We watched a matinee of Before Midnight yesterday, and after dinner (at Maysville: Christina ordered the trout, which was superior to my duck breast entree; we shared the grits and scallops and I had a hound dog – bourbon, grapefruit, honey, mint, and lime – which is really a fantastic and (to my palette) innovative concoction), while Christina packed for a trip to California, we re-watched Before Sunset and Before Sunrise (in that order, and finishing at precisely 11:59 pm yesterday). It really is the most unlikely and satisfying trilogy of movies, and I must confess that I found myself most engrossed in and entertained by the newest installment.
Perhaps it has to do with the present stage of my life – whereas Sunrise and Sunset were about meeting and re-meeting, Midnight is set firmly mid-course in a relationship that is top-heavy in origin story. Whereas Sunrise finds Jesse and Celine short on money with time to kill (pay attention to how they talk of hotels and red wine between the first and third installments), Midnight, set 18 years hence, finds them in material comfort but straining to find time for themselves – also more akin to my present situation.
Over the course of the series, each film has made less of its place – Sunrise was as much about the relationship between these two characters as it was about them being in Vienna, a place they only understood through a guide book. There are chance meetings with a gypsy, a begging poet, and the sound of a harpsichord (oh, that harpsichord) that haunts a street deserted at dawn.
Sunset, set in Celine’s hometown of Paris, replaces the tension that comes with a language barrier and a barely superficial understanding of a place with that of a couple unsure of what their relationship actually is and what each of them wants it to be. Midnight, set ostensibly in the southern Peloponnese, is also structured around the same long takes of walks and car rides overstuffed with extemporaneous bullshit – punctuated with moments of ‘what is our relationship?’ – that made the first two installments feel alive, but with a kind of this-could-take-place-anywhere that would be to its detriment were the central relationship not so compelling after watching it unfold on celluloid for five or six hours.
The quote that clawed its way into my brain to crystallize how I’ve felt about the difference between Midnight and Sunrise/Sunset is from Oliver Stone’s Nixon, of all things: “When they look at you, they see what they want to be. When they look at me, they see what they are.”
Richard Linklater (and Ethan Hawke and Julie Delpy), by following only one pair of characters in all three movies (instead of making a trilogy connected only thematically by being about stages of romantic relationships in general) into parenthood and intermittent intimacy – however intentionally or inadvertently – remind their now 18-years-older audience that despite the occasional spat between their long-time lovers, they too may have once been romantic enough to take a fling in a city they didn’t know.
(Or, for the uninitiated youth introduced to the series: all romances, however starry-eyed their origin, are earth-bound by these arguments and evaluations if they persist long enough.)
What struck me most after watching all three in the span of twelve hours is how little I actually remembered of the factual events and their order in the first two films. (If you too watch all three movies in one day, in addition to the aforementioned meaning of red wine, pay attention to how Jesse and Celine speak of monks and monasteries, of time machines, and how pretentious and kinda-meta Jesse’s ideas are for TV shows and books.)
But perhaps that is no small reason this trilogy resonates with me more now than when I first saw Sunrise and Sunset in succession eight years ago: in them, as in my own experience, a few relatively small moments tend to stand in my memory for the entire experience of a relationship. And as those moments collapse into smaller and smaller percentages of that relationship, it can become more challenging to remember how exciting, inspiring, awful, boring, or inane the origins are of that relationship. And as I’ve become older, distant, affluent, and hurried, I’ve found this challenge among the most difficult to meet in my life.
And so. As far as the movies are concerned, I want to believe this series can continue for a few more decades, and not just because I want to believe that this fictional couple can see each other through the uncertainties that attend their early 40s: the movies’ craft (particularly of Sunset) is so honed and illuminating. The principal actors are so subsumed in their roles that a seemingly plausible retcon is that Jesse and Celine have really been actors/filmmakers the whole time and their work includes Training Day and 2 Days in Paris, respectively. The movies, taken as a whole serialized work, are so good that they inspire – and merit – this level of introspection. I’d like to believe that if a movie-going public can support 20-odd Bond movies and a Fast and Furious franchise, there’s room for After Breakfast and beyond.
But I can also see, within these movies’ universe, Midnight as its endpoint. Not all relationships end like fairy tales, though fairy tales as I’ve known them usually define the start – and Sunrise and Sunset were essentially two halves of a modern fairy tale.
And at this point in my life, living every day at maximum hair and minimum weight, fairy tales are far less inspiring than stories of two people who know each other too well and meet an even greater challenge than stopping at the ruins to re-imagine what once stood there: to see each other not as aged externalizations of fond memories but to address each other as people who fear there will be no fond memories beyond those that defined them too long ago.