The first time I saw ‘Before Sunrise’ I was a freshman in high school, single but confident I’d find true love, probably in art class, maybe after school, definitely with a Hanson brother. Watching Ethan Hawke’s Jesse and Julie Delpy’s Celine only confirmed my most adolescent suspicions. Love, I learned, occurs a little bit by chance, mostly by fate, in beautiful European cities between beautiful height-matched soulmates. Little did Linklater’s film, for all its claims to “emotional naturalism,” prepare me for how I actually found love in my twenties: not along old medieval canals but by weird internet highways, featuring less meaningful stares but plenty “saved to favorites,” and absolutely zero, guarantee-you-none, symbolist street poets (although I once saw a guy take a dump in a community garden while I made out with my girlfriend – does that count?)
But there’s a reason why ‘Before Sunrise,’ for all of its embarrassing flaws, has endured for all these years. It’s a ridiculously gorgeous feelings-infused fantasy-scape, with just enough realism to keep us interested. From the moment that Hawke and Delpy see each on the train, they’re destined to fall in love. So ‘Sunrise’ gives us what we want in a love story: beautiful people, a foreign landscape, a chance encounter. But it also provides us with a few things we forget to ask for: ambivalence, conflict, and very occasionally, pain. As Jesse and Celine mature in ‘Before Sunset,’ and later, ‘Before Midnight,’ their pain only deepens, as does the strength of the series. What starts as a stunning, if sometimes empty, love fantasy grows into a meaningful, difficult, true-life love story (Well, almost true. It’s Ethan Hawke and Julie Delpy vacationing on a Greek Island. Most of us are just happy to score a hook-up and a coupon for Dave & Busters, man).
‘Boyhood,’ Linklater’s latest, opened last Friday to the tune of near-universal critical praise and $359,000 at the box office (pretty good for a movie that opened on just five screens/isn’t a chimp morality play). The story follows a young boy as he moves from adolescence to adulthood, paying close attention to the daily details of human experience and not its big climaxes. And although ‘Boyhood’ is a coming-of-age tale and ‘Before Sunrise’ a romantic one, both movies have a love for dialogue, landscape, character. There’s feeling. A lot of it. It’s what makes a movie featuring so much ugh-Ethan Hawke in ugh-a-leather-jacket palatable, and often, very good.
I watched ‘Before Sunrise’ when I was in high school and ‘Before Sunset’when I was in college and ‘Before Midnight’ last night around six, right after the local news. As Jesse and Celine grew up, I was able to see how their definitions of romance shifted: from a soulmate fantasy kind of love to a move-across-the-world kind of love to a let’s-fight-then-get-a-couples-massage kind of love (well hallelujah for that). They grow and they change, they separate, then merge. Linklater can be wordy and precious, built for the “I don’t own a TV, I listen to podcasts” generation. But he’s also sensitive in a way that a lot of directors just aren’t. There’s idealism in Jesse and Celine’s journey, but also romance. Despite everything, we still believe in their story.
The first in the ‘Before’ trilogy, ‘Before Sunrise’is the most youthful of the three stories, and consequently, the most annoying. Two young people, jobless, drinking wine, wandering through Europe, philosophizing about love? And one of them is played by Ethan Hawke? In a goatee? Tell me someone Amish-chops that shit ’cause I’m. Not. Having It.
Still, there’s a lot to love in ‘Before Sunrise,’ even if Hawke’s James Franco ponderings make it sometimes impossible to watch. ‘Sunrise’ tells the story of Jesse and Celine’s meet-cute: on a train, after watching a middle-aged couple break into an open-air fight. Jesse then invites Celine into the snack car and out to Vienna for the evening, confident that the two have a special connection worth exploring (over wine, a handie perhaps?). The only catch is that Jesse is leaving for America the next morning, making this a sort of one-night-soul-mate-stand.
What’s striking about ‘Before Sunrise’ isn’t the overall plot but the literal dialogue, so much more thoughtful and grounded than the milk chocolate fantasyland they inhabit. Even though Hawke and Delpy are young and idealistic and mostly full of crap (Hawke), they also ask real questions and make some attempt at the truth. “Isn’t everything we do in life a way to be loved a little more?” Celine asks at one point, then: “If there’s any kind of magic in the world it must be in the attempt of understanding someone sharing something . . . it’s impossible to succeed, but who cares? The answer must be in the attempt.” To summarize: everything in life is an unsuccessful attempt to be loved a little bit more. We’re bound to fail, but you know, it’s worth the nice empty try.
Depressing (suicidal?) though those words they may be, they resonate ‘cause they’re real. It’s impossible for Hawke and Delpy’s romance to last past death, and they’ll be lucky if it lasts until the end of the movie. Watching ‘Before Sunrise,’ we’re fighting so hard for it to become a traditional upper-class romance. Please, we beg, let the attractive couple who met on the train find love in a European city, then spend the rest of their lives spouting completely grammatical sentences in completely furnished Williams Sonoma kitchens. There’ll be figs. Unprotected sex. Hardbound Tolstoy. There’s so much to dream about, but the dialogue won’t totally let us. It’s a blessing.
‘Before Sunrise’ has been labeled a love story, but it’s not. It’s a falling-in-love story, a distinction worth noting. Romances like ‘Before Midnight,’ not ‘Before Sunrise,’ examine intimacy after infatuation ends – which is the point at which real love begins. “When you talked earlier about after a few years how a couple would begin to hate each other. . . I think that’s the opposite for me,” Celine explains. “I think I can really fall in love when I know everything about someone – the way he’s going to part his hair, which shirt he’s going to wear that day, what story he’s going to tell . . .”
Celine may be fantasizing (really, Celine? You’re gonna fall in love with Hawke once you realize that, all along, he’s been using soap as shampoo?), but her version of love is much closer to reality than anything we’ve seen in the contemporary rom-com. The Fault in Our Stars. Love Actually. Seriously Everything. Our culture is suffused with falling-in-love stories like ‘Before Sunrise’ because they’re the easier to tell – and more commonly experienced – than in-love narratives, which involve selecting dishware, hating your children, holding on. ‘Sunrise’ isn’t a total exception to the trend, but at least the dialogue pushes against its Mr. Cleaned surface. “Enjoy it while it lasts,” Linklater asks us. These memories are kind and important. There will be a sequel.
Nearly nine years after they first found love on a train, Jesse and Celine meet again in a French bookstore, a sentence that is just too twee for me to even type. Jesse’s on a book tour for “This Time,” his best-selling account of the night they spent together. While Delpy stands uncomfortably to the side, Hawke’s in his element here: mansplaining his hypersensitive feelings for his hyper-literary, unctuous and earth-toned, audience. The two then decide to go out for coffee, where they discuss why they neglected to reunite (Delpy’s grandmother died the day they were supposed to meet up) and examine the romances of their youth. If ‘Before Sunrise’ is a story about falling in love, then ‘Before Sunset’ is a story about reigniting it, nearly ten years later after it was (almost) lost.
‘Before Sunset’ is less memorable than its predecessor, but also more mature (i.e. depressing). It’s not just that Jesse and Celine have grown older and more cynical – it’s that the story has grown with it, from a pure-projection fantasy to a landscape dotted with regret and uncertainty (and perfectly manicured urban studios. Set design here courtesy of the Everymom’s Pottery Barn collection). Between his failed marriage and her failed relationships, the two have had their share of suffering in their early twenties (obviously I used that word lightly. These are two hot people wandering the streets of Paris complaining about creative nonfiction. Cry me an expletive river, Linklater).
There’s more wisdom in ‘Before Sunset,’ and obviously almost all of it comes from Delpy: “When you’re young, you just believe there’ll be many people in life with whom you’ll connect. Later in life, you realize it only happens a few times.” More pontificating from Hawke: “Life’s hard. It’s supposed to be. If we didn’t suffer, we’d never learn anything” (Okay. Tell that to a CHILD SOLDIER OF WAR, my friend). And then the following passage from Delpy, which I’m sure feels sentimental and gratuitous in an increasingly effusive review, but whatevs. Glaze on:
“I always feel like a freak, because I’m never able to move on like . . . this. People just have an affair, or entire relationships . . . they break up and forget. They move on like they would have changed brand of cereals! I feel like I was never able to forget anyone I’ve been with . . . Each person has their own, specific details. You can never replace anyone. What is lost is lost.”
Now don’t get me wrong: I am overjoyed to forget the details of a certain college affair I had with a certain “edutainer.” That goes for the girl who told me “I never bought the right paper towels,” “Wolfman,” and the years, 1997-2010. Still, Delpy speaks to a culture (especially a movie culture) where people believe they can painlessly trade in romantic partners like iPhones, ready for the upgrade. Attachment, ‘Before Sunset’ argues, is something so difficult to find and so painful to lose. Even when your love object walks and talks like a Yogi tea (Hawke), it’s worth (trying) (at least) to hold onto.
The last and best installment in the ‘Before’ trilogy, ‘Midnight’ explores Jesse and Celine’s life together, now twenty-something years after their first encounter. It’s the darkest of the three movies, which admittedly says nothing, given that they’re white people in Western Europe complaining about “the environment.” Still, ‘Midnight’ is the most naturalistic of the three, featuring real-time fights, linear dialogue, actual body fat. Linklater is interested in exploring what happens after the first phase of love (infatuation) ends, leaving us so little to fantasize about, relegating us firmly to the present.
Set in some writer’s retreat at a fantasy Greek island, ‘Midnight’ finds Jesse and Celine ten years into their relationship, parents struggling to balance their work life (reading books) with their personal life (eating sandwiches). On their friend’s advice, Jesse and Celine decide to spend a night in a hotel, hoping to rekindle their attraction for one another. Between their discursive exchanges and their hot almost-sex scenes, it’s clear that the connection remains. At one point, both even complain that their complimentary couple’s massage feels “shallow.” It’s a real moment of merger for the couple, although never in my life have I wanted to hit such kind people so unbelievably hard.
As the night progresses and the two become closer, conflicts fire up, then spread. Jesse and Celine argue over whether they should move to Chicago to be closer to Jesse’s son, which heats up into a discussion about gender, family roles, power, dominance, whether they’re still in love. Delpy, who had been so poised in ‘Sunset/Sunrise,’ quickly turns ‘Mommy Dearest’ in ‘Midnight,’ going for every jab, every undercut, every off-the-books trick. There is nothing Hawke can say or do at this point that will satisfy her scary mommy rage. And Hawke, who – if you haven’t been able to tell by this point, I’ve deeply deeply despised – remains pompous but sincerely committed to making this relationship work, no matter the cost to his well-pampered ego.
Fights in relationships happen for many reasons – to establish separation, define roles, and (scariest of all) help people feel alive. Jesse and Celine met in the most dramatic of circumstances (well, dramatic for people who fight about wind power), so when their love starts to feel quotidian, they lash out. The energy they once expended in merging with each other is now rediscovered through conflict: the “highs” of an initial encounter matched only by the lows of a falling-out. For Jesse and Celine, fighting is their body’s last ditch-strategy to rebuild a connection now collapsing under their feet.
Does it work? (Spoiler!) Of course it does. But not because Delpy and Hawke are fated to be together. Destiny didn’t bring them together, and destiny won’t pull them apart. All along, Jesse and Celine have been making choices. They get off that train, they return to that bookstore, they stay past that fight. More than anything, Jesse and Celine have chosen to fall in love, stay in love, live with love – even as that love changes. Who knows what’ll happen. Their story is exceptional yet familiar. Privileged yet universal. Two people worth our hope.