Way back in 1995, at the tender age of 16, I watched a unique little independent film directed by relative newcomer Richard Linklater, and starring Ethan Hawke and Julie Delpy. The film, Before Sunrise, had a simple plot: boy meets girl on a train through Europe, and convinces her to get off with him in Vienna to explore the city. They walk and talk, and talk and talk…and talk. The characters, seven years older than I was at the time, resonated with me. They were nuanced and thoughtful. They were living the type of bohemian life I saw myself living in my early 20s, preferring existential conversation to partying. I’m not the type to re-watch very many movies or reread many books, but through the years Celine and Jesse stuck with me, and I revisited them every few years.
Then in 2004 the sequel, Before Sunset, came out. I was 25 and living in Japan, and recently out of a longterm relationship. One of my Japanese friends was also a fan of the original film, so thanks to subtitles we had a cross-cultural viewing date. I loved it even more than the first. Celine and Jesse, now in their early thirties, were their same selves, but wiser and more mature. They weren’t without flaws, but that’s part of their allure – they’re real. And just as they’d left me hopeful about my own future when I’d first met them, the next installment left me feeling a renewed hopefulness about true connection in my next season of life.
Then a Part 3 came in 2013, Before Midnight. At 41, Celine and Jesse were another nine years older and wiser. I was 34, a new mother and newly married to a man who left no doubt in my mind that he was the best partner to walk through life and parenthood with. I was eager to see, as I had with the others, what I had to look forward to in my seven-years-down-the-road future. While the other films explored romantic/human connection in the earliest stages, Before Midnight explores the much more complicated question of what happens when you try to preserve or nurture that connection and build a life together. In this one Jesse and Celine were much messier than in the first two. On my first viewing, I was disappointed. I didn’t necessarily want the happier ever after story because even as a newlywed I knew that’s not real life. But, I also cringed to see the the disillusionment, the nastiness, the low blows. This wasn’t what’s supposed to happen!
After putting Celine and Jesse aside for three years, I recently watched all three movies again over the course of a few weeks. After a second child and a few more years of marriage, I have a much different appreciation for the trilogy, especially that third installment.
Yes, it is hard watching them at times unravel after knowing so intimately their foundation, after believing in them. But if David and I had to watch a replay of our most heated disagreements, I’m sure there’d be plenty of cringe-worthy moments. (We haven’t resorted to quite the level of low-blows that Jesse and Celine have, and I hope that doesn’t change, but as always, Jesse and Celine have a few years on us.)
The renewed appreciation didn’t just come in the greater tolerance of the married-people fighting. I also loved everything about real longterm commitment that led up to the impassioned crescendo: the bizarre and irrational leaps from calm to angry that only come when the same argument keeps going unresolved; when a friend tells a story her husband had heard a hundred times and he endearingly but mockingly mouths her words behind her back; the fact that Celine and Jesse express similar ideas as they have in past films but these insights seem to have lost their allure with each other; the way their tune changes based on their mood (at first they love a hotel room, but when the gloves come off it’s a different story); the different perspectives on longterm love across generations. As with the other films, it’s all so thoughtful and it also rings so true.
The main thing I took this time that I’m not sure I got on the first viewing is that real partnership really is work. Since David and I have always had a fairly easygoing way with each other, I used to think that while relationships take work, they shouldn’t take too much work, and I suppose I’d argue that’s still the case to an extent. But, even the easiest of relationships, when they’re lasting, are not always easy.
For a much more thoughtful conversation about this trilogy including a debate about which film is best, click here.