Eighteen years ago we met Jesse and Celine on a train to Vienna. Nine years later we met them in Paris. Today we meet the couple in Greece. Before I continue, I have a confession to make, I binged watched all three movies last week. I was also not yet three years old when Before Sunrise came out. I mention this because I believe someone who was forced to wait nine years between chapters would have an entirely different experience than I did. I don’t especially want to be 41 years old but I can’t help but be a little envious of someone whose age paralleled that of Jesse and Celine’s. I feel like I would have understood Before Sunset and Before Midnight on deeper levels if I were at the same point in my life as the characters. I enjoy being 21 for the next few months and believe I can pretend to be mature for long enough to understand the films’ topic, so I don’t regret my decision to compress 18 years into 18 hours too much.
I could write a novel, and just might try, on one minute of dialogue between Jesse and Celine. Each movie covers such a vast array of topics and thoughts one could literally spend forever contemplating one exchange between characters. When the three movies are taken as one whole work, the films are nothing short of mind bogglingly astounding. The abstractions, so confidently discussed in Before Sunrise, come to fruition in the following films. For example, Jesse’s ruminations on his future life as a father on the streets of Vienna are put to the test in Before Midnight.
The transformation of the characters’ from the Sunrise to Midnight is one of devolvement from high-minded idealism to jaded and pragmatic realism. Life happens to Jesse and Celine. Life smashes their idealism and laughs at its ruins. The theme of disillusionment is universal. If you can’t relate, you’re just too young to know life is a series of gains followed by a sharp series of losses. In the same dialogue sequence where Jesse gives his thoughts on fatherhood, Celine gives her thoughts on God. And just as Jesse finds out the hard way how difficult it is to keep his grand promises to himself, Celine loses her belief in God.
I know I haven’t paid much attention to Before Sunset. Out of the three, I think it’s the weakest. In many ways it can’t help but feel lackluster compared to Sunrise and Midnight. When we pick up with Jesse and Celine in Paris, we meet them in a transitory stage of their life. They are people caught in the middle of holding fast to their idealism and surrendering to the realism closing in on all fronts. They are confused. As a result, the movie comes out muddled compared to the distinct statements made by the others. The dialogue is still outstanding but it feels less flavorful than Sunrise’s. I think if I was thirty and lost in my life I would have loved Sunset but as a newly minted twenty-something I’m still clutching to those same ideals and swearing the disillusionment isn’t going to take me the same way it took them. The sad part is, I’m positive if I got to ask 21 year old Jesse whether he was going to let the disenchantment rob him he would have sworn, as vehemently as I do now, that it would not. Even though the movie ends on a hopeful note the aftertaste is sour and somber.
Midnight delivers in a way the prior films do not by taking Jesse and Celine out of their isolated walks and placing them amongst other people. Its interesting to hear the dinner conversation tackle the “love at various ages” talk from the bunch of new characters’ perspectives. We are also able to see how Jesse and Celine functions in a social setting. They’re quick-witted, funny, and lighthearted, poking fun at each other and playing off the other’s remarks. To their friends Jesse and Celine must seem like the perfectly matched couple with the fairy tale ending but as the film takes us away from their interactions with others and isolates us with the couple we begin to see the uglier side of the relationship. Here’s where the disillusionment and dissatisfaction start to surface, away from the prying eyes of friends. Fronting the playful and happy relationship to friends to cover a discordant one has to strike a chord somewhere. After dinner we’re taken on one of their classic Jesse and Celine walks, where they talk about life, love, and their pursuit of happiness. A sense of uneasiness permeates the film, passive aggressive quips and remarks cut deeper and deeper till they exploded in the hotel. The fight scene is beautiful because it is true. It follows the rhythm of real arguments, the screaming, the lulls, the seething blows, and the missed connections at attempts for reconciliation. There is complexity and depth to each side of the argument. Celine wants to follow her passion and is filled with contempt of Jesse’s success and ability to do as he pleases. Jesse sees Celine as an obstacle to the son he has left behind. The split in his heart between the love he has for Celine and the love he has for his son and his independent life can been seen in how his shirt is tucked in on whatever side is closest to Celine and not tucked in on whatever side is farthest from her.
In the end, the films posit the question of love. Can it last? Is it real? Is it just two people lying to each other for long enough they get so deep in there isn’t much of a point of call it off now? While the series has a definite ending, its somewhat left up to the audience to decide if they are going to live happily ever after or be trapped in the same cycle of arguments.