There’s got to be something more to love than commitment.
— Celine, Before Sunset
BEFORE MIDNIGHT, RICHARD LINKLATER’S third film tracking the lives of Celine (Julie Delpy) and Jesse (Ethan Hawke), takes place nine years after Before Sunset’s cliffhanger ending, 18 years after the couple’s initial, feverish 24-hour affair in Before Sunrise, and at a moment when the two appear, at first sight, more at rest than ever. Together at last, now in their 40s and on vacation in Greece with their two kids, they might even seem content.
Of course, that impression will not last. But neither will any notion that the film trades only in a vision of fading romance, showing us a couple that’s too jaded and exhausted for decisions like the one they made at the end of Before Sunrise (let’s meet here again in exactly six months!) or choices like Jesse’s at the end of Before Sunset (fly home to a loveless marriage or stay in Paris with Celine?). The reality is far more remarkable: with Before Midnight, Linklater, Hawke, and Delpy have crafted a timeless love story from the hateful arguments of a middle-aged couple.
It’s true that the past now seems to weigh as heavily on them as the future once did. They now seem — after restlessness and irresolution defined them in younger years — conformed (or perhaps resigned) to staid lives. Having picked passionate fantasy over mundane reality, the two now live with the knowledge of how easily the former can turn into the latter. But the series has always shined when Celine and Jesse’s cynicism is no more or less compelling than their dreamy sentimentality. Given the intrinsic romanticism of their previous meetings, that balancing act wasn’t hard to manage in the first two films: the dialogue could veer drastically toward the fickleness of love and the incompatibility of women and men but still be offset by the mere fact that these two people, seemingly meant to be together, were discovering (or rediscovering) true love through each other (and getting to promenade through resplendent European capitals while they were at it).
That’s something many people today are finding harder to do. Last year, The New York Times reported that “a third of adults ages 46 through 64 were divorced, separated or had never been married in 2010, compared with 13 percent in 1970.” A majority of that cohort, the Times added, also lived alone. Around the same time, Kate Bolick’s widely read cover story in The Atlantic documented the experiences of middle-aged women adjusting to the possibility of endless single lives. And this year’s Valentine’s Day, Christopher Orr pointed out in The Atlantic, was conspicuously lacking a romantic comedy release to satiate our thirst for fairy tales of love. In the months since, we’ve gotten a film like Mud, where one boy’s coming of age story principally entails facing the hard realization that true love isn’t real, and a cover story in The New Republic telling us that chronic loneliness, “the want of intimacy,” is deadly and affects one in three people over 45.
The problem lies not with finding love but seeing it last, which is of course the oldest one in the book. Consider how Tolstoy addressed it in “The Kreutzer Sonata,” which begins with protagonist Pozdnyshev haranguing a group of passengers on his train to give him a definition of love. When they do — “an exclusive preference for one man or woman over all the rest” — Pozdnyshev responds: “Preference for how long? For a month? For two days? For half an hour?”
Preference for a whole lifetime, he says later, “happens only in novels, and never in life. In life this preference for one over others may last for years, but very rarely, more often for a few months or else weeks, days, hours.”
Of course, “The Kreutzer Sonata” was also the vehicle for some of Tolstoy’s more radical ideas about romance. (Humans, Pozdnyshev proposes later, have one true destiny: A life of abstinence with the end result of total species annihilation.) Nevertheless, Tolstoy seems our contemporary when he argues, through Pozdnyshev, that love is just a code for a series of fleeting desires that, far from being the basis for any long-lasting relationships, in fact lead to their dissolution when we fall in love with someone else and want to move on. Even someone like Dan Savage might be tempted to agree, so long as we stop far short of the abstinence. In a 2011 New York Times Magazine profile, Savage argued that keeping people together requires giving up our stringent dedication to monogamy and letting couples accommodate each other’s needs more flexibly so they can stay together for the long haul. What’s clear to Savage, maybe more than his solution, is that our old ideas about relationships are insufficient. At a basic level, he’s in synch with Tolstoy, the two facing a similar dilemma: if total commitment proves so burdensome and painstaking, how can it ground our foremost conceptions of love?
The current burst of Tolstoyan pessimism has found its most dramatic expression in Blue Valentine: a story of an ill-fated young couple, Cindy (Michelle Williams) and Dean (Ryan Gosling) whose sweeping romance is slowly destroyed by redundant fights, the pressures of work and family, and the seemingly inevitable dissipation of sexual desire. Shifting scene by scene between the story of the two’s courtship and the dissolution of their marriage five years later, the movie, devastating in its effectiveness, refuses to let us enjoy the hopeful beginnings of their relationship, instead twisting the very elements that bring the two together into the agents of their eventual separation. In both structure and tone, Blue Valentine — which, unlike Before Midnight’s intellectual levity, is heavily basted in melodrama — is less a film about a failed marriage than a failed ideal. Dean, ever the romantic, begins the film mythologizing Walter, a man he helps move into a retirement home. When Dean finds a locket containing a picture of Walter and his wife, Dean takes it as a symbol of what lifelong love can mean. The movie, though, is more intent to show that once you find the companionship you’re after, you won’t be able to stop yourself from picking at the relationship until it falls apart.
Watching Celine and Jesse in Before Midnight, you worry that they’re picking away, too. The film begins with Jesse dropping off Hank, his son from a previous marriage, at the airport. He then suggests to Celine, either harmlessly in passing or as a test of her reaction, that perhaps they move to Chicago, where he could see Hank more often. The argument that ensues — Jesse sees the move as a reasonable topic of discussion, Celine as a selfish request from a self-involved husband — becomes the movie’s increasingly vicious, through-line dispute. But before tensions play themselves out, we also get a rosier picture of where the two might be headed. Like Blue Valentine, Before Midnight offers us a lived ideal of Celine and Jesse’s relationship, the kind of romance towards which Before Sunrise and Before Sunset strove in the first place, one where two equally strong desires — to love someone and be loved, as Celine expresses in Before Sunrise, but not to give oneself over completely — manage to cohabitate. “We were never one person, always two,” says Patrick, Celine and Jesse’s elderly host in Greece, about his relationship with his deceased wife. “She took care of herself and asked me to do the same. We had plenty of room to meet in between.” Not a union of souls but a proper mix of independence and companionship.
With the ideal set, midnight approaches, and the pieces start falling apart. Celine and Jesse descend to their worst traits, which in fact are the same ones they used to win each other over almost 20 years earlier, only this time they are performed to malicious ends. Celine’s convictions and strong will turn into endless moralizing. Jesse’s detachment now gets smeared with condescension as he repeatedly calls Celine crazy in response to her complaints and resentments.
There was always a risk that, by letting Celine and Jesse be together at last, Before Midnight might shatter the very promise of the first two movies. Their days together in Vienna and Paris always had the feeling of a daydream; the true romance lay in imagining the possibility of what came after. “No delusions, no projections, we’ll just make tonight great,” Jesse tells Celine in Before Sunrise, but in our heads we could imagine something more. Before Midnight bravely turns imagination into reality and the ideal, the promise of the first two films, consequently lies at stake: “You’re very good at taking care of yourself,” Celine yells at Jesse. “I take care of myself and everything else.”
This is the pivotal moment, for the couple and for the series: with the pieces on the ground, do you choose to rebuild? In Before Sunrise, Celine asks Jesse, “If we were around each other all the time, what do you think would be the first thing about me that would drive you mad?” In Before Midnight, we get a new hypothetical — “If we’re going to spend another 56 more years together” — only now it’s a distinct possibility, not a flirtatious fantasy. In many ways, Before Midnight shows Jesse and Celine brought down to earth, finding it harder to hide in their romanticism. But it’s still a movie that manages to hold opposite thoughts at once, a movie that, like its predecessors, sees through the idyllic notion of romantic union but remains attached to its sentimental ideals. A movie that tells us, while piercing holes through a fairy tale, that if love is to be more than just commitment, we must still commit to love.
Tomas Hachard is a freelance writer who has written about art, politics, and himself for NPR, The Morning News, and Guernica, among others. Follow him on Twitter: @thachard.