What is this thing called love? Richard Linklater’s three-film inquiry

For nearly 20 years I’ve been a spy in the house of love, a voyeur at the window of someone else’s love affair.

I first started watching Jesse and Celine in 1995 when they were just a couple of years older than me, in their early 20s. There they were, sitting on a train, travelling from Budapest to Paris. Beautiful and grungy, clutching their books like amulets – he had Klaus Kinski’s memoir, All I Need is Love, she the erotic stories of Georges Bataille. They started talking, naturally, easily, but with the accepted conceits of the well read, intelligent and thoughtful; Jesse, in particular, eager to impress, nervous to please. And it worked.

Celine and Jesse in Vienna, 1995
Celine and Jesse in Vienna, 1995

I smiled to myself when Jesse convinced Celine to leave the train in Vienna when she was supposed to go home to Paris. I had to ask myself, would I do the same, would I follow him too. He proposed that they walk around the city and into the next day when he would catch his flight back to the US. They only had until before sunrise to explore the city and whatever flame was flickering in these first moments together, of something that might become love. Jesse sealed the deal with this memorable plea:

‘Jump ahead, 10, 20 years, and you’re married. Only your marriage doesn’t have that same energy it used to have. You start to blame your husband. You start to think about all those guys you’ve met in your life and what might’ve happened if you’d picked up with one of them. I’m one of those guys.’

Would they each be the one that got away?

Intrigued by this question, Celine disembarked and they walked around Vienna until the sun rose on the next day. They peeled away layers. They connected with the intensity that comes when you’re young and your time with another person seems finite. They were almost living out an entire relationship in the course of a single night, ending it together, as lovers under the cover of darkness in one of the city’s parks. When the sun came up it was clear how close they had become, that they were falling in love at that very moment when they had to part. Watching them say goodbye as Celine boarded a train to return to Paris was difficult. But it wasn’t over. They were young, romantic and hopeful and like young, romantic and hopeful people do they made a pact, not to exchange phone numbers or other contact details but to meet on that same platform in exactly six months time …

I lost track of Jesse and Celine for nine years. I thought of them often and fondly over this time. And then I found them again, in Paris, in a grimy corner of Shakespeare & Co. bookshop. Like me, they were older, cynical, beginning to be chewed up by regrets for some of the choices they’d made. Impatient, I needed to know, had they reconnected in Vienna on that train platform, and if they hadn’t, why not. And if they had, were they together now? So many questions but for now I had to relax into Jesse’s book reading – his first novel, This Time, a thinly veiled account of his Viennese encounter with Celine – and hoped that the answers to my questions would come. And they did, soon enough.

Here was Jesse in Paris on the final leg of his book tour. And there was Celine, buried in the small crowd, listening to him talk about a book in which she figures prominently. Had he hoped she would be there? Had she come upon his reading by chance? (Yes, he had hoped, he wrote it to try and find her; no she hadn’t just wandered in, she’d read a review and seen a poster for his reading.)

Just like they had done nine years earlier, Jesse and Celine decided to spend some time walking and talking around the Left Bank. Killing time, before  Jesse went to the airport to return to the US, to his wife, and his young son. As they walked and talked it was as easy as it had been in Vienna – the spark lit then burning as bright as ever.

But the question remained – did they meet that December in Vienna as they had promised – and luckily they didn’t make me wait all afternoon for an answer. At a café, Celine explained that she wanted to be on that platform more than anything but that her grandmother died and they buried her on that day. Initially joking that he didn’t go, Jesse eventually admitted that he had been waiting for her, furious with himself for not exchanging phone numbers or surnames. Later, Jesse confessed to being unhappy in his marriage. He told Celine he thought he saw her on the street on his wedding day as he was heading to the church. He told her that he wondered, often, what would have happened if they had met up, how ‘our lives might have been so much different.’ They were both haunted by this. Celine is cynical about romantic love and Jesse wondered if he didn’t completely lose faith in it when he was left standing at the station in Vienna alone. The night they spent together remained the most significant of his life and he confessed, ‘I remember that night better than I do entire years.’

Jesse and Celine in Paris, 2004
Jesse and Celine in Paris, 2004

And like they did that night, Jesse and Celine extended their time together as long as they could. Neither wanted to say goodbye, again, so they took a ride on a touristy bateau mouche along the Seine. They stretched the afternoon out a little further – Jesse’s driver agreed to take Celine home before depositing him at the airport. But as the sun began to set on that Paris day in Celine’s apartment, as she sang along with Nina Simone to a completely spellbound Jesse, it became clearer and clearer that he was going to miss his flight home. He knew it and he didn’t seem to mind one bit.

And then the screen went blank and I was left, for another nine years, with more unanswered questions.

Definitive answers finally came a few weeks ago. I found Jesse and Celine again, this time walking and talking their way around Greece in Richard Linklater’s third (and hopefully not final) exploration into the nature of this thing called love.

In Before Midnight, love deepens and darkens under the Greek sun.

The action in Before Sunrise (1995) and Before Sunset (2004) pivots on the very romantic idea of taking a risk and doing something so that you are not haunted by not doing it for the rest of your life. Before Midnight unwraps some of the complexities involved in actually getting what you want when the reality of living with another person crashes in.

In Before Midnight love becomes something else. A nebulous concept at the best of times, love feels different when you’re 23, 32 and 41. You want different things from it, and it asks different things of you. But surely, as Linklater shows, some part of it and the dreams we attach to it, remains the same.

Jesse (Ethan Hawke) and Celine (Julie Delpy) are older and no longer the optimistic romantics they were in their 20s. Or are they? Love at 41 is a little craggy, like the sexy lines that have made their home all over Hawke’s face. And of course it is when you have seven-year-old twin girls (Ella and Nina) and nearly 20 years of history together. What love is changes – this might kill romance but it has to evolve to survive.

Linklater hints at problems for Jesse and Celine early in the film. He opens Before Midnight in an airport where Jesse is saying goodbye to his 14-year-old son, Henry, or Hank, who has spent the summer with him in Greece. It’s clearly a difficult goodbye, for Jesse in particular, and Hawke conveys Jesse’s uncertainty about letting go.

Celine and Jesse in Greece, 2013
Celine and Jesse in Greece, 2013

As Jesse returns to a car parked out front of departures, Linklater’s lens widens to take in the big picture. And we see Celine waiting for him outside the car. It wasn’t possible to be completely surprised that Jesse and Celine were together – all publicity for the film pictured them walking side by side. But it was possible to wonder, at what point this reunion might occur. So it was nice to see her standing there waiting for him, possibly answering the key question – that Jesse had missed his flight in Paris nine years earlier and that he and Celine had been together ever since. A fabulous scene follows as they drive to the writer’s retreat they have been spending the summer at. As the aforementioned twins sleep in the backseat, Jesse and Celine’s repartee is as frank and funny as ever. It feels good to see them so comfortable with each other and so happy.

Isn’t it romantic? Yes and no. As we learn it’s actually much more complicated than that. Yes, Jesse stayed in Paris with Celine, enjoying a week of frenzied sex in her apartment, blacking the windows to the outside world, and to some extent blocking out reality. But as Before Midnight progresses, we learn of Jesse’s bitter divorce and the ex-wife who loathes him. We learn that Celine spent time living in the US as custody issues were ironed out. She had a difficult pregnancy and a dangerous birth; as Celine explains, she could have died. While romance and desire had brought Jesse and Celine back together in Paris, what kept them together was the messy reality of everyday life; the two of them united against the rest of the world. And as Celine half-jokes, this is how relationships start to fall apart.

Jesse wants to be close to his son and to have more time than just every summer with him. But his ex-wife has made it difficult for him to see more of Hank and now Jesse’s life is in Paris with Celine and their daughters. Celine’s adamant that she won’t move to Chicago. The tension around this problem and Jesse’s guilt about the decision he made back in 2004 becomes the source of a spectacular, incisive argument that crashes into the narrative in its final quarter when Jesse and Celine are in a hotel for their final night on the island. It’s supposed to be romantic and sext and give them some time alone but the close confines of the space only magnifies whatever is ailing them both about the other. What follows is explosive, raw, and real; Hawke and Delpy both extraordinary in their authenticity and exposure. The effect is both exhilarating and challenging to watch – two people who know each other as well as Jesse and Celine do also really know how to hurt each other.

Jesse calls Celine ‘the fucking mayor of crazy town’ and it is true that there are moments where it feels like she enjoys the combat. She’s always asked him provocative questions. She’s a seeker; as she says, the point of life ‘is to be looking, searching, to stay hungry.’ And the truth she seeks is the truth about them, their own history of love. Walking to the hotel she asks Jesse, ‘Would you find me attractive if you saw me a on train today?’ It’s a loaded question but it’s also, I think, the central question of Linklater’s trilogy. Jesse doesn’t get it and misses a chance to make Celine feel special, to reassure her that she is the love of his life. As she says, ‘You failed a test, and the truth is, you wouldn’t pick me up on a train. You would not even notice me’.

Resentments continue to erupt once they get to the hotel. We hear the expected resentments attached to getting older, getting settled, and thinking you’ve lost whatever made you special and unique and fearless when you were younger. Some of these are deep, others just petty. But Celine gives a visceral example of hers, as a working mother: ‘The only time I get to think now is when I take a shit at the office. I’m starting to associate thoughts with the smell of shit!’ She feels she has to do more than Jesse and she’s angry about what she’s lost and what she doesn’t get from him. But Jesse argues (in perhaps the film’s truest line), trying to save them before they completely lose their way, ‘I am giving you my whole life … I’ve got nothing larger to give.’

The hotel room scene begins positively, with the promise of finally seeing Jesse and Celine together as lovers. But as anger swallows desire whole, each does what they can to hurt the other in the most primitive way. The fight climaxes with a statement by Celine that clearly rips Jesse’s guts out, and I have to say, ripped out my own right along with them. It’s not what I was expecting to hear, and it hurt me to even consider she would think it. But the film’s beauty and the beauty of these characters is that we like and dislike them in equal measure, in the same way we would like and dislike these qualities in ourselves. And our sympathies lie with both simultaneously. In the end, I understand why she says it.

Luckily, there is hope. Jesse is still a romantic. That boy we met on the train to Vienna still lives inside him and he’s not going to sit in the hotel and give up on the woman he ‘fucked up his whole life’ for. He follows Celine to the café by the water where she sits watching the sun melt into the horizon. And he lets the boy from the train come out, insistent, ‘I assure you, that guy you vaguely remember – the sweet, romantic one you met on the train. That is me.’ You can see Celine’s armour slowly coming undone.

Earlier in the day, at a lunch with their Greek friends that acts as a philosophical centrepiece to the film, Ariadni (Athina Rachel Tsangari) laments that our notions of romantic love are what fuck us up, that ‘the notion of a soul mate’ becomes a burden.

But an older woman, Natalia (Xenia Kalogeropoulou), takes a different view of love: ‘Like sunlight, sunset, we appear, we disappear. We are so important to some, but we are just passing through.’

I think, maybe, that’s what love comes to mean in Linklater’s films – something fragile and rare you have to grab with both hands when it passes through your life, wherever you find it, on a train in a strange city, in a bookshop, on a crowded street. It’s fleeting, it’s only passing by. Getting together is the easy part; staying together is another story, maybe another film. With that in mind, I’m optimistically imagining a fourth instalment in another nine years where my friends Jesse and Celine are still holding on tight, to love and to each other.

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8 thoughts on “What is this thing called love? Richard Linklater’s three-film inquiry

  1. I’ve deliberately avoided these films, this trilogy, over the years. It’s hard to put my finger on why. Perhaps I’ve feared that they would be a disappointment, or that the questions they pose would feel too raw. Perhaps it’s the casting, though I’ve liked each of the leads in other things. But with what you say about each film, you’ve convinced me that I should stop avoiding them before another nine years go by.

    1. I’m really flattered that you feel I’ve made such a convincing case for the films that you now want to watch them but I wonder if my affection for them is as strong as it is because I can map them against my own life – being around the same age as Jesse and Celine and that feeling like I have grown up with them. I’m not sure what it would be like to watch all three films now for the first time, but that said, I’ve re-watched Sunrise and Sunset quite a few times since the first times and loved them just as much, so I’m not sure what I’m trying to say here. Just see them and hopefully they won’t be a disappointment for you or too difficult to watch. Some of the ideas it raises about love are raw but only because they are so true.

  2. This was a beautiful post. These are 3 of my favourite films, and I’ve always been afraid the sequel will be disappointing and ruin it all, but obviously I underestimated the genius of the people behind them. I think, just as you describe love, art too has a fragility that is so easy to mess up but when done right, and carefully, it sustains as something truly beautiful.

  3. “But the film’s beauty and the beauty of these characters is that we like and dislike them in equal measure, in the same way we would like and dislike these qualities in ourselves.”

    That’s it! That’s why these films are so special to me. And in our instant-fix world, there’s something special about delaying gratification for nine years. Each film has been well worth the wait.

  4. Reblogged this on Iconography ♠ Incomplete and commented:

    The Before Hours trilogy comprises Before Sunrise, Before Sunset and Before Midnight chronicles the love of 2 people who meet randomly and fall in love for a purpse and that purpose stays with them 🙂

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