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Friday, December 25, 2015

Richard Linklater | Before Midnight


fleeing love
by Douglas Messerli

(Richard Linklater, Ethan Hawke, and Julie Delpy, writers), Richard Linklater (director) Before Midnight / 2013
 

Love and marriage, in Richard Linklater’s trilogy of three films, Before Sunrise, Before Sunset, and Before Midnight, the latter of which was released this year, is presented as something that happens by accident and is transitory at best. Indeed, in a luncheon party at the very center of Before Midnight numerous characters come together to discuss how they perceive their relationships. Each of them pontificate on their ideas, some even arguing, particularly the two young lovers among the group, that in the future love will be a virtual reality with whomever the lover imagines, rather than, as the central characters, Jesse (Ethan Hawke) and Céline (Julie Delpy), experience it, as a series of highs and lows to be suffered and negotiated. Yet another guest, Natalia (Xenia Kalogeropoulou), who has recently lost her husband, summarizes the transitory nature of every relationship, explaining how after her spouses’ death how she kept trying to remember every gesture of his everyday behavior and the precise elements of his face and body; her sadness emanates from the fact that she now how begun to lose those moments, finding it harder and harder to momentarily bring him back to life in her memory, and realizing that she is now truly losing her husband forever.

      And it is this realization, that whatever joys love and marriage have provided to Jesse and Céline necessarily must come unwound, beginning with the most minor of things, that permeates this beautiful film. In their case, Céline perceives her happiness shifting when Jesse—after taking his son from a previous marriage, Hank (Seamus Davey-Fitzpatrick), to the airport for his return home to the US after staying the summer with them in Greece—attempts to discuss his regrets at not having been a better father. In fact, it is his ex-wife, an alcoholic who remains vengeful about their breakup—who has refused to allow Jesse, who with Céline and their twin daughters live in Paris, custody of his son—who has kept Jesse from playing more a role in his son’s life. His consideration that he would like to play a larger role in the boy’s life, accordingly, suggests to Céline that he is hinting that they should move to Chicago—at the very moment when she is at a crossroads in her French-based career. Thus, for her, his mid-life ponderings signal the beginning of the end.
      Since the couple will soon be returning to Paris, their Greek friends have arranged for a night at a nearby hotel, while they will care for their daughters. And, as we might expect, the simmering emotions both feel well up into a angry series of battles concerning his and her failures and the problems that, until now, they have basically left unspoken. As an ardent feminist, Céline resents the time Jesse, a well-known novelist, has been away from the family on sales tours and in writing venues; moreover she slightly resents that he has used their own relationship as a central subject in three of his books.

     He, on the other hand, somewhat resents her insistence that Paris be their home base and her perception that his writing is more a joyful hobby than an actual career. But other deeper issues, their aging, the sacrifices they’ve been forced to make family, and basic differences in how they see the world bubble up underneath their primary arguments.
      What is amazing about Linklater’s slightly Strindbergian trilogy, is the fact that, despite his films being primarily a series of cinematic dialogues, they work brilliantly due to the wit of the language and the sincerity of the actors, who have shared in creating that dialogue. Like most couples, no matter how ridiculous and unfounded their claims are, they believe them, or, at least, act like they believe them. Unlike Albee’s Martha and George, who seem to be acting out a ritualistic nightly rite, Jesse and Céline throw up sometimes trivial matters and criticisms of one another that come from their own flaws as human beings; and, accordingly, they are both irrational and deadly serious in their attacks. 
        It is the unstated absurdity of some of their positions which also allow Linklater and his characters to discover a more felicitous way out of their self-invented realities than any Strindberg couple. Having slammed their hotel door shut, Céline’s Nora-like figure retreats not to the cold streets but to a picture-postcard seaside bench, where Jesse, ever playing the clown, takes on the mask of a time-traveler, bringing a letter addressed to her future 82-year old self, which describes this miserable night as being one of the best of their lives.
       Rightfully, Céline is further put off by his ineffectual attempt to win her back. She dismisses his ruse. But soon is again caught up in it because of her own fears of making a stupid mistake of leaving someone who has, as Jesse reminds her, continued to accept her despite her obvious personal traumas. She too, of course, has accepted just such literary nonsense from him. And like most couples who continue to bet odds against the fleeting transitoriness of love, they have no choice but to embrace the fiction instead of their very real feelings. And so too does the audience embrace the fiction of romance we have just witnessed. Whatever happens will never be as tragic as they might have imagined it—except perhaps when, like Natalia, they can no longer conjure up their images of each other.

Los Angeles, Christmas Day, 2013

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