A walk through time

Posted on October 31, 2014

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Thoughts on the remarkable “Before” films – “Sunrise,” “Sunset” and “Midnight”.

There’s a reason I kept putting off watching Before Midnight, the third and final instalment of Richard Linklater’s chronicle of the evolving relationship of Jesse and Céline. I wanted to catch up on the earlier two films first – and now that I have, I can say that this trilogy is meant to be watched at one go. I’ll go as far as saying that you’re probably not getting Before Midnight the way it’s meant to be got if you’re watching it in isolation, with just a faint memory of Before Sunrise and Before Sunset. Of course, we all remember the broad strokes. In Sunrise, Jesse and Céline meet in Vienna, and they walk and they talk and they walk and they talk and kinda-sorta fall in love, and by the end, they part ways, agreeing to meet again at a particular place and time. And then, in Sunset, nine years later, we find out that that meeting never happened. Life had happened instead. He’s now married. He has a son. She has a boyfriend. And when he comes to Paris to promote his book, they meet again, and they walk again and they talk again. But this time, there’s no heartbreak. At the end of the film, she says, “Baby… You are gonna miss that plane. He smiles, fingers his wedding ring, and says, “I know.”

So this is what happens before Midnight (which, again, takes place nine years after Sunset), but because plot means nothing in these films, just remembering the story outlines of the earlier episodes isn’t enough. It helps to remind ourselves, for instance, that Jesse and Céline met by accident, and that if the German couple on the train they were on hadn’t begun to squabble and make the others around them uncomfortable, then Céline, who was sitting opposite them, wouldn’t have moved to the seat near Jesse and he wouldn’t have initiated the conversation that courses through these three films. Seen one way, this is just the set-up for a meet-cute. You need to find a way to make Jesse meet Céline, and this is as good a way as any. But what significance this set-up assumes by Midnight, when Jesse and Céline have themselves turned into a squabbling couple. They’re together now, and they don’t resemble their younger selves on that train in Sunrise so much as the older couple creating a scene.

These are the kind of films where you feel awkward, almost embarrassed to list your favourite passages or lines of dialogue – to list them, to claim them as revelatory, would be to show others glimpses of the self you try to keep private. Still, it’s impossible to talk about these films without talking about these moments. I love the poem written by the “Viennese variation of a bum,” taking off on a single word (“milkshake”) supplied by Céline. I love her dress in the second film, the black dress that looks severe, at first, when she meets Jesse, but then, on the boat, as the wind whips around, proves surprisingly sensual, revealing her back. I love that Céline keeps saying things like “giving him a favour,” slipping occasionally into the kind of English one speaks when it isn’t the language one thinks in. I love looking at their faces. How young, fresh, untouched Ethan Hawke and Julie Delpy look in 1995, in Sunrise, and by 2013, how much… stuff their faces have lost and gained. (She asks him in Midnight, “If we were meeting for the first time today on a train, would you find me attractive?”)

I love the long, uninterrupted car ride at the beginning of Midnight – I love thinking about the logistics of this take, how the actors must have memorised not only their lines but also the route, and how prepared the crew must have been for the unexpected, like another car or a curious onlooker. I love how, mirroring Jesse and Céline, most of the characters in the first film are single people and most of the ones in the third film are couples – even a receptionist at a hotel makes a reference to her husband. I love the casualness of the finish of the second film, the way Jesse agrees to stay back in Paris, making an offhand moment out of a life-altering decision. I love the fact that Jesse and Céline barely fight in the first film, and by the third film, their relationship has become one of arguments and taunts and snide attacks – because that’s how it is. The older the relationship the easier it becomes to hurt people. I laughed when, in the middle of the big fight that’s the centrepiece of Midnight, Jesse pours out wine for him and Céline. By this stage, strife is no longer something that brings life to a standstill. Life goes on – wine can only help.

Sunset and Midnight are terrific films, but I like Sunrise best. Obviously, in the sequels, some of the freshness is gone – we now know the format. Plus, I found it slightly unconvincing that, in Sunset, Jesse and Céline picked up pretty much where they left off, even allowing for the fact that movies, by necessity, compress time and cannot show us all the awkward pauses and weirdness that occurred before their conversation really got going this time around. I realise Linklater was going again for the “one day together” conceit, but maybe he should have just gone for the “walking and talking” conceit, over several days, especially as Jesse and Céline are in different places now and not naïve, unattached youngsters anymore. But here’s the thing. These films draw you in to such an extent that Jesse and Céline become your characters (and not Linklater’s), and you start envisioning how you’d do things. Watching Sunrise, for instance, I wondered what it would have been like if Jesse and Céline had nodded off – they are pulling an all-nighter, after all – and if the one who was awake had run into someone else, another escapee from another train with another squabbling couple.

There are boring bits, yes, and some pretentious bits and some random bits as well, along with lines that seem too thought-out (“Socrates, you should get a robe”) – but that’s part of the charm of these films. Because Jesse and Céline are now like family (I smiled when I saw them at the opening of the last film; it was like a reunion, almost), we treat them not like characters in a film (of whom we demand that they engage us always) but like a cousin or an aunt who goes on and on, but we don’t say anything and put up with it because we love them. More importantly, when we watch the film again years from now – when we are different people, with different life experiences – these “boring bits” may become interesting, even profound. Oh, and another thing. Just as Jesse and Céline change over time, we, as viewers, are going to change too, and the fluidity of their relationship is, in a way, a reminder of the fluidity of our relationship with movies. We fall in love with films, sometimes obsessively so. And then the ardour cools. The things we loved, we find, aren’t as loveable anymore. But life goes on, and there’s hopefully some wine at hand.

Lights, Camera, Conversation… is a weekly dose of cud-chewing over what Satyajit Ray called Our Films Their Films. An edited version of this piece can be found here. Copyright ©2014 The Hindu. This article may not be reproduced in its entirety without permission. A link to this URL, instead, would be appreciated.