Roger Ebert often wrote that La dolce vita was the film that held different meanings for him at different stages of his life. I can’t pontificate about how Richard Linklater’s brilliant Before series (1995’s Before Sunset, 2004’s Before Sunset, 2013’s Before Midnight—each nine years apart) will speak to me nine or eighteen or twenty-seven years down the road, but I imagine that Before Midnight, the most recent installment, appeals across the generations at this very moment. What I mean is that there’s something for everybody here; in some way, every generation and both sexes are represented. Are you under thirty, and not married (big surprise, I’m in this group)? Then either the relentless intellectual discourse will fascinate you and engage your literary predilections or you will sympathize with the young lovers at the dinner table, pragmatic in their approach to their relationship, eschewing formalities for a dalliance with a youthful combination of sentiment and physical affection. Are you over thirty, and married? Then you will appreciate the maturity that Linklater, Julie Delpy, and Ethan Hawke (who both receive screenwriting credit alongside Linklater, as with Before Sunset) invest in Celine (Delpy) and Jesse (Hawke), still (as best as I could gather) unmarried, though they have two young daughters. This is a movie for men and women, for young and old, for Greeks and French people and Americans. The beauty is that no one perspective dominates the story, but that all infuse it; Before Midnight first belongs to Jesse and Celine, as a couple we’ve grown to love and cherish and envy and chide through the years, and then to us, who are also prone to love and want and envy and criticism, like them.
I am very aware that my current (and very single) twenty-four-year-old self would love nothing more than to meet a pretty and vivacious girl on the train to Vienna (Before Sunrise; Jesus, I have that dream more or less every night), and I admit that a certain sensibility attaches to a novelist’s idyllic summer sabbatical (Hawke’s character is a writer) spent in Greece with his girlfriend and children and writerly companions, as depicted in Before Midnight. (And were I to reunite with that same girl in Paris in between—the plot of Before Sunset—you could shoot me if I complained.) Whenever two tempestuous and egotistical people spend more than twenty-four hours with one another, smooth relationships and friendly conversation do not always—will almost never—result. What you can ask for, and what Before Midnight provides, is frankness in experiencing the excruciatingly formidable task of perceiving the love and people and history that surround you. This is no simple assignment, nor should it require your sympathy; we all go through it, and there are much worse positions to be in than walking about Greek ruins interpreting Bergman’s Scenes from a Marriage for the twenty-first century. But Jesse and Celine are unlikely if equal and equally idiosyncratic partners, and because of that their romance transcends emotion, generation, nationality, and gender.
In many ways, the Before series exposes the artificial distinctions we draw between men and women. One of the more honest and forthright moments (from a man’s perspective, as will immediately become apparent) of Before Midnight pitted Jesse and Celine on a long walk from their seaside villa to another Mediterranean- (or Aegean-; they’re in Greece, so spare the geography savant the geography lecture because they’re all the same to me, and at least I know that the capital of Uzbekistan is Tashkent) facing hotel. The film’s second half, in a flourish of irony, rejects the series’ travelogue origins for an intimate fight contained within the pastel-colored and claustrophobic walls of that hotel—not even the world’s nicest hotel manages to completely remove all vestiges of loneliness and drab decor. On the trek to this commercially palatable hotel, though, Celine remarks to Jesse that women, essentially, have fewer benchmarks than men do: If men constantly compare themselves to other accomplished men—Kevin Durant averaged thirty points a game as a twenty-three-year-old, Balzac wrote his first novels well before age forty—for reasons of past discrimination women have no such reference points, and that fact frees women, for they have no need or care to evaluate themselves alongside any measuring stick. Celine or Julie Delpy experience less pressure than men to have, say, published a book by a certain point in her life; better to interact with all that life brings and chastise, rightly, men who condescendingly take for granted the “fairies” who pick up their trash, wash their dishes, and cook their food. Fat chance Delpy or Celine will let any guy pass such stereotypical chores off on her; her aversion to stereotype adds a dose of naturalism that most romantic comedies lack.
Before Midnight raises several cross-generational questions, too: Is it possible that two people are meant to be together forever? Should you actually attempt to answer that (rhetorical) question genuinely, the more ridiculous the concept of an eternal bond between two people becomes. We all observe others differently depending on their various stages in life—a parent’s perception of his or her teenager’s goings-on contrasts significantly with that teenager’s perception of his or her own affairs, and vice-versa. Jesse explicitly bolsters this point halfway through a virtuoso opening act, during which the camera, mounted outside Jesse and Celine’s rental car, films an extended rumination on the acts and emotions of parenting; Jesse remarks that his mom’s recollection of Jesse’s teenage years runs counter to Jesse’s recollection. (This has to be true—it’s not like my mom and I never yelled at each other when I was young, she was knowledgable, and both assumed the other was full of shit.) The difficulty ensues once you accept or gullibly affirm that two people have the patience to not only tolerate but love each other for such a long fucking time. Jesse and Celine acknowledge to each other, during their walk, that there are some old people out there sustaining more than seventy years of wedded bliss, and their reaction, and mine, is to laugh, because it’s so absurdly preposterous and defiant of our default state. Couples our age have been holding off on marriage, and not without reason; marriage, or love on the level of Jesse and Celine’s, requires a quantum of commitment and total acceptance of another person’s fallibility missing from your boilerplate relationship, and human nature resists a pledge that spans decades and lifetimes. In spite of our natures, though, our hope is that Jesse and Celine patch the cracks gradually widening due to the pragmatic, day-to-day concerns of their union, founded on an emotional, literary, and intellectual connection (much of their bickering stems from Jesse’s son with his now-divorced wife, living in Chicago, while Celine opposes any move to the US). Successive generations may associate readily with Jesse and Celine’s high-minded discourse and intercourse, but that won’t stop new complications from ensuing as the years pass (just as Jesse and Celine deal with their own problems that pop up, and just as our personal appraisals of the status of their relationship changes dependent not only on their age but also on ours).
I alluded above to the travelogue-like qualities of the Before(s) Sunrise, Sunset, and Midnight, each set in a new and newly romantic part of Europe (first Vienna, then Paris, now Greece). The series does not shy away from the provincial, in that the films always know that they’re set in Europe and star an American man and a Frenchwoman. Startlingly, if not surprisingly, some of the more pointed barbs traded between Jesse and Celine implicate the other’s country of origin. Celine criticizes the American’s willingness to sweep every problem under the rug, the idea being that ignorance of or avoidance of a problem is tantamount to that problem never having existed. Jesse criticizes his French lover’s bluster and passion—according to him, she’s the mayor of Crazytown—and not without reason, for while we should commend her independence, her striking out on her own (she has a new job offer that she’s considering—in Europe of course, conflicting with Jesse’s desire to move to Chicago) has ramifications for Jesse and her children that she doesn’t fully appreciate. And then the Greeks, the joke of Europe, the world, and Jesse and Celine, at the moment—the couple holidays there with a lovable Greek family—the husband and wife simultaneously boast and complain that the Greeks always joke even though the premise of their jokes always mention how angry they are. A younger generation of Greeks, represented by the young grandson of the writer who’s offered Jesse a room for his summer retreat and the grandson’s girlfriend, are significantly more pragmatic—they harbor no prospects for a seventy-year marriage—but the difference there owes less to nationality than to generation (see above).
We’re predisposed to see our heroes and our lover-protagonists marry or settle down by the end of the film. Interestingly, Jesse and Celine are reticent with regards to any exchanging of wedding bands, despite the fact that their cute and blond twin daughters insist on their formalizing the bond. Cutting against signing the license are the problems attendant with any marriage and with any relationship; Jesse and Celine, no matter our affections for them, are still given to pettiness and squabbling. Their problems seem larger or more important when played for such a big audience, but in reality their problems share much with our own. It’s just as hard for us to overcome the barriers presented by age, gender, language, and nationality as it is for Jesse and Celine. I’d posit that the next film in the series can’t come soon enough, but then I realize that I want, however selfishly and voyeuristically, Jesse and Celine (and me) to live and work through the next nine years, too.