If anything ramps up in February, it’s a focus on romance with Valentine’s hearts popping up like early crocuses and a focus on high-end movies as the Academy Awards season is in full swing.
With those things percolating around my brain, I’ve been thinking about one of the better films I saw last year, Before Midnight. I was disappointed to see that it didn’t make the Best Picture list, but there you go. (I’ll admit the only BP films I’ve seen so far are Gravity and Philomena, both of which I really enjoyed.)
Anyway, in case you don’t know, Before Midnight is the third film in a series (Before Sunrise and Before Sunset) that follow the relationship of an American man, Jesse (played by Ethan Hawke) and a French woman, Celine (played by Julie Delpy). Each film is set nine years apart, giving a view into the characters in their 20s, 30s, and 40s. Delpy and Hawke helped write the last two, and all were written and directed by Richard Linklater.
Over the course of the several months last year, The Beloved and I watched all three of these films — hardly binge-watching by today’s standards, I suppose. I think they’re very good — arguably the best film trilogy out there (sorry Peter Jackson) and easily the best set of films about relationships around. They can hardly be called action-packed. The entire series revolves around Jesse and Celine walking and talking — about relationships, about themselves, about choices, about life.
In Before Sunrise, Jesse is a 20-something, single American guy who meets Celine on a train to Vienna. Like any 20-something, single, American guy traveling alone in Europe, Jesse tries to get in her pants (or dress, I suppose) and convinces Celine to spend the evening walking around Vienna as he has a plane to catch early the next morning. As they walk, they talk about the “big” things 20-year olds talk about — being true to yourself, never settling, not being like older generations. Jesse’s sort of a douche and she’s got her head in the clouds. They have a perfect night, maybe fall in love, and agree in a moment of bewildering and sleep-deprived romance that rather than exchange information, they’ll return to Vienna in six months if they choose to be together. The audience is left to wonder if they find each other again.
Nine years go by before Before Sunset opens with Jesse — now a successful author in his 30s doing a book signing in Paris. His best-seller is a roman a clef focused on his night in Vienna with Celine. Celine arrives and it’s clear that they didn’t reunite eight and a half years ago. Again, they walk and talk – this time before his flight leaves at sunset. The changes in them are remarkable. They’ve shed much of their 20-something idealism for pragmatism. Jesse’s less douchey. Celine works for the environment. They talk about their lives and their dissatisfactions — he’s unhappily married with a son, she’s never settled down. Grown up stuff. But the night in Vienna is still there in their minds and the film ebbs and flows around the idea of The One That Got Away — a concept you can’t really think about until your 30s. Their future is again left ambiguous.
Another almost-decade rolls by and Celine and Jesse are together in Before Midnight. They are vacationing in Greece and friends there give them a “night off” from their kids (who look to be about 8, if you’re doing the math). As you might guess, Celine and Jesse walk and talk to the hotel. There is less energy. They’re obviously working to make the evening “fun”, but the night in Vienna and an afternoon in Paris seem a long way away. They’re consumed with career decisions, life choices, and the “compromises” they’ve made for one another. Instead of snappy banter, they’re snappish. Are they happy? Is this what true commitment looks like? Is real romance only momentary? And then there’s the hotel room. As with the other films, the viewer is once again asked “Will they be together afterwards?”, but this time the overhanging question is “Should they?”
I think these films are a remarkable achievement by Linklater, Hawke, and Delpy. They’ve created characters, not caricatures, and allowed them to age and change. At times over the course of the three films you find yourself liking and disliking both Jesse and Celine — rooting for them, and occasionally against them. Though I’m older now than Jesse and Celine in Before Midnight, I can remember being a 20-something walking the streets of Vienna with a girl. I can remember creating idylls of The One That Got Away in my 30s. I can remember seeing the writing on the wall in hotel rooms.
The unusual thing about this series is that I think each one is better than the one before it. Maybe that makes me happy because I think each of my decades has been better than the one before it.
Will we see Jesse and Celine again in their late 40s/early 50s? I guess we’ll have to wait until 2022. Until then, we can walk and talk about them.