Friday, May 24, 2013

Before Midnight - Surviving "Happily Ever After"

This is filled with spoilers. If you haven’t seen the film and read this anyway, you are not the smartest of people.


I’ve already told you about my experience of seeing Before Midnight at Sundance. While I had a lot to say about the film back then, I didn’t want to post it all back in January given the fact that so few people had seen the film. Since only a small number of people would be able to read and discuss with me, I thought it’d be more fun to hold off until we could all commiserate together. This isn’t a straightforward review so much as it’ll be a series of impressions and thoughts.

Ethan Hawke’s Jesse and Julie Delpy’s Celine have come to mean a great deal to me. When I first saw Before Sunrise, I was surprised by how close I felt to these characters. They felt three-dimensional, and it’s entirely due to the dialogue-heaviness of the script. You have a chance to hear exactly what they think about so many things that you feel like you actually know these people in some way, almost like they were friends of mine. I really wanted to know what they might have thought about various things, and found it fascinating to see the way that they changed over time.

In the 9 years between Before Sunset and Before Midnight, I’d often wondered what had happened to Jesse and Celine. The last time we saw them, they’d reconnected after 9 years (sensing a motif here?) and the future of their relationship was in doubt, to say the least. That ending! “Baby, you are gonna miss. That. Plane.” This time around, I made a concerted effort to keep off of any internet forums or the like that would tell me the setup for the new film. I didn’t want to know how Jesse and Celine found themselves on the same patch of real estate and I’m so glad that I did it that way, because the revelation was one of the best gifts I’ve received in years.

After an opening sequence in a Grecian airport between Jesse and his visiting son (he’s so old now!), the camera follows him from behind as he walks outside as he walks to the car . . . and there she is. I’ve often described it since as feeling like a 13-year-old girl on the inside. The thought that they’d found a way to live happily ever after was almost too wonderful to imagine. “Oh, they lived happily ever after!!!” The rest of the film pokes some holes in that theory, but the idea that the end of the second film was not the end of their relationship is beautiful.

Throughout the film, there are a few little easter eggs dropped about what their life has been like. He really did miss that plane, and they blacked out the windows to have sex for days. After he got divorced, the two of them ended up moving to New York for 2 years before moving to Paris so that their twin daughters could be born there, which apparently almost killed Celine. They have never married, even though she has told her kids that they did.

It’s strange to see these characters in middle age. In some ways, I don’t think that Jesse’s ever really changed. He’s still idealistic, believing in true love and the idea of accepting a person exactly as he/she is without trying to make significant changes. I feel as though Celine has changed the most. She’s hit real life, and she’s hit it HARD. He has the luxury of remaining committed to his ideals through his writing, but she’s in the nitty-gritty reality of being a mother and wife (in everything but name). But even that’s not entirely true. She works all day and he stays home to write. It’s not like their relationship is founded in inequality as much as she thinks it is. Still, there’s something there that I identify with that a lot. I know a lot of people who like to deal with these abstract concepts at the exception of reality. I often want to shake them til they rattle to get it across that they only need to listen to what they’re saying to have some idea as to how little what they’re talking about has any bearing on the life of a regular person. Plus, thinking about these abstract concepts all the time doesn’t make one exceptional in any way other than that the corresponding person is often incredibly annoying.

The walk through to the hotel is the most reminiscent of the previous films. The signature two shot of Jesse and Celine walking and talking is one for the books. The amount of work that it must take for Hawke, Delpy and Richard Linklater to not only write that much dialogue but figure out a way to make it feel like it’s coming off the cuff is astounding. I like the way that their hands keep flirting with each other like little sparrows.

The scene in the hotel room is one of the most distinctive in the entire series because, for the first time, we really see Jesse and Celine get into it and the gloves are OFF. In the previous two films, they’ve just been so happy to be together that there’s not really any conflict and they quickly find a way to overcome what little there conflict there is. Here, they’ve been together for 9 years, and are trying to figure out what the future holds. Much of the time, I felt like Jesse was getting a raw deal, as he only wants to talk about the idea of moving to Chicago to be close to his son and Celine’s convinced that he’s trying to destroy her happiness. I don’t think that’s entirely fair, but it’s clear as time passes that she really does feel trapped in their relationship and he doesn’t realize exactly what he’s doing (or NOT doing). They went through a lot emotionally over the course of the first two films, and it’s apparent that they’ve been through a lot in the time since.

In the last scene, he re-enacts their meet cute, and it’s sweet to see him try to tell her yet again that he loves her completely and doesn’t want to throw that away even after she’s told him that she doesn’t think that she loves him anymore. Ironically, it’s only after he resigns himself to the fact that maybe they’re through that she looks at him and asks “so what about that time machine?” I think she knows deep down that he is her last, best hope at being happy. As angry as he makes her, I don’t think there is anyone she would rather be with. I don’t think that this is their last knockdown drag out fight. Even with the most unequal of relationships, it can be surprising to see the kind of almost desperate need that two people have for each other. I’m reminded of Johan and Marianne in Scenes From A Marriage. Despite the terrible things that they say and do to each other, you know that they will never find a way to be two separate people. Fortunately, Jesse and Celine never take it quite that far.

Seeing these two caught up in real life is something kind of strange. In the first two films, they’re either just meeting for the first time or are reuniting after many years, whereas here, they’ve been together for years and are trying to live out the peace. The reality is never as simple as the fantasy seemed. The future's here and it  hurts. Surviving “happily ever after” is not nearly as easy as it might have seemed in the other movies. Even if it's only until the next fight, I'm really glad that the two of them seemed to figure things out. The idea of them splitting up is almost too terrible to think about, at least for long. Jesse and Celine have traversed a lot of emotional territory over the course of the 18 years we’ve known them, but the love that they’ve built up is more important than the little things that drive them crazy. It might be a cliché, but Emerson was right. The things that unite us are stronger than that which drives us apart.

Love is hard. Even if you’re lucky enough to find it, the holding on can be the most difficult thing that you’ve ever had to do. People don’t stay the same and the emotions that they feel often undergo a transformation that, although it might seem glacial, can result in a change so severe as to bring even the mighty to their knees. But you know what? If Jesse and Celine with all their fighting and drama and joy and misery can find a way to be happy, then maybe the rest of us can too. That's a comforting thought.