Life lessons from ‘Before Sunrise,’ to ‘Before Midnight’

Alex Almario - The Philippine Star

MANILA, Philippines - In 1995, the ‘90s were already over. The decade was obviously just midway through but “the ‘90s” as an idea looked backed upon and fetishized today only lasted up until 1994: the year Kurt Cobain killed himself, the movie Reality Bites came out, and the last great grunge album of the era  Soundgarden’s “Superunknown”  was released. By 1995, grunge was a diluted pseudo-genre, flannel shirts were out of style, and the rebellion against the meaninglessness of culture became tired and meaningless as culture finally embraced it.

It was against this backdrop that Before Sunrise was set. Written and directed by Richard Linklater, who made a movie called Slacker way before it became a generational tag, it was a landmark Gen-X movie that perfectly captured the ideological void left behind by the premature death of the so-called “grunge era.” It was unlike any other zeitgeist-defining movie of the ‘90s; it wasn’t about angry young people kicking and screaming about their dissatisfactions. Before Sunrise was Generation X deciding to settle down and take a walk.

In 1995, two young sudden lovers met in a train and breezed through Vienna and our collective consciousness like flotsams of cynicism and hope floating along the wreckage of an era. Less angry and more resigned, Jesse and Celine were actually closer in spirit to today’s millennials than they were to the characters in Reality Bites.

Before sunset

If Before Sunrise was perfect in 1995, then the sequel Before Sunset was perfect in the post-9/11 world. Reunited in Paris after nine years, Jesse and Celine weren’t strangers on a train anymore but two people with history, their once youthful faces now wrinkled with regret and 30-something weariness. More than a movie about lost love, it was a treatise on the ideal life passing you by, never to return, and being forced to face with what you are left with.

Now, 10 years later, we have the most heartbreaking installment yet in Before Midnight.

What makes this trilogy important is that it’s the only one that defines its generation with uncanny consistency. I grew up with the “Before” movies: I saw Sunrise as an idealistic college student, Sunset as a disillusioned 20-something, and now Midnight as a hardened, battle-scarred adult.

When I learned about Before Midnight, and how it was going to be about their life as a longtime couple, my instant reaction was that of dread. We already had a perfect ending: Celine saying, “Baby, you are gonna miss that plane” and Jesse responding with a short but revelatory “I know.” We didn’t need to know more.

Only we did.

Fight and disintegrate

We needed to see them fight and disintegrate into just another bitter couple. We needed to hear them talk about domestic problems after years of listening to them talk about the meaning of life. We needed to see the consequences of Jesse choosing his fantasy over his son. We needed to see what love actually looks like.

I’ve been a huge fan of Before Sunrise for so many years that I’ve probably watched it about 30-40 times. I was so blown away by Before Sunset that I think it has actually caught up to that number by now. I’m not sure that I’ll be watching Before Midnight more than twice, not because it’s an inferior movie — stylistically and intellectually it’s clearly the best installment (and as a stand-alone movie, it’s historically great) — but because it’s the least romantic. What makes Midnight especially jarring is that, unlike other films about deteriorating relationships like Revolutionary Road or Take This Waltz or even Annie Hall, we get to experience their back story in real time. We never witnessed the moments in between the three movies but the ones we saw lived in our minds and in our imaginations for 18 years, long enough to shape the way we think about love.

The trilogy ends in an age where the shorthand for youth culture is a TV show like Girls, in which the impossibility of romance and the defects of modern relationships are embraced, if not celebrated. The young Greek couple in Before Midnight even concedes, quite matter-of-factly, that all relationships are bound to end. Gen-Xers were never as prepared for failure and disappointment, for however cynical we were, it always felt like a defense mechanism for our inner romanticism. We thought we could change the world, find true love, achieve authenticity. We ended up with feigned irony instead.

Not just a movie

The problem with Before Midnight is that it’s not just a movie to many of us — it’s a referendum on what we’ve believed through most of our lives, which is actually what pop culture has led us to believe most of our lives. Sunrise and Sunset were a part of this culture, and at its most heartbreaking, Midnight feels almost apologetic on their behalf for propagating an ideal that was only bound to disappoint. “If you want true love,” a completely disillusioned Jesse painfully tells an equally disenchanted Celine, “this is it.”

Yet each movie in the trilogy lives in its own honest time and place. Before Sunrise was written by Linklater in an era when dreaming still felt liberating. Before Sunrise was written in an age of loss by people whose dreams were fading, yet still had time. Before Midnight is the final requiem for the Gen-X dream.

Playing all three movies in one’s mind is like stripping down someone until you see the actual person’s body in all its unglamorous nakedness. Before Sunset peeled away the first movie’s insulated romance by adding the context of time and age. Before Midnight stripped off the last remaining layers of rom-com convention: ignoring the actual “ever after.”

Maybe Jesse and Celine should’ve been left alone after Sunset or even after Sunrise. But think of all the stories we could’ve missed. Single people dreaming of finding “the one,” married people yearning for “the one that got away” — they already have their love stories. People who are raising children while dealing with non-philosophical real-life problems and trying to remain happy in the face of all their failures — now they have theirs.

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Tweet the author @ColonialMental.











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