BEFORE MIDNIGHT: A Snapshot of Time
Sixteen years after making Before Sunrise, and two decades after the encounter that led to it, Richard Linklater would finally find closure, though perhaps not the kind he had hoped. He’d been holding on to the possibility that, like Céline in Before Sunset, Amy, the woman he’d met in Philadelphia, would show up to a screening some day. In 2010, a friend of hers finally drew the connection and tracked Linklater down, only to inform him that Amy never actually got to see the films. She had died in a tragic bike accident in 1994, just weeks before production began.
Before Midnight is a stark dose of reality, in ways that I’m admittedly not ready for. Prior to its release in 2013, I managed to watch both its predecessors in 35mm, and after each installment, I had the kind of existential crisis you’d expect from an aimless, self loathing twenty-one-year-old. Take this as sort of an admission or apology if you’ve been following this series of essays because upon my recent re-watch, it was as clear to me as it was the first time that this is a film I’m not quite ready for. I’ve never been married, nor had a relationship that would be remotely comparable, I’m not even sure I can fully process Jesse getting a text about the death of his grandmother, let alone the death of the woman Céline is based on, because I’ve never lost anyone close to me. Why then would I make this about me? Well, the previous essays were too, though perhaps a little less explicitly, and my readings of each prior film depended heavily on my own experiences. Then again, maybe the fact that I can’t fully relate to Before Midnight is a good thing. Not because of some snarky notion that I’ll never be older and argumentative, but rather because watching the first two films then and now led to completely different experiences based on the life I’d lived. And yet my thoughts upon finishing the concluding chapter remained the same: I can’t wait to re-visit this film when I’m ready.
What drives this trilogy is specificity. That’s what drives most great cinema, even the films that feel broadly relatable. It’s the specifics of human experience that lend stories their familiarity, so Before Midnight doesn’t feel like an entirely foreign concept to me. I recognize the laughter and the sharing of experiences that cross cultural boundaries, just as much as I recognize Jesse and Céline’s guilt and their feeling trapped between decisions. In fact, it’s that familiarity that makes me certain I’ll want to return to the film some day, and I’m dreading it already! Where the first film encapsulated youthful romance as a means to self-discovery, and the second tore down its naïveté in order to begin a process of healing, the third doesn’t seem to offer any such solution at its close. It takes a snapshot of the realities of married life (Jesse and Céline aren’t married on paper, but they may as well be) and drags its characters through the mud once more, only unlike last time, their frustrations aren’t aimed at themselves, but at each other. There’s no quick-fix solution, no magic wand or sudden realization that makes everything better, and for all we know their massive spat may not even be a significant event, like their strolls through Vienna and Paris.
I do wonder though, given that my perspective comes from a place of inexperience, what it must be like for someone in a similar position to watch the series’ earlier entries? Would they see Before Sunrise purely as a romantic escape, or Before Sunset as a second shot at love with no other major implications? On the other hand, could they possibly see them as stories of doomed romance and nothing more? Perhaps either interpretation would depend on one’s outlook, but I don’t think I’m too far off in saying that recognizing subtle shades of grey might require a more expert eye. I use ‘expert’ loosely of course, since living life makes experts of no one, but perhaps moving beyond the basics of universally recognizable storytelling is one of those things you ‘had to be there for.’
But then I wonder if I’m looking for catharsis in the wrong place. Closure is always something I’ve wanted, or even needed, as it gives me a sense of control over the impermanent. It’s what I look for in movies, even in ones that are open ended (I’m content knowing Cobb from Inception is content), and I found necessary closure at the end of Before Sunrise and Before Sunset. Each film reflected my experiences back to me – not directly of course, but I’ve shared many of Jesse and Céline’s feelings on life – and in their closing moments, they seemed to provide some kind of hope or answer. Or perhaps even validation, like my struggles had ended victoriously.
What if the flaw in this outlook is treating Before Midnight like it’s either of its predecessors? The film has a completely different setup and structure, for one thing. Jesse and Céline have been in Greece for six weeks, and have been together for about five hundred. Rather than a single conversation between the two of them, we get to see what they’re like around other people. We get each of them to ourselves, as they spend time with friends in their own element, and we get to see them function as a couple, trading stories with younger and older couples who see the world differently. The life they’ve lived between films is a life they’ve lived together, and the film isn’t about two worldviews coming into contact. If anything, it’s about the silent friction those worldviews have created by rubbing up against each other for so long. Céline even mentions that she knows how Jesse gets when his son leaves, so maybe their ‘climactic fight’ is just another day for them. For all I know, I could even be stating the obvious to viewers who’ve been married for a long time, so perhaps the film portraying this as being ‘as good as it gets’ was once striking to me for all the wrong reasons.
Etymologically, ‘closure’ would indicate a catharsis at the very end, would it not? Jesse and Céline close their eyes at the end of Before Sunrise, ready to face an uncertain world. Nine years later, Nina Simone plays them out as they find laughter again, as Before Sunset fades to black. These are the kind of monumental occurrences that you grow up reading about in romance novels or listening to in pop songs. But what happens when the clock strikes midnight? Does the magic fade? Do the prince and princess live happily ever after? By the look of it, they simply put their fight on pause, as Céline calls back to a joke they shared earlier. She’s joining in on Jesse’s little game, where he’s a time traveler from the future, here to assure her that they make it. He has no way of knowing this of course, but maybe the closure here isn’t in the idea of assurance, but in the idea of time travel.
Not literal time-travel, obviously. The trilogy is fairly straightforward, and I wouldn’t dare deviate from it in order to theorize, but Jesse has brought up the idea on multiple occasions. Not as science or science fiction, but as a narrate structure. In Before Sunset, he talks about his next book, where a man sees his daughter dance to a pop song, and within the space of that song, he’s transported back in time (whether literally or metaphorically) to the night he met his wife, as she danced to that same song. In this film, he tells his friends about his next project, where various people who are lacking in some way are all connected through time by On The Waterfront. This is how his characters experience emotion, and it’s often how he tries to contextualize it. So maybe the closure I was searching for within Before Midnight wasn’t at the end.
Maybe it was at the beginning, when Jesse got back in the car at the airport, and Céline did the same without a word. Maybe it was on their drive back, when they joked about what horrible parents they were for not waking their daughters to see the ruins. Maybe it was when they joked at the lunch table, the same joke Céline later called back to. Maybe it was when they found a moment of peace together, finally away from their children. Maybe it was something that happened a week earlier, or something that would happen three years from now. Maybe it was all of it, or perhaps even none of it, because closure isn’t real and I just don’t know any better, and maybe life’s biggest moments aren’t some all-important crescendos. Maybe they’re just that. Moments.
Richard Linklater made Before Midnight not long after he heard the worst news possible, though you wouldn’t suspect it from watching the film. His Jesse and Céline seem to move on, over and over again, as a means to keep on living. I don’t know what I’ll have to face when I finally travel to the future, but having revisited this film, I can be sure of one thing. I’m more prepared than I ever was.
“To passing through.”