An exceptional soul searching between two long standing friends when experiencing the Before Trilogy in one day, together.
It’s going on 22 years since the first of these films was released. I never watched any of them. Seemed a little too arty. By the time they released the third film, I had been married for 11 years. When this set came out on Criterion, I asked my wife if she wanted to see them with me. No interest. She’d tried the first one and it didn’t do anything for her. Leave it to my best friend of so many years to be the one who asks me if I wanted in going for this trilogy in a day.
While I don’t normally recommend watching romantic movies without your wife, who else would ever be interested?
Exactly! I have a hard time getting my fiancee to watch any movie with me. But she would probably call these long (even though they are average length) and boring (even though they are very engaging). Granted, watching two people walk and talk for ninety minutes is not going to be everyone’s cup of tea, but we were certainly engaged with the ongoing dialogue of Jesse and Celine. I enjoy when we are watching a movie together and have an ongoing conversation as the movie progresses. We don’t talk over the dialogue; we just make occasional interjections. Sometimes the same detail will strike both of us at the same time. Other times, one of us will comment on something unseen or unnoticed by the other.
As I watched these two characters progess from their mid-twenties to mid-forties over the course of three films, I was struck by my own progression through the middle of life. The movies resonated not only because of the similarities, but because of the differences. I think you felt some of that too. Man! My brain is really firing right now. There are so many things we could discuss about these movies. After watching them in succession, it’s hard for me to think of them as three separate movies. They almost play like one continuous work.
So I guess lets’s start with the characters. Where they start, where they end up, where they might be going. In the first movie, both characters are typical college-educated twenty somethings. They feel an immediate attraction, yet feel the need to put up a facade. I suppose I would have done the same thing in his place. But he invents this rather contrived story to get Celine to get off the train with him. Granted, it works. But one wonders if he had to go to the trouble. She clearly likes him. Celine is more sure of who she is. And yet, she still has a sense of wonder. When the spontaneous poet writes a poem around the word “milkshake”, she accepts it gratefully, whereas Jesse only wants to point out how unlikely it is that he wrote the poem so quickly. Or the moment with the gypsy fortune teller. Celine is enthralled with her comments. Jesse dismisses it out of hand. Of course, none of us think she is really reading anything on those palms. What she can do, very well, is read people. And she makes a statement that may be central to understanding Jesse’s character arc. “Don’t worry, he’s learning”, she tells Celine. She could have stopped at the table in Greece 18 years later and made the same statement.
What are your thoughts on the character development?
It’s all about learning indeed. The film seems to have a firm grasp on the idea that while Celine acquires a firm understanding of reality while appreciating the imagination of romantic gesture. She is met by someone who seems stuck, even if well practiced. The reason, of course, is that Jesse is one who understands what failure feels like. But he can’t imagine success in any real terms. He does, however, love the romantic ideal. In a sense, he stops right then from the moment they meet and becomes a version of the guy he imagines she was looking for, and not much more than that. This feeling is reinforced 6 months later when she, due to matters of a practical heart, fails to meet him at their rendezvous. Stillborn again, he captures the moment in written form even though he married someone else. His gift of romantic gesture is countered by a complete inability to live in the real world. Lo, but how miserable his first wife must have been.
Celine, on the other hand, seems perfect to us, except for the fatal flaw of her heart. She is definitely the more practical in action of the two. She meets what seems to be a series of the same guy. One after the other finding their wife after leaving her, then thanking her for being the springboard. She knows what it takes to live day to day, but her missing her “chance” affected her, too. That she is unable to fake it reveals her flaw to someone like Jesse, whose skill at self-deception and flattery has been honed for the single purpose of winning over the girl of that first night. He makes that night last for the rest of their lives.
Yes I too have been completely absorbed by these characters. I resent Jessie, to the same degree that I love and admire Celine. This is because right under our noses through long, seemingly boring scenes of walking and talking, the combination of Linklater, Deply, Hawke and Kim Krizan have created pretty much the facsimile of the relationship of the modern urban man and woman. All of our yours and my relationships, for their successes and seeming failures, can be seen in these two.
You’ve got to admit it. They tricked us. But they didn’t do it in any easy way. I believe they’ve lived these truths and lies. Just like we have. That they were able to incorporate their own lives into the latter two scripts is obvious and actually pretty well documented.
I don’t want to get ahead of myself, though. Even as we discuss this now, my wife just got through completely surprising me with her presence in the room. The reason: she wanted to know if we had enough money to make our next few bills. So immersed was I in what we were discussing, I completely realized the image of Jessie. I took a quick look at our account, made a promise to follow up, and got right back into our discussion, practically pushing her aside for our little hobby, based on art. Even now, I hang out with the scholars while my dear version of Celine contemplates the reality of keeping a roof over our heads.
In this way, the evolving story of our cinematic doppelgangers has engrossed me as well, to the point where in the final film we are completely engrossed, even if most of the film is about the doldrums of two people who spent so many years together only to realize they have no idea who they are. And we see it so clearly through our rose colored glasses…
I definitely understand what you mean about resenting Jessie. Many times he has valid feelings, and makes valid points. But his way of articulating them, particularly in the third movie, is entirely wrong. He is at his most honest when he is alone, not speaking, just reacting.
There is a moment early in Before Midnight when he sees his 12 year old son off at the airport, watching him go through security. The look of pain, guilt, loss, confusion on his face is so real that it hit me like a punch in the gut. I remember saying goodbye to my son, and he was just going across town to his mom’s place, not half way around the world. The only time his words move me, the only time they really ring true, is near the end of the second movie, when he tells Celine that he was thinking of her on the way to his wedding, hoping he would somehow see her on the street. You’re right about the first wife. She never stood a chance.
There is another great moment in this same scene, in the back of the car. First Jesse reaches out to touch Celine, when she is not looking, but he pulls away at the last second. Then, she does exactly the same thing with him. They are on an endless loop, circling that first night, going around and around, but not quite in sync.
Everything about Jesse’s character is so contrived by the third film. There is also another layer to this that I think we should discuss, which is separating the actors from the characters. You already mentioned about their personal lives informing the writing. Well if Julie Delpy wrote her own dialogue, then she comes off as extremely clever. Ethan Hawke, not so much. Or is he just that good at writing for this character? There is a long walk-and-talk scene in the middle of the third movie, in which half of his shirt is untucked for the scene’s duration. It is a distraction in the scene, a clearly contrived, additional level of artifice. I don’t know whether it is the artifice of Jesse, or of Hawke and Linklater, but I guess either way it serves the same purpose. Julie Delpy even wrote the song that she sings to Jesse, about their night together, which ends the second movie. And she gets almost all of the great lines in the last film. When she tells Jesse that she associates shitting with contemplation, he tells her he will use that line in his next book. She says it will be the best thing in the book. She says it as a joke, but I think they both know she’s right. Is that part of what bothers Jesse, that Celine probably could have been as successful an author as he is, but she just doesn’t have a passion for it.
I only know that the ending of the third movie delibarately comes full circle, ending much as the first movie began. With Jesse using a contrived story to try and win her over. It is so contrived that he even has a folded piece of paper in his pocket, which he uses as a prop in his little show.
Of course this contrivance is a mirror image of the homeless artist’s poem in the first movie. It’s taken him this long to realize that is the kind of thing that appeals to her. The flowery gesture. Of course the whole point of the magnificent argument that takes almost 1/4 of the last film is the fact that Jesse’s been living on flowers and pretty words, and she’s been working and changing diapers. Then he calls her crazy. He may be right, but not for the reasons he believes. If he’s still learning, he’s not learned to just listen. He’s still completely in his head.
And you’re right about them being completely out of sync. The scene you describe in the cab for Before Sunset has its own twin, when they are in the process of attempting to make love in Before Midnight. First she takes off her underwear, they fight, she puts them back on as he gets up from the bed. He then takes his off, the fight continues and she gets up and moves away. Endless loop out of sync, but in love with the idea.
I understand your resonant feelings when you saw Jesse’s interactions with his son. Hawke has had well publicized relationship challenges as well children who suffer through collateral damage. I think this trilogy, and especially the last two films show him coming to terms with his own limitations when it comes to self-analysis. Much less understanding how to make life easier for people he presumably loves.
Several of Delpy’s lines ring true for me throughout the trilogy. As the series moves on, I keep going back to my relationship with my own Celine, my wife of 15 years. Much of the motivation and expressions of Celine have been exemplified for me over the years, and I have reacted quite similarly to Jesse many of those times. Whenever she wants to be serious, I want to think “intellectually” about things that don’t put food on the table. One could say my whole writing and blogging career has been a time consuming attempt at connecting my life to the world outside, while sacrificing actual connections to the people living in my house.
That said, when Delpy expresses frustrations, it feels as real as anything my wife has ever said to me. The irony is that I am hearing words my wife said to me throughout the years for the first time, only through another person’s expressions. It brings me to the feeling of caution in my optimistic vision of my own stable marriage. Do I know this woman as well or even love her the way she loves me? Have I never learned to listen just to her?
That is the power of this trilogy.
That is an interesting idea. Jesse created this ideal “Celine” after their first night, and wrote a book about her. But she is removed from the actual Celine. Of course his first wife could not compete with this idealized, romantic, passionate woman. But it turns out, maybe the real Celine couldn’t compete either. There were no diapers to be changed or meals to be cooked in his best-selling novels.
I guess that is a testament to how well-written this series is, that we both found instances that resonated with us. But different instances, for different reasons. The primary reason I love movies, love watching them and talking about them, is to be moved in some way. It doesn’t have to be profound. Just being entertained is enough. But it is a rare film indeed that inspires me not only to feel but to think deeply about my own life.
My favorite moment in the entire series is a very simple one. In the last film, Jesse and Celine are watching the sun set behind a mountain. It begins very sweetly, with Celine saying “Still there…still there…still there” as the sun sinks lower and lower. Finally, it vanishes just below the mountain’s crest, and Celine says “Gone”, leaving them in the subdued afterglow. The smiles leave both of their faces, and they look away from each other, realizing there is something profound in this moment, something about much more than a setting sun. It is one of the rare moments when Jesse has nothing to say, and it is acted with incredible honesty.
This scene can be interpreted in a number of ways; the viewer will take from it whatever he puts into it. This is true of much of these films. Each person will be struck by different moments. I love the ambiguous endings as well. And although the story has a fitting ending of sorts, where it stands now, I hope there will be a fourth film after a nine-year interval. I am sure Jesse and Celine will still have powerful things to say.
The capture of the sun as it disappears is a truly profound moment. As they looked on, I was reminded of the first time Don Henley sang:
“…There’s just so many summers, babe, and just so many springs…”
I am over 3 decades of summers and springs since then, and time has become a bittersweet commodity for me by now. If I am a bit smarter or wiser, I am definitely happier. To paraphrase George Carlin, the percentage of my needs being met increased when I dropped a few of them. Still, though, I spend some time dreaming of the distance the words shared between two friends, and how they might travel on without us.
That this team of creative forces has invested time in each of three decades to give us a Polaroid of their lives is equally profound. To take the movies one by one, they would not be as valuable. The first movie is almost a throwaway for me. If they’d not followed it up almost by sheer demand, what would we know of these two?
Once they took a direction, though, they had to commit, and they have done a marvelous job investing their time into a worthy creative venture. The second film in and of itself made the films time the series timeless. It’s tenor and demeanor had changed from hope to a realization of the effect of time passing. They felt less hope, and they acted. By the third film, the die seems cast, and they have made their big move. The mood begins with the appearance calm, but the desperation creeps in.
One of the great ironies of the series is in the examination of the three generations of couples at the dinner on the Mediterranean. So much wisdom in flux at that table, but our two heroes have no real connection to any of it, because they haven’t really touched one another, as her interaction over signing his book at the hotel check in would indicate.
Jessie really is one heck of a nice guy on the surface. He’s definitely an agreeable travelling companion. Celine is the one doing most of the driving by this point, though. She even relates to Jessie’s son better than he does. She is grounded. He’s in the clouds.
I must make special mention of Delpy in the series. For me, she’s clearly the series’ greatest resource. Hawke is able to keep relatively the same shape, with a few wrinkles through the passage of time. She has taken every minute of time and brought it to a unique beauty not often seen by women in cinema: she’s allowed to age.
I can’t think of a time that I have seen a woman allow herself to be viewed without protection as she does, especially in the last quarter of Before Midnight. We see a middle age mother of two who is seemingly beyond her prime. If you pay attention, you know she’s anything but fading. She’s still on the rise.
By contrast, Hawke’s Jessie has given us another naked vantage in showing us someone of a certain age who’s still “learning.” Of course this means, the nice guy is really kind of a intelligent, but emotionally juvenile middle aged man. It’s my belief that this is not an accidental portrayal. This is artwork in motion.
We know this primarily because we’ve seen things unfold slowly over the course of the three films. What would we find out with the fourth effort? I live in anticipation, but chances are, by the time we get there, we’ll already be going through it.
You bring up a lot of great points. I agree completely with your feelings about Delpy. She is masterful in these movies. I wonder if the twenty-something me, seeing these movies now, would find the younger Delpy more desirable. Because where I am now, in my mid-forties, I think that Celine grows more beautiful as she matures.
The dinner scene is the only time in the entire trilogy that we have Jesse and Celine as part of an extended group. And it really does work well. Perhaps the younger couple remind Jesse and Celine of an earlier version of themselves. But this couple didn’t hang all their dreams on one night. They are just young, attractive, and enjoying life in the moment. There is also great significance in the older couple. Two people who lost their lifelong spouses, and have found companionship in their last years. The old man says that life is not about being in love, its about being happy. Clearly he still misses his wife, but he has tempered his sorrow by surrounding himself with interesting people. He seems to be squeezing every last drop out of life, whereas Jesse is already going through the motions. At times he looks like a kid who has been invited to sit at the grown-up’s table, and still isn’t quite sure what to say.
I think Jesse and Celine will stay together. In nine years, their daughters will be teenagers in high school. I imagine Celine at the peak of her profession, probably in a senior leadership position, and Jesse as a stay-at-home dad, someone whose last couple books fizzled, and disappeared quickly. These films stand as Linklater’s masterpiece for me. Boyhood was an interesting experiment, and the fact that he and his cast pulled it off, while keeping it under wraps, is impressive in itself. But the film doesn’t linger for me. I just realized, thinking about it, that Ethan Hawke plays the father in this as well. I had forgotten. Whereas this unintended trilogy has done a magnificent job of capturing not only the stages of a relationship, but the stages of adulthood. I too look forward to a fourth part. I also look forward to more movies like this, that will allow us to discourse on a deeper, more personal level. And with that, good sir, I bid you good day.
I couldn’t have said it better myself. This experience and subsequent exchange has been a fulfilling experience for us both.
With this trilogy in mind, I played a game with my family tonight. It was a good time. Memories were made. I listened. I hope I have accelerated my learning by the time the fourth film comes. It would be a shame to stay here, waiting for the day life comes back to me.
And with that, sir, I bid you too, a good day.