[NOTE: In case you haven’t seen Before Midnight, there will be spoilers below. Just a heads up.]
The other day I went to screening of Richard Linklater’s latest film, Before Midnight. It is the third in the Before… series and a fitting end to what has been a fantastic trilogy.
The thing that struck me as I was watching was that I feel as though I have grown along with the main characters, Jesse and Celine. I first ‘met’ them in 1995 in Before Sunset. It was in Vienna and they met on a train. Jesse and Celine were each in their early twenties and I was in my late teens. There was an instant connection between the two. In some small way, this film mapped out the long and windy road to first love, and I revelled in this joyous romantic template. Forget the sugary schmaltz of paint-by-numbers rom-com’s of the day like Sleepless in Seattle, Linklater’s Sunset rendered a realistic and intriguing bond between a man and a woman that felt grounded. Perhaps of more importance, to me at least, it felt attainable. It was if I could go up to any attractive girl and just talk to her, and not with sleazy intentions, just the notion of making a connection with another human (who just so happens to be a cute girl). So I grew a goatee beard, like Ethan Hawke, I cut my hair (I was getting over my Anthony Kiedis fixation by this time) and started putting product in it to make it look like Hawke’s. The grunge aesthetic would be the template. I tried writing. I liked Hawke’s book The Hottest State, and it inspired me to try writing a book of my own. That would come much later though. I wasn’t ready at 18, hadn’t been through enough yet.
Both are young and beautiful and full of a sense of wonder and curiosity with the world around them. We can see that the young Jesse is a romantic soul, angry at the world but ever hopeful:
“If I’m totally honest with myself I think I’d rather die knowing that I was really good at something. That I had excelled in some way than that I’d just been in a nice, caring relationship.”
Celine, on the other hand, is strong-willed and cynical and resolute in her beliefs while remaining open to the possibility of love. I particularly enjoy this line from Celine:
“I have this awful paranoid thought that feminism was mostly invented by men so that they could like, fool around a little more. You know, women, free your minds, free your bodies, sleep with me. We’re all happy and free as long as I can fuck as much as I want.”
I think it is exactly this candor, this freedom that Celine has to say exactly how she feels, that attracts Jesse to her.
Following their night together, the two decide to not exchange contact information, instead agreeing to meet back at the same train station in six months time.
This does not happen. Instead, Jesse pens a fictionalized account of their encounter, a novel called This Time, which sells well in Jesse’s native America but needs a push in the European market. Jesse embarks on a European book tour, with Paris being the final destination. Celine shows up at Shakespeare & Company, a little boutique bookstore in Paris and Jesse can hardly believe this familiar face smiling over at him as he fields questions about the book.
With only an hour until Jesse has to get on a plane heading back to the States, the two walk the streets of the city of love and see what nine years has done to each of them. We learn that Jesse did in fact turn up at the train station in Vienna as promised, but Celine did not due to the death of her grandmother. Jesse is now married and has a son. His marriage is not a happy union:
“I feel like I’m running a small nursery with someone I used to date.”
Jesse clearly loves his child but feels no connection to his wife. Celine, engaging her natural desire to change the world for the better, has become an environmental advocate. She also, as it happens, spent some time over in the States. I love this exchange between them, when Jesse was apprehensive about settling down with the wrong woman:
JESSE: In the months leading up to my wedding, I was thinking about you all the time. I mean, even on my way there; I’m in the car, a buddy of mine is driving me downtown and I’m staring out the window, and I think I see you, not far from the church, right? Folding up an umbrella and walking into a deli on the corner of 13th and Broadway. And I thought I was going crazy, but now I think it probably was you.
CELINE: I lived on 11th and Broadway.
JESSE: You see?
Jesse and Celine circa 2004 both retain their looks but clearly the past decade has had its challenges, and it shows. They look like they’ve lived a life but they also look like they’ve just stepped out of a fashion catalog, albeit one for alternative types.
At this time, when Before Sunset was released, I had defied the odds and fallen in love. Real love. We met at work and felt a connection, and we acted on it. It wasn’t without controversy however. She was eighteen and I was twenty-five. The higher-ups in the office didn’t think too much of our union. Plus, her older sister worked there and she made life very difficult, a trick she has developed (almost to perfection) over the years. We saw a lot of films together, that girl and I, and Sunset was one of them. But I was in a different space to the characters. We were months away from getting married, we hadn’t experienced the joy and challenges of parenthood, we hadn’t even been overseas together yet! That would come in October of that year, when we ventured to Europe on our honeymoon. In short, we hadn’t yet lived – not in the sense that Jesse and Celine had to that point.
My favorite scene in the film might well be the final one: Jesse in Celine’s quaint apartment, Celine playing a song she wrote which is clearly about their first encounter together. This dialogue closes the film:
CELINE: Baby, you are gonna miss that plane.
JESSE: I know.
Before Midnight finds the couple in a very different place in their relationship. First and foremost, Jesse and Celine are a couple now, with a set of twin girls. They are based in Paris and Jesse is having trouble maintaining a close connection to his now-teenage son, Hank. Hank is based in Chicago with Jesse’s ex-wife, and from the sounds of it, she is making life difficult for Jesse and Celine.
Jesse is now an established and celebrated writer, while Celine is contemplating a job in the government. They have spent six weeks in Greece, at an idyllic house on the peninsula and their trip is coming to an end.
The two still somehow manage to look like something out of a catalog, which as they are in their forties seems unfair to the rest of us.
Aside from the drama associated with Jesse and his family back in the States, we get the sense that Jesse and Celine are perfectly content with things the way they are. There are reservations from Celine about whether to accept the government position, but I wrote this off as her natural and charming tendency towards neuroses.
It isn’t until later, around the dinner table with their adopted friends that we get a sense that perhaps there is palpable tension in their relationship, bubbling under the surface and set to combust. Celine playfully teases Jesse about his celebrity as a writer, and plays the role of mock-literary groupie to the delight of their friends (and to the embarrassment of Jesse).
The aforementioned tension makes itself known in a big and very ugly way at a hotel later that evening. Intended to be a chance for them to enjoy some much-needed alone time, it instead spirals very quickly into a heated exchange of pent-up bitterness and regret from both parties.
JESSE: I fucked up my whole life because of the way you sing.
What starts with Celine receiving a phone call from Jesse’s son Hank, turns into a vitriolic back-and-forth that results in Celine leaving the room and returning several times. They lay their feelings bare, talking about his role as the successful and sometimes absent genius writer, while Celine has forsaken her career aspirations to raise their twins. Jesse is at his wits end, at one point declaring Celine as “the fucking mayor of Crazytown.”
This truly is some of the best writing I’ve seen in a movie, maybe since the last one in the series. So realistic it borders on the uncomfortable at times. Another Linklater film, also starring Hawke, that conveys this tension beautifully is 2001’s Tape.
I’d like to take this opportunity to thank Mr Linklater for giving us the gift of his films. They are a joy to behold. And in this age of remakes, “reimaginings”, reboots and comic book movies, it’s so nice to have something that feels real and renders humans experiencing human feelings and emotions. It is cinema at its most brilliant.
It would seem that this will be the last film in the series. The selfish film consumer in me would love nothing more than to revisit Jesse and Celine every nine years for as long as is possible. Growing older with them has been an absolute delight.