You still haven’t seen Richard Linklater’s Before Midnight? Well, here’s the first thing to do. Click here to go to Mumbai Film Festival site and book your seat at Liberty Cinema for its screening on 23rd Oct at 5:30 pm slot.
And now come back to this post. Shubhodeep Pal watched the film and went meditative on Jesse and Celine’s two decade long love story – wonder, ponder, and all that jazz. Read on.
(I just have one question – they are not a couple in real life? Hawke and Delpy never fell for each other? Unbelievable, this cinema shit!)
In one of the many memorable scenes in Before Midnight, Celine watches the setting sun descend into the distant hills, and counts down to the moment when dusk will envelop Jesse and her. “Still there” she breathes. “Still there”. Until the inevitable moment when, of course, it’s no longer there.
But is it the sun that she’s referring to, or their love – spanning two decades – that her longing, slightly sad eyes see sailing into the dark? After all, doesn’t love too follow a similar arc to the sun? It is not a far cry to suggest that, in love too, there is a period of expectation akin to dawn, then the happy realisation of love that reaches a zenith, followed by a gradual disintegration until dusk arrives, and, finally, a darkness that marks the passing of love.
However, just as they expect the sun to, many people expect dead love to conquer the darkness in a dawn that’s imminent. Sadly, love is less predictable and more beguiling than the cycle of the sun. Indeed, love is often more like the stages of our lives than we’d like to admit, and, often, it mirrors our emotional state at that stage. Our best shot is perhaps to extend the middle period – from zenith to dusk – and try to make love oscillate between these two points. Or, at least, delay the inevitable.
In Before Midnight, Jesse and Celine occupy this middle period. The heady lightness of discovering love, followed by the more sombre loss of paradise, are now past. They are together, but saddled with age, children and responsibility. More importantly, in their story, they are separated from their first moment of love by two decades. Has their love actually survived that long, Celine frequently asks. Will it endure much longer? Or will competing interests tear them apart?
In another romantic classic, Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, Joel, one of the two protagonists, wonders: “What a loss to spend that much time with someone, only to find out that she’s a stranger”. Celine and Jesse find themselves in this spot too. Can they truly say they understand each other perfectly because of their love? Their differences, after all, are prodigious:
Celine is a strong-headed woman of the arts from post-feminist Paris and no pushover for men. Jesse is American and, despite being a moderately celebrated writer, by his own admission, lacks the cultured sophistication of Celine. Indeed, it is sometimes difficult to see Jesse’s virtues as anything other than an unremitting adoration for Celine and winning wit.
At this moment in their lives, more than anything else, they find themselves in need of re-affirming the love that binds them together. Celine and Jesse are living with their two children in Paris – but Jesse’s son from his previous marriage must spend most of his time with his mother. Jesse would prefer to be closer to him; Celine cannot think of moving to America on a whim, especially when she’s just secured a new job. Will these forces, tugging the two in opposite directions, tear them apart?
When the first feelings of love are a distant memory, what remains? Is it still love, or just a memory of love? Moreover, how does love cohabit a space in which our human frailties are eventually revealed from under the glare of the initial moments of love? In Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless mind, this thought finds succinct expression in a dialogue between the protagonists Joel and Clementine:
“Joel: I can’t see anything that I don’t like about you.
Clementine: But you will! But you will. You know, you will think of things. And I’ll get bored with you and feel trapped because that’s what happens with me.”
Similar concerns drive one of the major underlying currents of Before Midnight. In one scene, Celine asks Jesse whether, seeing as she is now, as a woman older by twenty years, would Jesse have still come up to talk to her. Jesse tries to give a reasoned answer, instead of the expected romantic one and that irks Celine. Does love survive on expected answers, instead of the truth?
The writer Alain de Botton, in his fine book, Essays in Love, writes: “To be loved by someone is to realize how much they share the same needs that lie at the heart of our own attraction to them. Albert Camus suggested that we fall in love with people because, from the outside, they look so whole, physically whole and emotionally ‘together’ – when subjectively we feel dispersed and confused. We would not love if there were no lack within us, but we are offended by the discovery of a similar lack in the other. Expecting to find the answer, we find only the duplicate of our own problem.”
In Before Midnight, both Jesse’s and Celine’s insecurities find expression in articulate, intelligent dialogues that play one’s insecurities off the other. Perhaps the finest set of dialogues written in recent memory belongs to the hotel set piece when Celine and Jesse’s differences clash violently and spill all over each other’s sore spots. And they react as all humans do – by hurting the other in order to find a balm for one’s own wounds. The genius of this movie lies in how we can easily see – like we have often seen in our lives and in our homes — how both Jesse’s and Celine’s arguments appear sound until the other returns with a counter-argument.
Each successive argument, however, shows an increasing pain and a withering appetite to hurt. Is this the mark of true love: The unwillingness to keep on hurting the other, even in a fierce argument? Jesse tries to make peace repeatedly but fails. Celine will have none of it. But when she says “I don’t love you” to Jesse, does she really mean it or is she trying to justify to herself the reason for her vituperation of Jesse (which is undermined by her obvious affection for him)? Elsewhere in his book, de Botton writes: “We fall in love because we long to escape from ourselves with someone as beautiful, intelligent, and witty as we are ugly, stupid, and dull. But what if such a perfect being should one day turn around and decide they will love us back? We can only be somewhat shocked-how can they be as wonderful as we had hoped when they have the bad taste to approve of someone like us?” More than anything, this middle stage of love – as we might as well call it – is a time for the recalibration of the love of Jesse and Celine, especially as they prepare to look beyond themselves into matters that will affect the lives of not just their own selves, but also the family as a whole.
Before Midnight illuminates both the comforting and disconcerting aspects of love and how it ages. Undoubtedly, love can be transcendental and offer the purest of joys to those under its spell. Equally true is that the mist of love can unravel just as quickly as it appeared. In such circumstances, it is an abiding respect for each other that offers the best anchor for saving that love. More importantly, it is an appreciation for the mundane aspects of love that might provide the most enduring memories – remember how Robin Williams, in Good Will Hunting, says how he remembers his dead wife the most at night, during which her farts while sleeping are missing.
Susan Sontag argued in her seminal essay “Against Interpretation”, that the new critical approach to aesthetics undermines the spiritual, transcendental importance of art, which, is, instead, being replaced by the emphasis on the intellect. Can we perhaps extend a similar argument to the interpretation of love? Are we witnessing a transformational age in which love becomes a means to an end, soon to be discarded for more “substantial” things such as a meeting of minds that is based on logic and compatibility? The illogic of love can barely withstand the logic of our personal wants.
As a movie, Before Midnight is an oddity. In an industry that pleasures itself by commissioning inferior sequels that can endlessly cash-in the goodwill earned by the first movie, Before Midnight offers arguably more than the previous two films in the series combined. Apart from its deep meditation on love, it also has much warmth and wit to offer – on asides as various as parenting; sex in the age of virtual reality; the difference in psychologies of men and women, and the interpretation of literature. Even the funniest gags are littered with meaning — a particularly amusing one has Celine acting a bimbo.
The only irksome facet of this movie – which is quite deeply feminist at heart – is how it often shifts the audience’s “sympathy” to Jesse’s predicament and portrays Celine as unrelentingly insensitive to his plaints. This does not appear unnatural as it is presented in the movie, but was a slight cause of concern to me. Why did I feel more sorry for Jesse? Is it just how the characters are, or was Celine’s constant rebuffing of Jesse a bit too exaggerated? That said the movie excels beyond your highest expectations.
But do the two characters find a resolution? In a masterstroke, the movie refuses to tell us. And, given how faithfully it mirrors the oscillations of love in most of our lives, that is how it should be. For, what is life but an endless search for answers, only to find that each answer leads to more questions? The moments of peace that must be snatched are those during which we know that right now, for a few minutes or seconds, everything is okay.