Now thanks to the vacay after exams I finally got the chance to view all the pending movies on my bucket list (which is insanely long btw). Normally I can’t watch more than 2 in a day, but made an exception because of this beautiful Richard Linklater trilogy that offered one of cinema’s most authentic portrayals of love: the good, the bad, and the ugly.
No, I do not watch romantic films or anything remotely close to that, but this is equally The greatest trilogy ever made appropriately labeled, ‘Lord of the Rings’ for Cigarette-Smoking Cynics.
Filmed over 19 years, in three parts – Before Sunrise, Before Sunset, Before Midnight.
Seemingly cliched, two strangers, Jesse (Ethan Hawke) and Celine (Julie Delpy) meet on a train and discover a surprise connection, decide to get off the train for the night and talk.
For them, wandering the streets and canals of Vienna is just something to do while in transit to elsewhere, and they’re killing time with an attractive stranger as best they can in the interim.
Only then can true – if not flawed but inevitable – love emerge. It’s amazing, not just in concept, but in how honest it allows its leads to be.
They say things, brutally openly emotional things that you would never ever hear in a summer romance movie. (Nicholas Sparks adaptations have all but ruined love in the movies.)
I appreciate how people point out cinematic love.
Yes, movies tend to simplify and make rapturous what people generally struggle with. I won’t accuse populist romances of mismanaging people’s expectations of love and sex, but rather state that the Before trilogy is a terrific primer for relationships in a way.
Idyllic locations aside, they more or less want to present people in love over a long time, not lovers in heat.
There’s never any check-ins with couples in mainstream romances, just the blind faith in “Happily Ever After” mentalities.
While conventional romances spend almost all of their energy convincing you that, consequences be damned, this particular couple is going to hook up, and it is going to be worth all of our emotional commitment because if they don’t hook up, we’ll, like, die or something.
But these films get you thinking about the real nuts and bolts of relationship-building, and more importantly ask us to confront the consequences of attempting to build relationships in the real world of those illusory and harmful myths that we perpetuate in our romantic fictions.
‘Before Sunrise’ is not a love story. It’s a falling-in-love story, a distinction worth noting.
And the next two examine intimacy after infatuation ends – which is the point at which real love begins.
In Sunset, Celine’s bitterness is rooted in the long shadow that the idealistic romantic fantasy of her one night with Jesse cast on the rest of her life. Her failures with men all come back to their inability to hold a candle to the fantasy that she built around this single Viennese night.
Also, and I can’t stress this enough, these movies are insanely romantic.
And I’m not talking about sickly grand gestures but romantic in seeing what makes two people truly connect. How they speak and turn each other on intellectually.
They just talk. A lot.
And they care.
They discuss the Germans occupying Paris, what art means to them, how cool Nina Simone is, and just what it means that they gave their lives to each other. Now to me, that is way sexier than playing, like, “M’ apparì tutt’ amora” with a ukulele outside someone’s window.
All of those couples we see in romantic movies, holding hands as they walk down the street before the credits roll?
They’re going to fight eventually.
They’re going to exchange unpleasantries.
Some of them are going to make it, and some of them are not.
The non-permanence of it all is as seductive as it is kind of wistful.
Fights in relationships happen for many reasons – to establish separation, define roles, and (scariest of all) help people feel alive.
The energy they once expended in merging with each other is now rediscovered through conflict: the “highs” of an initial encounter matched only by the “lows” of a falling-out.
Their persistent aggravation with each other indicates so much time spent together, so much intimacy and so little self-knowledge. (They misunderstand each other so well.)
For them, fighting is their body’s last ditch strategy to rebuild a connection now collapsing under their feet.
Does it work? (Spoiler!) Of course it does.
But not because they are fated to be together. Destiny didn’t bring them together, and destiny won’t pull them apart.
All along, Jesse and Celine have been making choices.
They get off that train, they return to that bookstore, they stay past that fight.
More than anything, they have chosen to fall in love, stay in love, live with love – even as that love changes.
I love Sunrise’s emotional maturity and sweetness, and I admire Midnight’s total commitment and bravery in showing marriage as an imperfect situation, and I adore Sunset’s cause doesn’t try to put an official stamp on this couple so much as let them breathe and show their development as people.
To summarize: Everything in life is an unsuccessful attempt to be loved a little bit more. We’re bound to fail, but you know, it’s worth the nice empty try.
There’s idealism in Jesse and Celine’s journey, but also romance.
Despite everything, we still believe in their story.
Their story is exceptional yet familiar.
Privileged yet universal. Two people worth our hope.
And in this way, it is not a generational tale, but an eternal one.