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Film may be better at war-war than jaw-jaw, but if you love words as I do you are not going to let a mere medium get in the way of that love. Filmed versions of Pinter? Sure. My Dinner with Andre? Love it. I even like talky oddities like Mindwalk.
So despite not being a romance fan, I am a total sucker for love stories if they are verbally compelling, better yet if the dame is brainy. So I fell for Before Sunrise and Before Sunset, Richard Linklater’s bookend films exploring the charged relationship between Jesse (Ethan Hawke) and Celine (Julie Delpy). Which may be another way of saying I fell for the gabby but brainy and charming Delpy.
At least I thought they were bookend films, a couple destined to remain alone and together forever. The symmetry of the titles alone– Sunrise, Sunset–suggest a dyadic relationship. A dyad about a dyad.
The first (1995) explores Jessy and Celine’s accidental meeting on a train in Europe and the weekend they spend together in Vienna that may or may not be their last. They are 25.
The second (2004), was filmed, and is staged to take place, nine years later, when the actors and the parts they play are in their early to mid 30s. Here, it is revealed that fate separated the lovers before they could meet again, but meet again they do. This time it is a weekend in Paris, and once again the viewer is left hanging about whether they will find happiness. Under movie convention rules, that means stay together as a couple. How little mortals know.
Despite the dyadic symmetry of the two films, the fact that the viewer is left hanging at the end of the second suggested a need to continue. And now after another nine years, Linklater brings us back to Jesse and Celine, and we see the road they have traveled and where they are now, in 2013. Now they are in their early 40s.
Below the fold spoiler alert
The good news is that we find they have stayed together, with two lovely young twin daughters. The not-so-good news is . . . that they have stayed together. This time they are in Greece, with its hint of systems failure in addition to it being another gorgeous background for romance.
It is a strained kind of romance. The first sections of the film are for the most part a continuation of the over-articulate-to-the-point-of-goofy dialogue that was so endearing in the first two films, but this time there’s an edge. The edge consists of the introduction, gently and archly at first and building slowly over time, of a series of real life problems that our lovers do not seem well-equipped to handle.
There’s also something missing in the badinage, some lack of frisson. You want the dialogue to suddenly catch fire and take on a life of its own, but it doesn’t.
It doesn’t help that Linklater has opened the drama up this time to include a small gaggle of other characters (equally talky), and for a while you feel that Linklater has put a few too many people in too small a boat. One ensemble dinner scene in particular feels a bit too much like late, which is to say not very good, Woody Allen. And as in a Woody Allen movie, you get a slight feeling of claustrophobia as you realize that the conversation between different characters is not much more than serial interior reflections by the same character–Woody, the creator. That can be death to suspension of disbelief. Where have the distinctive voices of Jesse and Celine gone, apart from their creator? Their talk has become rote, a hall of mirrors.
Through a plot contrivance at the dinner party, Jesse and Celine find themselves without their daughters alone for the night at an expensive hotel, courtesy of their Greek friends. Finally, the two lovers–surrounded for the first parts of the film by family and friends–can be alone, and the viewer may hope that this signals a return to the romance of Vienna and Paris.
The romance starts all right but just as quickly is shoved aside brutally in favor of conflict: the sudden eruption of the tensions hinted at in the first parts of the film. Now, the dialogue sparks. Now, we have the exchange of souls via words. Now, we have two distinct individuals with different personalities expressing their feelings.
It is as though Linklater, in the first part of the film, kept the form of the chatty talk from the first two films intact, but subtly drained it of its magic. So just when you think that Before Midnight is a failed attempt at replicating the first two films, it reveals itself to be something different. Here, the bracing dialogue of Act III is put in the service of a different, harder, master (in fact, Jesse hints at this earlier in the film by describing his third book as taking a similar turn, as trading in romance for a deeper message).
IMHO, there was a brutal realness in the way the fight dialogues were staged in the final act. In my currently happily married state, I don’t fight like Jesse and Celine at all. I don’t fight. But earlier in life I found myself in some truly world-class arguments. Much of the fight scene is true to my memory of those: how the protagonists snake around each other looking for traction, how they suddenly and quite viciously change the terms of the altercation when they see a foothold, how escalation gets out of control, how a pained defense morphs ever so quickly into a nasty offense. You want your dialogue? You want your dialogue? Here’s your fucking dialogue and I hope you like it!
So the bookend movies now become a trilogy. There’s a unity in a dyad and there’s a unity in the trinity, too. Thesis, antithesis, synthesis and all that.
So is that all there is? Are we at synthesis? Probably not. The dialectic lives on.
I won’t spoil the ending too too much by saying that the relationship appears dead and that there is a kind of reconciliation at the last moment. But watch closely the very last sequence: the terms of Celine’s surrender are filled with portents of more problems.
So it could be that this is a finished trilogy or it could be that this will be a fictionalized version of Apted’s Up series, with Jessy and Celine returning every 9 years. At some point enough will be enough, but I continue to find the dialogue sparkling (or sparking) and the protagonists interesting, and I’ll be along for the ride in nine years if the trilogy becomes a quartet.
Bonus: Here are Jesse and Celine, or at least a dream version of them, in Linklater’s Waking Life.