matters to them -- God, love, sex, marriage, parenthood, death, beauty, magic -- and express all of the beliefs that make them who they are, or who they want to be.  They are able to make a genuine connection, because they are willing to be honest with each other.... even if it's only because they sense that their relationship can't last, and that they won't have to answer for anything later.  Whatever the case, they allow themselves to be completely vulnerable, and thereby achieve true intimacy.  Having made that connection, they realize what they've been missing in all of their previous relationships.  BEFORE SUNRISE is a lesson in true love: You can't hold back

The ambiguous ending of this film begs a question: Can this type of love last?

BEFORE SUNSET (2004), a sequel set nine years after that fateful night in Vienna, sets out to answer the question.  Jesse, now a successful novelist with a not-so-successful marriage, still remembers that night as one of the best and most meaningful nights of his life.  He has even written a book about it.  The secret of the book's success, he says, is the ambiguous ending -- which allows people to work out their own beliefs.  If you're a romantic, then you believe the couple gets together again and that true love lastsIf you're a cynic, you believe the story is over when the credits roll.

Jesse's problem is that he is both a romantic and a cynic.  He confesses that in his original draft of the book, the couple gets back together, has sex for a week straight, and then slowly realizes that they don't like each other as much as they thought.  His editor made him change the ending because he knew it wouldn't sell.  In real life, Jesse's cynicism is a cover for his romantic vulnerability.  When he's reunited with Celine, he admits that he wrote the book in the hope that she would find him again, and they could both find out whether or not the magic of their previous encounter outlasted the night.

Like Jesse, I wanted to know.  I was cynical, but I didn't want to be.  I wanted them to get back together.

In BEFORE SUNSET,  Jesse and Celine reunite in a bookshop in Paris.  This time, they have even less time to connect -- roughly an hour and a half before Jesse is supposed to catch a plane home to New York -- and they're both carrying a lot of emotional baggage that wasn't there nine years ago.  The main difference between then and now is that their identities are not entirely based on youthful dreams and potential.   The characters are 32 years old.  They are beginning to realize that they have made some irreversible decisions, and that they don't entirely like who they're turning out to be.  Jesse has married for reasons other than love, and while he has owned up to his responsibilities as a husband and father, some part of him can't let go of the "what ifs."  Celine has also given up on love, focusing all of her energy on her work... but being around Jesse again makes her painfully aware that she is a shadow of her former self.  Bottom line: They still need each other.  Without her, he's unfocused and unhappy.  Without him, she's neurotic.

It takes them about an hour to reach that realization.  At first, their interaction is so painfully self-conscious and awkward that the movie is genuinely hard to watch.  Their defenses are way too high for them to make any kind of real connection.  What's miraculous -- and perhaps proof that they belong together -- is that they're both able to lower their defenses eventually.  It would have been easy enough for both of them to reminisce fondly and to "catch up" casually, without admitting or acting on the wild romantic idea that their lives would be better if they had stayed together.  It would have been easy enough for them to hold back.  But they don't.  BEFORE SUNSET reiterates the idea that the magic in life comes from being bold.  You can't hold back.  That's where these characters are again, at the end of their second chapter.

I love the last scene in BEFORE SUNSET.  It's one of those moments where the rest of the world, everything about the past and future, falls away.  Only one thing matters, and it's right in front of you.  It begs the question: If dreams can be so real, why follow anything else?

BEFORE MIDNIGHT (2013) promises to answer the question of what happens when you follow your dreams -- belatedly.  It starts with a scene where Jesse is putting his adolescent son on a plane home to Chicago.  Jesse is now divorced, and raising twin girls with Celine, but he is overwhelmed by the feeling that he is failing as a father... and that those magic moments he used to live for are now vastly outnumbered by responsibilities and regrets.  He still loves Celine, but his definition of love has changed. 

I won't spoil the movie for those who haven't seen it, but I will say that the characters and the storytelling in this film express a maturity that is every bit as relevant and inspiring to me now as the youthful searching of BEFORE SUNRISE was when I was in college.  The intimacy between these characters is not always pretty, but it feels very real to me.  There's a powerful scene in the film that perfectly illustrates the central conflict of the characters.  Jesse and Celine are having a romantic dinner in a perfectly idyllic setting on the coast of Greece.  Together, they watch the sunset -- reveling in its beauty, and mourning its disappearance.  At 41, the general path of their lives is set.  It is not everything they hoped and planned for, but at times it is more than they ever could have hoped and planned for.  Exquisite beauty and intense sadness are inextricably bound together, just as Jesse and Celine are bound together.

I really don't want to say anymore.  Instead, I want to encourage everyone to go out and see the movie.  It's a great piece of writing and a great piece of acting.  Somehow, this series just keeps getting better... 

It would be trite to say that I'm already thinking about a fourth film, and wondering where Jesse and Celine will be in another nine years, so for now I'll just revel in the nature of ambiguous endings.  Life is full of ambiguous endings.  Sometimes that feels like enough.

1 comment:

  1. Yeah, I need to give these films a screening. A major hole in my viewing, I'll admit. Thanks, Joe.