Spoiler Alert: This post is about my thoughts on the movies, “Before Sunrise”, “Before Sunset” and “Before Midnight” and it is, unfortunately, not free of spoilers.
Eighteen years ago, on a train-ride starting from Budapest, two people from very different worlds – Jesse (played by Ethan Hawke) and Celine (played by Julie Delpy) – met one another. Even though the movie, Before Sunrise, was released in 1995, I saw this movie, years later, and I was completely floored! I raved about it to everyone I knew, even stating that it is “one of the best films ever made!” Knowing that I have low tolerance for uniform superlatives like “the greatest this” or “the worst that”, some of my friends were rather intrigued. They asked me to tell them more about the film in terms of the plot. Usually this is an easy question to answer; however, how do you get someone hooked to a movie simply by telling them it is a film essentially about two people just walking around and talking to one another? Yes, Before Sunrise is a movie about two people talking but I don’t really mind that because the conversations are stimulating, thought-provoking, engaging and allow you to know more about the protagonists in terms of how they see themselves, each other and the world.
For many cynics, a chance train-ride leading two strangers to form an instant connection powerful enough to motivate them to disembark in Vienna and spend time with each other until the next morning may seem to be too magical a fantasy to actually come true in real life. Yet this is exactly what happens in Before Sunrise and the powerful performances of the cast and the ease with which they converse with one another makes it absolutely believable. The characters are regular people – Jesse is an American with a Eurail pass on his way to Vienna to catch a flight back home. Celine is a French student on her way back to Paris. Their conversations are exactly the sort you would have with anybody any day –childhood, parents, former relationships, music and arbitrary philosophical stuff. The sexual attraction is obvious but it is handled with great care and patience. I like the way that their short stay in Vienna is not presented as a travelogue but as a series of meetings with amateur actors, fortune-tellers and street-poets. The tourist-sites are not emphasized; instead, they are seen inside a music-store, spending time in a church, going to a grave-yard, and drinking wine in a random park. The movie ends with them at the railway station the next morning making a pact to meet six months later at the same place without exchanging any contact information.
Before Sunset released in 2004. Fortunately, I had watched the first film in 2008 and I did not have to wait nine years for the next release – I saw it immediately.
Before Sunset is set in real time i.e. nine years after the two characters had first met. Jesse is in Paris on a book-tour – his novel, This Time, which he wrote, inspired by his time with Celine, is an American bestseller. Celine happens to be in the same book-store. In the beginning, itself, they broach the subject on why they did not meet after six months – it turns out that Jesse had come but the sudden demise of Celine’s grandmother made it impossible for her to make it. Since they had no contact information, there was no way of getting in touch. Jesse has a flight to catch the same evening and so they utilize the rest of the afternoon catching up with one another. While they continue to talk about environmental concerns, violence in third-world countries and religion, through their conversations, we also learn what has happened in their lives since their first meeting. Both are in their early-thirties and are dissatisfied with life in varying degrees. Jesse is married and has a son but he does not really love his wife. Celine is dissatisfied because her current boyfriend, a photojournalist, is not around as often as she would like him to be. The connection that they had with each other still holds and as the movie progresses, you can see the fumes of passion getting rekindled with whiffs of tension; especially when Jesse reveals that he wrote the book with the hope that he would find her someday and Celine replies that reading the book brought back painful memories for her. The movie ends with both of them arriving at Celine’s apartment and Celine playfully telling Jesse, “Baby, you are gonna miss that plane!” and Jesse smiles nervously, fidgeting with his wedding-ring, and replies, “Yes”.
If Before Sunrise painted before you a simple picture of ideal romance between two dreamy youngsters who meet, fall in love, and are very hopeful and enthusiastic about the future, Before Sunset, to some extent, is heart-breaking as you re-visit these characters who are now more grownup and somewhat jaded by their life-experiences. It brings you closer to reality and the picture that the first movie painted does not appear so beautiful anymore.
Being a fan of happy endings, I was somewhat disappointed when I learned, in the beginning of the movie, that Jesse and Celine never met after six months. However, I hoped that the second movie would show them having a happy ending. The abrupt end of the second movie seemed unfair to me! I hated the fact that it just left me hanging! I wanted to know whether they actually ended up being together “happily ever after” or were there going to be more twists to this romantic saga.
The wait ended when Before Midnight released this year. I was extremely upset when I found that this movie was not releasing in India. However, I watched it yesterday. Jesse and Celine are now middle-aged. They have two beautiful daughters who are twins. The movie begins with Jesse bidding farewell to his son from his previous marriage and is unhappy to see him go. The air of tension is evident throughout the film and you can see the cracks beginning to surface in the relationship between Jesse and Celine. The film exquisitely depicts a day in the life of the couple and you can see how the years of togetherness has brought into their lives a fair share of conflicts along with love. The couple is not just quarrelling over every day things like, for example, the fact that he does not shave; but it is quite apparent that the couple has genuine issues lurking beneath the surface of their fairylike relationship. As the story progresses, one can see that Jesse’s humour is a mask to hide the serious problems in their marriage while Celine’s assertiveness and strong-headedness are triggers for unpleasant confrontations. They still talk a lot, argue even more, sometimes are exasperated with each other – in other words, they are everything a real couple is in today’s times; and like regular couples, they too sometimes fail to re-create the magic of their past romance despite good intentions. In every relationship, once the newness wears away, one is exposed to a lot of sides of the partner which one may not necessarily like. While acceptance is the key, a lot of us try changing some things about our partner and do whatever we can to make things work for us in the best way possible. Jesse and Celine are no different. They are still fond of each other but the spark that was so apparent in their years of courtship is dwindling with intrusions of reality in their relationship in the form of ambition, parenthood and work. One thing that really struck me while watching the third movie is how convenient the internet has made things – at a lunch-table, a young couple tells Jesse and Celine how they maintain a long-distance relationship through Skype. The subtext, here, questions whether a situation like Jesse and Celine’s would be possible today in an era where communication technology is so pervasive.
The three films, when seen together, beautifully depict how our shared connections just seem to bounce back and forth with the passage of time – it is a rare, beautiful yet real experience. In the first film, the couple largely talks of the future; in the second, they are focusing on the present; and in the final movie, Jesse and Celine are seen reflecting on the past and how their lives have turned out to be since their first meeting. You can actually see how a couple progresses in a relationship and how one advances and alters from one stage in life to the next. Before Sunrise is about the idealism of romance, Before Sunset grounds Jesse and Celine’s love as a decision they both have to make while Before Midnight is about the consequence of these choices. All the three films depict the protagonists trying to control the flow of life, attempting to find the meaning of their existence and struggling to keep their anxieties at bay through their words and actions. The most interesting feature of the Before trilogy is its focus on real-time – the gaps between when the films are released (1995, 2004 and 2013) are reflected in the characters’ ages in the movie. A part of me hopes that another sequel releases in 2022 – after all Jesse and Celine’s love-story only seems to grow better with age - but only time will tell if my prayers are answered!