Kim Krizan, Julie Delpy, Ethan Hawke, and Richard Linklater, 2013
#4, 2013 Skandies
This is the third in a series of movies, one every nine years, about a French woman and an American man wandering around talking. In the first one, Before Sunrise, they were in their early 20s, happened to meet on a train, and spent a night wandering around Vienna talking about life, the universe, and everything; underneath the ostensible topics of conversation lay the question, what is this going to turn out to be? Just a conversation? The prelude to a memorable one-night stand? Or is this the first evening in a lifelong relationship? In the sequel, Before Sunset, we found out: since the first movie was set in 1994, before Skype and Facebook were things, instead of keeping in constant contact they arranged to meet again in six months, but Céline didn't show up. Their next meeting wasn't until 2003, when Jesse came to Paris to do a signing for his book — about that night — and this time Céline did show up, and they talked again. This time, underneath the ostensible topics of conversation lay the questions, what happened? And what happens now? Clearly that night meant a lot to Jesse, if he wrote a book about it… but did it mean enough for him to leave his wife and son? Did it mean enough to Céline for her to ditch her boyfriend? Did it mean anything to her at all? And this time we didn't need to wait another nine years to find out: the answer turned out to be yes.
So here's movie three, and Céline and Jesse, now in their early 40s and still together, are on vacation in Greece. There are basically five acts to this one. The first involves Jesse dropping his son Henry off at the airport — he's spent the summer in Greece as well, but now it's time to return to his mother in Chicago, while Jesse heads out to the car where Céline and their twin daughters are waiting for him. Act two comes in the car, as Jesse starts musing about how much it sucks to be separated from his son, and Céline declares, for future reference, that this is the moment that they started to break up. Act three is the worst. Our family returns to the home where they've been staying with a handful of other families, and we sit through a bunch of conversations that are straight out of some of Linklater's misfires — the part where Jesse tells a bunch of random guys about a book he's planning in which all the characters have perceptual disorders is straight out of Slacker, which I would have considered a compliment in college but which is not meant as one now. And, oy, when a bunch of middle-aged bit characters start pontificating over the dinner table about the intersection of sex and technology… I mean, it's the same issue I had with Waking Life. If I'm interested in a subject, I will read a book or listen to a university lecture about it by someone with expertise. I'm also happy to listen to someone without expertise delve into a topic, but in such cases, what I'm actually interested in is how the speaker's mind works. But some random Man With Beard holding forth on the future of the orgasm? Please move on to act four.
In act four, Céline and Jesse take a long walk to a hotel that their friends have booked for them so they can enjoy a romantical evening away from the kiddies. Naturally, they talk along the way, in the usual Before series fashion — but mostly about how they never do this anymore now that they're parents. We learn a bit more about their status quo: for instance, it turns out that they never did get married (and there's a funny bit about how, when they were littler, their girls would declare at the end of every movie that "They're getting married!" even when the characters in question were, like, Pinocchio and his dad). But then in act five they reach the hotel, and the testy conversation in the car blossoms into an out-and-out fight, complete with announcements that "I don't love you anymore". Which isn't too surprising, given that they're already together, so exploring the potential for a breakup is the bog-standard dramatic move.
And of course the potential is always there, because virtually no relationship knits together in a way that's 100% optimal for everyone involved. There are always going to be issues of varying degrees of seriousness that the parties in question can set aside, or break up over, but can't resolve. It is a commonplace that every relationship requires compromise, which means exchanging sacrifices, but that exchange doesn't actually fix things — it just means the grievances pile up on each side. In the case of Before Midnight, Jesse feels like he's sacrificed a tremendous amount to be with Céline, which can be summed up in five words: "We live in Paris, France!" Not only is he an ocean away from home, but he's missed his son's entire childhood, and is now looking at the prospect of missing his son's adolescence as well. Meanwhile, Céline feels like she's sacrificed her entire sense of self: she had built her identity around rejecting traditional roles for women, and yet her chief role in life for the better part of a decade has been as a childcare provider. And there's no undoing that damage! Like, they could move to Chicago, but that wouldn't bring Henry's childhood back, and it would make Céline even more resentful. Or Jesse could give up his writing career to become a househusband, but Céline doesn't actually believe in his ability to take care of the girls, and it would make Jesse even more resentful. The Before series has been called "romance for realists"; at this stage, the realism consists of acknowledging the inevitability of these sorts of fundamental dissatisfactions, and the romance, such as it is, consists of the choice to soldier on with the relationship despite them. The question at any given point, not just in this onscreen pairing but in every relationship, is whether soldiering on is actually the better choice. Someone breaking up with me once told me that she hoped that we might "meet again in some better incarnation", which (a) instantly makes me weepy whenever I think about it and (b) gets me thinking about how that notion applies to this movie. Over the years I have seen many people on the community blogs I read announce that they have cancer — some of them vowing to fight it, others saying that because their case is untreatable, they will be taking advantage of their state's euthanasia laws and voluntarily ending their lives on a certain date. And it occurs to me that if a relationship were a person, it would almost invariably be a person with cancer. Some cases are localized and non-aggressive enough that no treatment is needed, merely observation; others require therapy, and in still other cases there is no cure. The twist is that this is a world in which death isn't necessarily the end — because the end of one relationship opens the possibility of another. In this analogy, it would be like someone dying of cancer and being reincarnated as someone with a different form of cancer. Maybe even a survivable one.
P.S.: When you come up with an all-time classic line like "Now I know why Sylvia Plath put her head in a toaster", don't ruin it with callbacks!