Warning: Contains spoilers.
“You come here to Paris, all romantic, and married, OK? Screw you. Don't get me wrong, I'm not trying to get you or anything. I mean, all I need is a married man. There's been so much water under the bridge, it's...it's not even about you anymore, it's about that time, that moment in time that is forever gone.”
For days after seeing Before Sunset I thought about the tragedy of Celine and Jesse – the nine years they spent thinking back to that moment in time that is forever gone, nine years of wanting desperately to relive that perfect night, having to give up a core part of themselves to handle the blow of that lost connection. I thought about the scene in the car where the two characters finally erupt; Celine reveals how numb she’s become, and Jesse offers in return how terrible his life is – “I have these dreams, you know, that I’m… I’m standing on a platform, and you keep going by on a train, and… you go by, and you go by, and you go by, and you go by, and I wake up with the fucking sweats.” The romanticism and hope that we saw in their slow wander of Vienna is markedly absent. The characters are consistent, but their concerns are larger.
I left the theater with the same feeling after watching Before Midnight. There’s still the crackling conversation and undeniable chemistry between Jesse and Celine. But this movie is harder to watch – it gives you a front row seat to an eruption different to the one in Before Sunset. The difficult part of a relationship usually isn’t the initial connection, but how it continues to work for the years and years that follow. There is a dinner conversation early in the movie about love and longevity; the inevitability of time defeating all. The trajectory of the conversation shifts based on who’s talking – there’s the excitement of new love tempered by a surprising pragmatism and there’s the age-old discussion on the differences between man and woman, but what I found most interesting was how the tone of the conversation changed based on the age of the person. Jesse and Celine are in love, but the years they’ve spent getting to fully know each other and the years of caring for their children have hardened them. The oldest woman at the table, maybe in her sixties, who’s been silent so far finally speaks, and she seems at peace, her voice dripping with experience. The conversation closes with her comment on the ephemeral nature of life. “We matter a lot to some people, and then one day we disappear. We’re just passing through.” It’s a theme that is explored throughout the movie. Time moves too slowly when we’re young, and then one day we wonder how it all occurred so quickly.
What I love about this series of movies is how we’ve been privy to the encounters of two engaging and charming characters who’ve grown and matured over two decades. Their joys and worries are so relatable. The way they wing it in Before Sunrise, the way they get around the awkwardness of December 16 in Before Sunset through that art of flirting, and the way they challenge in Before Midnight the notion of soul-mates and true love. Julie Delpy, Ethan Hawke and Richard Linklater must have developed these characters from a deeply personal space for the dialogue and body language feel so authentic. Think back to that scene in Before Sunrise, right after Celine and Jesse get off the train, there’s a distance between them as they walk, she’s looking down, the gravity of what she’s decided to do unnerving her, and a nervous laugh escapes both of them. Most film-makers would have chosen to skip that moment of vulnerability.
Having just re-watched the first two movies, it was nice to see nods to them in Before Midnight. Jesse makes a clicking noise as he bids his son farewell at the airport, a nervous tick that shows up the first time 18 years earlier when he convinces Celine to get off the train. And of course there’s the same kind of beautifully crafted ending where it’s up to the audience to decide what’s next for these characters. Will Celine and Jesse make it work? The journalist at Shakespeare and Company asks Jesse a similar question in Before Sunset to which he replies, “Well, it depends on whether you’re a romantic or a cynic.”
What do I think? Well, my take is that they stay together. But then you should ask me again in nine years.