In the spirit of Richard Linklater’s “Before” films, each of which follows Jesse (Ethan Hawke) and Celine (Julie Delpy) through a few hours of intense discussions about work, love, and the meaning of life, my husband and I decided to review the newest film, Before Midnight, via e-mail. Spoilers ahead!
Are Jesse and Celine that German Couple Now?
Do you remember that very first scene in Before Sunrise? Jesse and Celine haven’t met yet, but they’re on the same train heading to Vienna and an older, presumably married couple sharing their train car is fighting loudly in German. When they finally leave, Jesse uses their argument as an excuse to interact with Celine for the first time, asking her if she knows what they were talking about. She says that she doesn’t speak German and then continues, “Have you heard that as couples get older, they lose their ability to hear each other? Well, supposedly, men lose the ability to hear higher-pitched sounds, and women eventually lose hearing in the low end.” Jesse jokes that it’s nature’s way of allowing couples to grow old without killing each other.
I couldn’t stop thinking about this scene as we watched Before Midnight. Doesn’t it seem like this very idea of husbands and wives losing the ability to hear each other was at the heart of the new movie? Jesse and Celine, now together for nine years, have become that quarreling couple from the train. But Jesse’s joke isn’t proving true – instead of this hearing loss allowing them to grow old together, it may be the thing that drives them apart, forever.
It’s ironic, isn’t it—that the kind of easy familiarity that develops in a long-term relationship can so easily devolve into simply taking each other for granted, assuming things about each other instead of actually listening?
But what do you think? Is faulty communication at the heart of Jesse and Celine’s troubled relationship, or is it something else? And what about all the new ways of listening this movie portrayed that didn’t even exist in the early movies—cell phones, Skype dates, and text messages?
I’m all ears.
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To Know You is to… Exploit You
I admit that I had not thought of that first scene in Before Sunrise while I was watching, but you’re right that the theme of communication that sets the whole thing off is inescapable in Before Midnight. I think, though, that forty-one-year-old Jesse and Celine would tell their younger selves that they have misinterpreted what’s really going on with the arguing German couple. I think that it is less about being heard than it is about being known.
The desire and resistance to being known is most clearly seen in the character of Celine, who has had a version of her life displayed for the international reading public against her knowledge, consent, and creative input. She is, therefore, resisting being known not only by the public, but by the one person that knows her best out of self-preservation. Jesse has dedicated his recent life and work to knowing Celine, and he has profited both personally and professionally from this knowledge. She resists this knowledge not because it is necessarily inaccurate, but because it is incomplete and she does not like to have her story written for her. The more that Jesse “knows” her, the more oppressed she will feel. Approaching Celine from this perspective allows me to be more sympathetic to her.
Funny you should mention tech, because we see Celine in some ways using her phone to document for posterity her version of events (Jesse “stealing” her daughter’s apple) as if she now has a way to set the record of their relationship straight. Am I hearing your questions right? Is there equality of knowing in this relationship, or have they even reached that stage yet? Is Celine an exploited woman, giving credence to her feminist claims? Has Jesse been too careless with his muse? Is that why he’s moving on to different subjects for his next “more ambitious” novel?
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Is Love Meant to Last?
When your name popped up in my inbox yesterday morning, my heart fluttered a little, just like it used to when we were dating but living in different countries. Email was the baguette (or should i say banh mi?) and butter of our relationship. I used to wonder if things would have worked out differently for Jesse and Celine if they had met in the age of the internet like we did, imagining them friending each other on facebook before they had even left each other’s presence.
But maybe they wouldn’t have done that. Jesse and Celine, after all, are romantic idealists, less interested in companionship than in seeing themselves as the lead players in a star-crossed romance. When I saw Before Sunrise for the first time, I was a backpacking, Nietzsche-spouting twenty-something myself, and I remember being disappointed by the movie, as if I had expected (as I think they did) their chance encounter to lead to a grander ending. Rewatching it this summer with you, my idealism tempered by a good decade of adulthood, I felt more tenderness toward all their naivete and posturing. After all, I went through that phase myself.
I wonder if, another decade from now, I’ll have developed some sympathy for the Jesse and Celine we met in Before Midnight—because, frankly, they were killing me with their narcissism this time around. Jesse—as you astutely pointed out—has profited by using Celine as the inspiration for his two successful novels. And maybe he’s spent more time with the fictional version of his wife than he has with the real woman; when she doesn’t conform to his idealized version of her, he’s frustrated. Celine’s idealism has been dashed against the responsibilities of parenthood and the reality that sex with Jesse has grown monotonous. This grand romance hasn’t worked out the way either of them dreamed, and they are, or at least Celine is, ready to give up.
But have they just gotten their definition of love wrong? In one of the most interesting scenes in Before Midnight, Jesse and Celine sat at dinner with two other couples, their host, and an older, single woman, discussing the meaning of love and the ways that technology has changed relationships. Everyone at the table seemed to agree that no romantic relationship was intended to last forever—an odd assertion to find in the middle of a movie devoted to making the viewers root for Jesse and Celine to stay together (or did the movie make you want them to split up?).
While I don’t agree—that is, I think we were meant for lasting, life-long love—I think at least part of the key for Jesse and Celine’s future emerged in this conversation. The woman of the youngest couple eating with them talked about how her grandmother, in a letter near the end of her life, had written more about friendships and meaningful work than she had about her husband. Jesse and Celine have made an idol of romantic love, and now that it’s failed them, they have a chance to put it in its proper place—as an important part of life, but not The Thing That Makes Life Meaningful. (Maybe the evangelical traditions we were raised in could do with a little de-throning of marriage and family, too—but that’s another conversation.)
Ultimately, Jesse and Celine have to stop trying to control each other, to stop editing each other into the idealized people they wish they’d ended up with. And they’ll have to consider embracing the sacrifices adulthood requires.
Ugh. And I as well, right?
There’s still so much we haven’t gotten to yet—the letter from the future, or the way that Celine knows more about what’s going on with Jesse’s son than he does, or how Celine feels the weight of the whole world’s feminist hopes and dreams on her shoulders. What do you think: will they make it? Should they?
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How Jesse and Celine are Like Dolphins
I see these three films like the dolphin show we watched with our kids at the Georgia Aquarium in Atlanta. The audience, ready to see some dolphins do the things dolphins do, was also “treated” to a good vs. evil mythological musical production that combined the audience participation of a Dora the Explorer episode with a quarter of the plot sophistication. In other words, it was just a guy with a string of Christmas lights on his cape claiming that the dolphins flipping, scooting, and touching tethered balls with their noses will defeat evil, and our clapping will inspire them to do so. But we got to see the dolphins do those things and we were satisfied. Our four-year-old loved every bit of it, our two-year-old was scared by the canned thunder, and I liked it when the trainer surfed on the dolphin’s back.
I bring this up to show my agreement with your point that the age at which you experience these films influences how you read them, and also to say this: I don’t really care if the Starcaster defeats the sea monsters, and I don’t really care whether or not Celine and Jesse will make it. This isn’t callousness on my part; it is taking full advantage of the interpretive freedom Richard Linklater has given us through brilliantly avoiding sentimentality in the script, score, and cinematography of the films.
We don’t know exactly what happened to these characters in the years between films. Details are revealed to us as we watch, but there are still plenty of missing pieces. When we fill in the gaps, we can’t help but do it with other stories of relationships, either drawn from real life or fiction. If the stories we know are of love conquering every obstacle, then we are more likely to give their relationship a good forecast. If we have seen relationships crumble and believe individual freedom is the greatest good, then we might be okay if they split up, as long as their children are taken care of. If we believe that love is a battlefield, then we can’t help but see their relationship as natural.
For me, I’m happily waiting for that time a few years in the future when Linklater will create another plausible excuse to get these two characters, together or separated, in an enclosed space to talk it out. Hopefully they will be hearing each other a little more clearly next time.