– By Sam Hendrian –
“The concept is absurd. The idea that we can only be complete with another person is evil. Right?”
This fascinating question proposed by Celine (Julie Delpy) to Jesse (Ethan Hawke) in the second film of Richard Linklater’s Before trilogy succinctly captures the central theme at play in all three films. Is the idea of “soul mates” a wonderful reality or a dangerous illusion? When we idealize the possibilities of love, do we prepare our hearts for the noble blindness of self-sacrifice or the evil blindness of self-worship?
Compacted into three films over the course of 18 years (1995, 2004, and 2013), the love story of Jesse and Celine, two wanderlust-stricken souls who first meet on a train in Europe, is a complex one. As much as they would like it to be as simple as “true love’s kiss” and “happily ever after,” the inescapable reality of different life circumstances quickly puts these fairy tale ideals to bed. The conversations that dot their courtship are richly contemplative, and while it is impossible to approve of every decision they make, it is at least possible to understand why their souls interact in such a bold, often selfish manner.
The first film, Before Sunrise, opens with Jesse, a twenty-something guy in the midst of an “I don’t know what I want to do with my life” phase, traveling around Europe searching for adventure. He meets a fellow young person named Celine who is also searching for adventure, albeit with a little more practicality than he possesses. She is a university student heading back to Paris after visiting her grandma in Budapest. The two seem to have an instant connection, and Jesse convinces her to debark the train in Vienna with him and wander around for the evening, as he has to catch an early plane the next morning but cannot afford a hotel. She agrees, entranced by his boyish charms.
They walk, they talk, they fall in love. Well, that is the simple version anyway. Their romantic banter is filled with more compelling existential questions than even the best of Woody Allen and Nora Ephron, and their profound intellectual/spiritual connection initially makes a mighty strong case for the actual existence of a “soul mate.”
The central thematic premise of Before Sunrise is best summarized by these thought-provoking words said by Celine midway through the film:
“I believe if there’s any kind of God, it wouldn’t be in any of us. Not you or me, but just this little space in between. If there’s any kind of magic in this world, it must be in the attempt of understanding someone sharing something. I know, it’s almost impossible to succeed, but who cares really? The answer must be in the attempt.”
We can say “Uh huh,” “I understand,” “That’s cool,” “Oh yeah,” “Sure,” “Totally,” without actually listening to a damn thing. And we do, almost every day of our lives. But how many times do we actually attempt to understand what another person is saying? When do we dare to reject canned responses and simply sit in silence, staring into the eyes of someone else and fully processing each word that falls from their lips? It is an immensely difficult thing to do, but Jesse and Celine understand that when it is accomplished, it is perhaps the most magical thing in the world.
As the film progresses, these two wandering souls truly do understand each other in a way that nobody has ever understood them before, summoning the transcendent magic that Celine dreamily talked about earlier. Sadly, Jesse soon has to catch a flight back to the United States, and Celine cannot exactly just hop on it with him. Fearful of those often insincere words “Let’s stay in touch,” they decide not to exchange contact info, but rather to meet at the Vienna train station exactly six months from the date of their farewell. This way, they can pick up right where they left off. But will they keep the date?
Set nine years after Before Sunrise, Before Sunset answers this question with honorable realism. Being a helpless romantic, Jesse kept the date six months later, but Celine unexpectedly had to attend her grandmother’s funeral and could not make it. In a stroke of fate or mere luck, Jesse happens to be at a book-signing in Paris one day when Celine walks into the bookstore and makes his heart stop.
Having only an hour or so before he has to catch a plane back to America, Jesse walks and talks with Celine around Paris, reminiscing about their encounter nine years earlier and musing about a variety of deep topics. Jesse is now married with a son, but he hints at the marriage having many problems. Celine has a serious boyfriend but is not yet certain enough of happiness to settle down. The more they talk, the more they become regretful about not being able to carry on the relationship that blossomed on the streets of Vienna within just a few magical hours.
In one of the film’s most honest exchanges, Jesse and Celine’s regret-tinged musings take on a less “It would have been perfect” tone.
Jesse: “Oh, God, why weren’t you there in Vienna?
Celine: “I told you why.”
Jesse: “Well, I know why, I just—I just wish you would have been. Our lives might have been so much different.”
Celine: “You think so?”
Jesse: “I actually do.”
Celine: “Maybe not. Maybe we would have hated each other eventually.”
Jesse: “Oh what, like we hate each other now?”
Celine: You know, maybe we’re—we’re only good at brief encounters, walking around in European cities in warm climate.”
Celine’s concern, as with her quip about the idea of a soul mate being “evil,” turns out to be somewhat prophetic in the final film, Before Midnight. However, neither she nor Jesse desire to listen to such a grim prophecy, and they allow their friendly conversation to re-evolve into flirtation. The film ends with the implication that Jesse is going to leave his wife to be with Celine, his true “soul mate.”
While Before Sunrise and Before Sunset are saturated with deep, romantic conversations, Before Midnight is saturated with… arguments. Okay, there are deep, romantic conversations too, but these are often overpowered by name-calling and accusations of “You don’t love me anymore!” They have two daughters now, but Jesse is constantly regretful that he has to spend so much time away from his son, and he questions the fruits of the acrimonious divorce he initiated for the sake of living with Celine. His decision to do so was heavily influenced by Celine sultrily singing him a song about their “one night stand” at the end of Before Sunset. Now he painfully admits, “I screwed up my whole life because of the way you sing.”
The film ends on a predominantly hopeful note—perhaps too hopeful for the realism the trilogy mostly nails—but the fog of regret is still thick. Do Jesse and Celine truly love each other, or have they ever only loved the idea of each other? Was their youthful encounter in Vienna, powered by the magic of attempting to truly understand each other, meant to be a one-time memory, not something destined to grow and bear fruit over the years? Is the beauty of romance worthy of optimistic idealizations, or is it dangerous and even selfish to do so?
While the trilogy is certainly open for individual interpretation, the musings of Jesse and Celine speak to a conclusion that the so-called omnipotence of love is weakened when it is idealized. Yes, Jesse and Celine undoubtedly formed a unique bond when they met in Vienna, and had they stayed together at that moment in time, they may have been able to foster a lifelong, self-sacrificial romance mostly free of regret. But the truth is, their lives took different paths, and it may have been better had they never crossed again.
Jesse could have likely learned to sincerely love his wife even if she was not his ideal “soul mate.” Celine could have likely learned to sincerely love one of her serious boyfriends and entered into a happy marriage. Love is not just a sensation felt organically when two people are attracted to each other. More than anything else, love is a choice, a choice that must be renewed every single day of our lives. Jesse and Celine allowed selfishness to blind them from this crucial aspect of love, gradually solidifying a sense of sadness and empty confusion within their hearts. However, none of us are destined for such a fate. Therefore, no matter what relationships we have in our lives, let us each allow love to be the first choice we make when we leave our beds in the morning.
About the Author
Sam Hendrian is a student at John Paul the Great Catholic University (Class of 2019) pursuing an emphasis in Directing.
For more articles by Sam, click here.