Before Sunset (2004)
(Warning: spoilers for both Before Sunrise and Before Sunset.)
One of the more pressing questions regarding Before Sunrise, to me, was just how realistic it was, for two strangers to meet on a train and click so effortlessly, and in such a profound way. The (admittedly rather unromantic) answer I came up with was that they allowed themselves to open up to one another in a way that one generally doesn’t with a person they don’t know (or even with people they do know). Maybe I’m being idealistic, but you can fall in love with anybody who genuinely, openly expresses their thoughts the way that Jesse and Celine do in Before Sunrise. It’s simply that they were willing to take that risk with one another. It was a gamble for Jesse to invite Celine to eat in the dining car with him on the train to Vienna, but it paid off. And with those winnings they gambled even more, spending a night in Vienna together, and in a way they won even more.
One could argue that their mistake that morning, in retrospect, was that they didn’t gamble further, by tempting fate and giving each other their phone numbers or addresses. Before Sunrise is littered with stories between the two, about people promising to write to one another, to maintain a relationship, and never following through. And that’s a realistic tragedy of life; you do lose touch with people, love does turn stale. Combined with their youthful romanticism, it isn’t surprising or even completely foolish for them to not trade contact information. They make a promise to one another to meet again at the same train station half a year later. They think it’s enough. Unfortunately, reality gets in the way.
And that’s what Before Sunrise’s sequel, Before Sunset, revolves around—romance and idealism being plowed down by reality, as they are wont to do throughout life. If that one day that Jesse and Celine shared in Vienna could exist solely separate from the rest of their lives, it would have been a beautiful, life-affirming story. What Before Sunset reminds us is that, in reality, moments do not exist in and of themselves, and those gambles that the two made in 1995 affect them forever afterward, not only in how they view the world but how they view and interact with other relationships. Their love was a standard all other relationships were compared against, and of course all other relationships paled in comparison.
It seems like every aspect of Before Sunset is meant to push this idea of reality intruding upon their past relationship, and the previous film. It’s filmed in real time, following Jesse and Celine as they wander through Paris, trying to think of excuses to stay in each other’s company, to hold onto each other and what they had for as long as possible before reality intrudes. (The set-up of the film is vaguely similar to Before Sunrise—once again, Jesse has a plane to catch; but there is more to say now, and less time to say it.) A lot of their initial conversation is focused on catching up—the chemistry they had together is still there, and they talk about their lives with a casual bemusement and a comfortableness that’s pretty rare for people who only met once before, nine years ago. But they’ve built that night up in their minds, and in a way they’ve been waiting nine years for this moment. He wrote a novel about it and is now a best-selling author. She filed the memory away in her mind, sometimes denying it to herself until it revealed itself in small ways, like a song she once wrote.
During their conversation they realize and bemoan all the near-misses they had since that day in Vienna—at one point they both lived in New York City, and Jesse even thought he saw her once, when he was driving to a church to get married. The fact that the death of her grandmother kept her from meeting Jesse again six months after Vienna is accepted on the surface as a part of life, but lamented throughout the film. They also note, of course, that if things had gone their way, there was still a chance that the relationship could have fizzled out, that they would have ended up hating each other. The sadness lies not so much in the fact that they missed their chance together, but the idea that what they had together might’ve only been able to exist in a particular moment in time.
The most realistic part of the film’s dialogue, however, is how Jesse and Celine side-step this fear, that they ruined their lives with that day in Vienna. They joke about (and as such try to simplify) the impact that they had on one another throughout the movie. It all comes to a head in a car ride to Celine’s apartment. The conversation evolves into a swapping of admissions between them, about how everything in their lives now seems like a wanting consolation prize for never meeting again. Jesse married the mother of his son, can count on one hand the number of times he’s had sex with her in the past year, and has woken up at night sobbing after having dreams about Celine. Celine’s longest lasting relationship is with a photo-journalist who is ever around. She tearfully tells Jesse that none of her relationships last because she can’t open herself up to them the way she opened herself to him. There’s such a sadness between them in that car ride that it’s hard not to be affected by it.
I might be making Before Sunset out to be incredibly depressing, but it really isn’t—its director, Richard Linklater, has an amazing ability to show the beauty of even the saddest aspects of life, and has the mercy to end the film on a note that’s somehow both ambiguous but also strangely hopeful and perfectly fitting. When I initially heard that they would be making a third film, I was a bit concerned, simply because Before Sunset’s ending allowed you to come to your own conclusion about how Jesse and Celine’s story ended. Depending on your outlook on life, I suppose, you would either come to your own happy conclusions or take it for what it was—the best and only ending that either Celine and Jesse could ever achieve at that point in their relationship. Of course, I’m now incredibly excited about the third film, Before Midnight, because it’s supposed to be amazing, and it’s altogether possible that, just like Before Sunrise and Before Sunset before it, there will be still be a sense of hopefulness to it, no matter what happens. So I’m taking the news of the third film the same way that one should take the idea of life in general—I’m cautiously optimistic. Whatever happens, I’m just thankful that it will happen, after all.
[Photo’s from Critic Speak.]
Before Sunrise (1995)
I watched this for maybe the umpteenth time the other day, and realized that I’ve never really written about it on Tumblr. Which is surprising, because I really, really love this movie—or maybe not so surprising, because the way I feel about this movie, what makes me like it so much, is sort of hard to explain. But I’ll try anyway.
It is, on the outset, a pretty simple set-up. American boy and French girl meet on a train in going to Vienna. They strike up a conversation, make a connection, and the guy asks the girl to spend the rest of the time he has left in Vienna with him. His plane back to the US leaves early the next morning. So she does. And they spend the rest of the day and the whole night walking through Vienna. Simple.
The movie is comprised entirely of conversations between the guy, Jesse, and the girl, Celine, with some small interactions with Viennese characters (a gypsy, a poet, two actors). But this is a film that depends entirely on the deep connection two people make in a relatively short amount of time. In a way it’s a conscious connection—there’s an intense initial attraction, and they’re aware that the fact that they will probably never see each other again once Celine gets back on that train weighs in on everything they say to and do with one another. They speak to one another about things so personal and with such depth because there is nothing really to lose. They think aloud. And because they think aloud and show themselves to be the thoughtful, starry-eyed people that they are, they gradually fall further and further in love with one another. And this too has a profound effect on them, and on their situation.
At the beginning of the film Jesse posits this idea—he’s asked Celine to get off of the train with him, and suggests that, if she doesn’t, she’s always going to wonder, until her last dying day, what would have happened if she only had, if he would have turned out to be the dream man she was looking for. Later in the film, when they realize that what they feel for one another is something very meaningful, he posits another idea—basically, that they spend the rest of the night in acceptance of the fact that they are never going to see one another again, and that they do everything that they can do together within that short span of time before sunrise comes. They are, in effect, living their lives together in only a few hours.
And that’s what makes the movie so beautiful. The realization that whether it’s decades or only one night, your time with the person you love is finite, it’s limited, and as such it’s not the amount of time that counts as much as it’s how you use it. That sounds like a trite thing to say, but it’s true, and the movie expresses it in such a profound, subtle way that it just strikes you to your heart. Every element of this movie is about relationships on a personal, almost spiritual level. Jesse and Celine’s views on life and love are profoundly affected by the relationships they had with their parents, and how they viewed their own parents’ relationships with one another. How they relate to one another now, in term of the other’s personality and their attraction to one another, is affected by relationships with past lovers. They talk about grandparents, friends, and strangers in relation to how they’ve been affected by them, how their worldviews have changed because of them. And with all of this knowledge between them, they set out to create something, in this span of one night, that is leagues more intimate and profound than any other relationship they’ve ever had.
And they succeed, and with that comes a problem of human nature—namely, that you don’t want only a few hour with someone whom you connect with on such a profound level—you want forever, or at least a lifetime, and that’s something that isn’t feasible between Jesse and Celine. And that’s not only due to proximity—it may be that the only way that a relationship like this can survive is if it’s contained within a short amount of time. There’s no sure bet that, if Celine and Jesse did stay together, that the relationship would survive. Jesse, after all, is directionless and a bit immature emotionally, and Celine can sometimes be prickly. They talk about this element to their relationship (to all relationships) too. They’re aware of all the pitfalls that being in love entails. In a way, love is a no-win situation, and they know this. They’re only trying to cheat the system for a few hours.
All of this being said, there’s an innocence and idealism to Jesse and Celine that is afforded only to people in their earlier twenties. They’re old enough to know the hazards of life, but young enough to believe they can circumvent them, somehow. Some of the most beautiful scenes are ones in which nothing in said—when the two of them are sitting in a booth at a record shop, somewhat self-consciously listening to a woman singing about love, early on in the film; when they both take a mental photograph of the other person, trying to memorize every detail so they’ll never forget, aware of the reality of the situation, of life, but, again, thinking they can avoid it somehow. A story Jesse tells Celine, about how a Quaker bride and groom will spend an hour staring at one another in silence as part of the wedding ceremony, is especially poignant. They pretty much go through every stage of a relationship in one day—meeting, talking, sex, marriage (at least in the sense of an emotional union), arguments, and the inevitable parting at the end.
The sequel, Before Sunset, deals with the reality and fallout of their time together (and of life in general), and does so in an equally beautiful, equally profound way, but for now, in Before Sunrise, you get the joy of watching two young people connecting in a very rare way, and leaving one another with the gift of having known each other, if only for a little while. It’s just a great, extraordinary movie, full stop.