from a dream of river and starlight into the mess of life: a few thoughts on Before Midnight

I watched Richard Linklater’s Before Sunrise and Before Sunset only a little more than a year ago. When Jesse (Ethan Hawke) and Celine (Julie Delpy) first met on a train, I wasn’t even in kindergarten yet, and when they reunited in a little bookshop in Paris, I had just gotten into high school and still didn’t care enough to apply lip gloss or brush my hair so that it fell down my back with a shine. But the moment I witnessed that intelligent, beautiful young couple banter their way through the cobble-stoned streets of European cities and into each other’s minds, hearts, and anatomies (in that order), I was hooked. I thought, this is how love is supposed to be—a confluence of thoughts, words, meanings, passions, a vortex of bright light and sound amid the humdrum noise of the quotidian. I looked forward to Before Midnight expecting more of the same.

 I can’t say I was disappointed. Midnight involved the same elements as the first two films in the trilogy: an exotic locale (Greece), the passage of time (and all that entails), and, of course, the peripatetic protagonists, talking away. The difference is that Jesse and Celine spent the past nine years before the temporal setting of the film together, working on their family and careers as a couple. The story now isn’t about bridging the gaps between serendipitous meetings separated by years of no contact with or knowledge of each other, but about weaving through the many episodes in the continuum of the relationship and having all those experiences add up to something that would make their love last. And it is this tension between what is, what was, what could have been, and what still could be that makes Midnight both a pleasure and a pain to watch. One moment everything seems fine and dandy—they’re joking around, canoodling, reminiscing amiably—the next it seems they’re falling headlong down the cliff of bad breakups.

There are the issues long-term couples must contend with—from something as mundane as packing suitcases and picking the kids up from school, or nagging and boring sex, to something traumatizing like infidelity. Celine and Jesse show how “settling down” is both a wonderful and frightening thing. Being with the person one loves, respects, and adores, counting on mutual trust, care, understanding, and support, all give one a sense of security and confidence to confront the challenges of life and growing old. But such interdependence also requires one to make sacrifices—to recognize that one is building one’s life with another person who must be considered in all plans and decisions, to think of oneself no longer as an individual, but as a unit. And for someone who prizes her freedom, will, and right to self-determination, that is a scary thing. Compromise is inevitable in a relationship, and when one is too conscious of keeping one’s sense of self intact, the negotiations regarding necessary concessions on both sides can too easily turn into power play or the airing of resentments. Which is what happens in Midnight.

I sympathize with Celine because I, too, am afraid of becoming a “housewife”—of sacrificing personal ambition and social aspiration at the altar of good parenting and housekeeping. This is not to denigrate the domestic, because it is important, and taking care of it is a damn difficult job to handle even for two people. The problem is that women are still largely expected to mind the domestic sphere, and so Celine’s aversion to it is political as much as it is personal—she does not want to give up her “dream job” to move with Jesse to Chicago, for instance, because countless women before her have given up their careers for their families, and she does not want to be one of them. However, the film also suggests that one of the reasons women remain burdened with the domestic is because they take it as their lot, with the assumption that men can’t do a good enough job. But if men are willing to help, to cooperate, why not let them? Why not teach them? Celine’s problem is that she can’t let go of her ideals as woman, mother, and global citizen, and all the responsibilities her standards entail. The difficulties of juggling those roles make her experience of life one of unremitting struggle, which she justifies by appealing to the ideas of feminism. Though asserting a narrative of oppression reaffirms the significance of her troubles, it also occludes the sacrifices Jesse has made for their family. She fails to see that she holds no monopoly on insecurity, guilt, and loss.

And then there is the issue of fidelity. What does it mean to commit to a dyadic partnership and then go fuck somebody else? How significant is a one-night stand, the result of raging hormones and bad judgment, involving neither affection for the third party nor unhappiness in the current relationship? If one builds one’s life around the beloved and strives to keep within the limitations a commitment entails, should one misstep, much rued, really count? But then, if Jesse cheated on and eventually left his wife for Celine, could he not do the same to her? And if he truly loved her, why would he do something he knew would hurt her?

Midnight does not belabor such questions, but instead seems to brush them aside with Celine telling Jesse, “I don’t think I love you anymore,” and walking out the door. Of course, Jesse comes after her and tries to rebuild their relationship with words and a theatrical conceit. For this film, like the other two, recognizes the importance of language and the games we play with it—of narrative, of make-believe—not to deceive, but to communicate more profoundly. After all, the willingness to go beyond one’s own subjectivity and consider a story from another perspective is what fosters understanding, without which any relationship is doomed. And difficult truths are best served with a dash of humor.

The idea that, after the first flush of heady romance, love must consciously and constantly be remade to endure is nothing new, but the pleasure of the movie lies in seeing the characters make sense of and navigate their personal transformations and the changes time and experience have wrought on their relationship and worldview. The anguish one feels in sitting through their arguments is balanced by the joy of finding that though they’ve grown older, fatter, more tired, neurotic, cynical, and contrary, at heart they remain the intelligent, beautiful, brilliantly funny couple who met on a train to Vienna in the summer of ‘94 and walked through the night, from a dream of river and starlight, into the mess of life.

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