The Cinderella Syndrome. Discussing the “Before” trilogy
Our new column Panorama seeks to call into question current films, classic masterpieces, remakes, evolution of the genres, social situations reflected in films. The first material happens to come out this exact month, the month of love and escaping reality, and so, it discusses the romantic idealism in the American trilogy “Before”, directed by Richard Linklater, starring Ethan Hawke and Julie Delpy.
It’s been 26 years since the release of the first part of the Linklater’s trilogy Before (Sunrise, 1995; Sunset, 2004; Midnight, 2013). Not devoid of romantic cheesiness, even though a refined one, Linklater went on breaking this genre where the “happening” was the main focus; here, as in Rohmer’s cinema, dialogues and the illusion of temporal continuity were at the heart of the film. How could a discussion flowing from a train wagon to a bar and then on the steps of a statue keep you hooked for its entirety? How could a film as such, about romantic idealism, keep film critic Robin Wood on the edge of his seat? The trilogy is based on fictionalizing the affair that Linklater had with a foreign woman he met in a toy store in 1989. He wrote her a note inviting her to a date and they spent a whole night together. Linklater promised her to make a movie about it, but the woman died in an accident before the first part came out.
Essentially, Linklater’s idea was as simple as possible: to create a connection between a man and a woman: Jesse from Texas and Celine from Paris, who meet on a train and fall in love, but they find themselves under the pressure of turning into pumpkins at midnight, struck by reality. Running out of money, she goes back to France, he returns home. Between their together moments, Linklater leaves some fundamental ellipsis (of course, the longest ones represent the hiatus between the three films). Although it builds a lot of erotic tension, the movie never shows what really happened in the Viennese park where the two spend the night together. Details of this kind are narrative hooks used even in their conversations – in Before Sunset the two meet again in Paris, where Jesse releases his new novel, which describes in a platonic way the dazzling meeting with Celine, but their versions of what happened that night seem to be different. The viewer, who stands on the other side of the barricade, cannot endorse anything of what is said, because things happened outside the frame. The purpose of these rather sudden directorial interventions (up to that point, Linklater lets the day unfold organically, building the illusion of temporal continuity in the most efficient manner, precisely to create the sense of immersion, so the viewer can feel the change of light and the passage of time) is to emphasize the impermanence of the moment and to create a suspense that is rarely associated with romantic film. Although they initially agree on not seeing each other again, in the end the two make a frugal promise, which probably neither of them thinks is possible: to see each other again 6 months later, in December, on the same platform.
Before Sunrise ends with a series of shots in the morning light, where no characters can be spotted: all the places the two passed through and where they had something to share with each other, places that remain unchanged (or just altered by the physical degradation of the city), while the two go on with their fleeting lives. In one of the key scenes of the movie, which also gives out Linklater’s obsessions with time, Celine takes Jesse to the Cemetery of the Nameless, which she apparently first visited when she was 13 years old. Of all the tombstones, one stuck with her: a little girl her age. Reliving the moment, Celine notices the strangeness of the fact that the girl stopped at 13, while Celine reached 23.
Before Sunset comes out 9 years later; just like in the first film, their date is cut off by Jesse’s return home. But now, time is even more limited: they only have a few minutes (or maybe hours?) to learn about each other and make up for their time apart. Before Sunset is for both of them like a morning sleep that one dives in for too long, when the line between illusion and reality begins to stretch out far too much. Again, the anthology finale “baby, you are gonna miss that plane” paradoxically announces that a third part is coming up to give them the space they need together, but at the same time it points to the fact that the magic will be gone; that when one is no longer bound by time limits, things begin to degrade or become mundane up to the point they turn into simply ordinary. For a filmmaker who is constantly preoccupied with the issue of time, it is clear that his films contain a cipher that eventually opens up, when things begin to pile up. For example, the small glitch that actually leads to the meeting of the two protagonists, in a nineties train on the way to Vienna, is a conversation deliberately left without subtitles, between a middle-aged German couple who are in a fiery argument (she jumps off her seat, scowling and waving her hands around, he gets all testy and growling; anyway, they get loud enough to bother the other passengers nearby), which makes Celine leave her seat and get closer to Jesse. Cut to, in Before Midnight, they themselves will reach the intensity of the quarrel between the two strangers. Still, the perspective changes fundamentally: if Jesse and Celine perceive the couple’s fight on the train as a symbol of long-lost love, of it turning into a series of mutual annihilations (“after a certain age, men no longer perceive the high notes, and women the low ones”), Before Midnight is not about that, rather it depicts the mutations that love suffers over time. The erotic chalice that once fueled their idealism is now completely broken – Jesse and Celine are married, have two children and are overwhelmed by the thought of impermanence; if in the past they would talk about this subject as something dystopian, now they are actually living it, are part of it. The idea of limited time is replaced by the feeling of triviality, of the fact that the passing time is no longer lived properly, but is an infinite mass of robotic tasks, where there is no room for spontaneity. This time, the ellipsis is keenly felt: Jesse and Celine are on a vacation in Greece, and the details that make up the puzzle of events are gradually revealed (she gave birth to twins in Paris, he broke up with his wife, he lives with the feeling that his son doesn’t spend enough time with him). The flicker that triggers the conflict between them is precisely Jesse’s frustration with his son, with the fact that he sees him too rarely, and so the boy might develop a lot of issues due to not having a constant father figure in his life. In fact, it mirrors the starting point of Boyhood (2014) – if Boyhood is the perspective of the child passed from one parent to another, where the father is played by the same Ethan Hawke, Before Midnight contains a fragment from the father’s perspective. Jesse wants to move to the US, to be closer to his son, but Celine can’t give up Paris. Sent by their Greek friends to a hotel on an island, where they can spend the night without children, the couple does nothing but argue. There’s something tragic and, at the same time, comical about Julie Delpy’s back and forth between rooms, or in the hallway and back to the room, dangling her panties on one finger. Then there’s Ethan Hawke’s cynical humor, which fuels her with anger. The finale, which couldn’t be more magical, sees them on a tiny cafe terrace, where Jesse pretends to read from a napkin a note sent from the future by Celine, aged 82, in which she tells him about a crazy night which ended with some hot sex.
- Cinematic praxis
Throughout the trilogy, Linklater inserts in the characters’ lines all sorts of hints to his own film practices, all delivered by Jesse: the first is a TV show, airing 24/7, in which 365 people from different geographical areas are filmed in the midst of their daily routines (they wake up, eat, go to the market, etc.), a poem of the mundane, based on repetition. Jesse adds, “Why is it that the idea of looking at a dog dozing in the warmth of the sun seems nice, but a man standing in line at an ATM is considered ridiculous?” What does actually determine the beauty of things? Despite that there’s something exceptional to Jesse and Celine’s first encounter (at least to the idea that two strangers come to be fascinated with each other so much that one night ends up leaving an imprint on their lives), their talk and the memories they share with each other are commonplace. And by extension, Boyhood doesn’t witness the extraordinary in this young man’s life, from childhood until the moment he leaves home for college, but on the contrary, it gives substance to the universality of the experiences he goes through: a father who wants to know everything he does to compensate for his absence / the same father who in Before Midnight asks his son at the airport, embarrassed that he has to let him fly home alone, which is the first thing he will do when he lands. Jesse’s second idea (anyway, he’s talking about a book, but it’s clear that Linklater is alluding to cinema) is a story that could happen in a short amount of time, about the length of a pop song. Thus, one can notice the back and forth between the two, between dilated time (a night of sweet love) and compressed time (like a proustian cake that can teleport you in a few minutes to another space and time).
The type of fiction that Linklater offers is adapted from documentary film, it’s an extension of Jesse’s idea of the TV show. What does this mean? First, if in Boyhood the practice involves spending time on a regular basis with the cast, and the script changes depending on what is happening in the world (the transition from the Bush administration to Obama, for example, or the way the music in the film changes according to what was popular at the moment, Britney Spears vs. Lady Gaga), in the case of the trilogy, the context of those moments is rather secondary. It’s not the background that’s crucial – it’s the way Jesse and Celine grow into adults, the way time changes their structures and beliefs (for example, Celine believed in transcendence as a teenager, and becomes more cynical in adulthood). Such changes, both in the case of Boyhood and the trilogy, are not accidental – they are metacinematic mutations. In the first case, they derive both from the life experiences of Mason (Ellar Coltrane) and from the experiences of all the kids born in the ’90s, and in the second it’s more about the way Ethan Hawke and Julie Delpy shape their characters, making quite the use of their personal input in the process. On the other hand, at least in the case of Before Sunset, there are two more details that I would like to discuss, which might have to do with chance: Shakespeare & Co., the Parisian bookstore where Jesse releases his novel, announced during the pandemic that goes bankrupt, and Notre Dame Cathedral, about which Celine herself says “can you believe that one day Notre Dame will no longer exist?”, is devastated by fire in 2019 – the image of the two stays in your mind as an encapsulation of the spirit of the age and is part of what makes Linklater’s cinema feel like a bubble in time. Such landmarks of civilization are milestones for him – it shows both who we are and the way the reality around us changes our structures so much.
There are some theories that the finale of Before Midnight would imply that the whole movie was a common fantasy of the couple, that they never got to be together, but imagined what it would’ve been like if they did – in any case, considering all the possibilities, there’s something very now in their romantic ideals, especially in a context in which, with few exceptions, the possibility of meeting a new person is taxed by a reality that permanently forces you to keep your distance, to long for a real touch.