The dual-review film criticism site: first a spoiler-free review, then an in-depth Alternate Take.
Happy Endings and True Love: Part 3

Written by James MacDowell.

Photo from the article NOTE: This is the concluding installment of Happy Endings and True Love; to begin at part one, click here.

Chapter 6 - “Where the fuck were you?”:

The Failure of the ‘Happy End’ and Before Sunset

“You want to know why I wrote that stupid book? So that you would come to a reading in Paris and I could walk up to you and ask ‘Where the fuck were you?’… I’m serious. I think I wrote it, in a way, to try to find you.”

-Jesse, Before Sunset

If the arranged meeting in Vienna is the equivalent of Sleepless’ lovers’ plan to meet at the Empire State Building, then the trip Céline and Jesse have to make to meet there is Annie’s run to meet Sam at the top. The ‘run’ is another romantic comedy staple, just as ubiquitous as the ‘Dark Moment’: it is the moment at which one lover realises the depths of his/her feelings and must run (or generally at least travel) to the other to claim the happy ending that is waiting for them both. In Sunset we learn that this run towards the happy ending (which, significantly, took place between the two films, outside the potentially helpful and “magic” world of fiction) has not paid off: Jesse turned up and Céline (because of her grandmother’s funeral) did not. It is equivalent to the Dark Moment of Sleepless when Annie arrived to a deserted observation deck - only this time Jonah has not left his rucksack.

Following this failure, nine years later, Jesse has made a second run, this time by writing a novel about the night he and Céline shared in the hope that she would hear of it and find him on his tour. This run has already worked better than his first - Céline does turn up at the bookshop in Paris where he is giving a reading - but time has moved on: Jesse is now married with a child, and must catch a plane back to them in a few hours. It is still not simply a question of holding hands and walking into an elevator.


The whole of this second film - during which the couple talk while walking around Paris for an hour and a half of ‘real time’ - can be seen as Jesse and Céline trying to come to terms with having not achieved the ending they feel they should have been given. Their talk this time begins much the same as in Sunrise - they re-learn about each other, telling anecdotes, comparing worldviews - but it soon moves on to their night in Vienna and its meaning for their lives. It is clear that the disappointment of its irresolution has had a huge effect on each of them: Jesse has married a woman whom he does not love (because she became pregnant) and Céline has become a serial monogamist, moving from man to man before she feels anything deeply. Though it is not definitively stated that these aspects of their lives have been directly caused by the failure to meet up in Vienna, it is strongly implied. What is made plain, at least, is that the ending their romance came to has made them question the romantic idealism they had in Sunrise (Jesse: “I think I might’ve given up on the whole idea of romantic love… I think I might’ve have put it to bed that day when you weren’t there.”).

And why has it had this profound effect on them - the failure of this one-night relationship (which they originally arranged to be just that) to continue further? Jesse makes it explicit what the potential meeting has come to mean for him, when he sadly, angrily, tiredly turns to Céline on the site-seeing boat:

Jesse: Oh God… Why weren’t you there in Vienna?

Céline: I told you why.

Jesse: I know why… I just… wish that you would’ve been. Our lives could’ve been so much different…

Céline: You really believe that?

Jesse: I actually do.

Had they met up, he is saying, they would have had completely different lives, presumably, he is implying, a shared, happy, life (perhaps even Altman’s “comic equivalent of apocalypse”, marriage). Essentially: they would have had their happy ending; it is what could - or should - have happened (he believes), if only that one date had been kept. It is summed up best when Jesse says that, when Céline did not show up, “something felt off…


This tiny statement, I think, speaks volumes. The structures - the concepts of romantic love and endings - into which they put their faith and their love have let them down. Rather than lose faith in them entirely, however - although Jesse may say he has put the idea of romantic love to bed - this statement betrays that he instead believes something went wrong: the “magic” exists, but it somehow was just knocked slightly off course; something missed a beat. “What if your grandmother had passed away a week earlier,” he asks, “or a week later - days even…? Things might’ve been different…” In spite of everything, the allure of the happy ending is still too strong to cast off completely. This is what the entire second film is about: the couple suffering the disillusionment of their failed plan, desperately hoping it is possible change the past and create a happy ending from the Dark Moment they are living in; as Céline says: “Now that we’ve met again we can change our memory of that December 16th - it no longer has that sad ending of us never seeing each other again, right?”

In interviews around the time of the film’s release, Hawke (this time, with Delpy and Linklater, credited as one of the screenwriters) was keen to stress the realism of Sunset: in one he states, “The first one was like a dream. But in this one they've awoken to reality,” and in another: “The first movie is about hope and romantic projection, and this one is about reality, in real time.” Although it is true that the film contains all the ‘realistic’ stylings of Sunrise - naturalistic-sounding dialogue, location shooting and unobtrusive long takes - and also has the added realism of being filmed entirely in real-time, there is, in Sunset, still an essential clinging to the wholly ‘unrealistic’ romantic ideal of the happy ending. As always, this applies both to the characters (as I have shown) and the audience.


The trailer for the film, while it oversimplifies in the way that only trailers can, in fact rather accurately sums up the feeling of an audience for Sunset: its deep, all-American, voiceover tells us, “Now they have one afternoon to figure out if they will spend the rest of their lives together…” Although it sounds almost laughable, and woefully commercially-minded, to reduce the story down to this, we do feel when watching the film that this is essentially what is at stake. It is not only Céline and Jesse but also we (assuming we have seen the first film) who have invested hope in their relationship, and we who have been let down by the failure of the structuring systems of love and endings put in motion by Sunrise, meaning we very much want this second chance to finally make a pair of these two. Again speaking personally: my reaction when first watching the film was that, because the ‘real time’ of the action made it palpably clear that time was running out, I was filled for most of the duration with a sense of panic, because I was afraid - and I don’t think that “afraid” is an overstatement - that Céline and Jesse might not end the film in each other’s arms. In this way, there is almost a direct contradiction here between style and theme.



The film is absolutely ‘realistic’ by my time-based definition, albeit in microcosm. Nine years in the films’ world has been nine years in the real world (illustrated plainly in the time-ravaged older faces of Hawke and Delpy that the film makes no attempt to hide, intercutting near the beginning shots of the actors in Sunrise with their older selves), and the hour-and-a-half we happen to see is simply an hour and half at the end of these nine years. Although it obviously cannot explore the ways in which time makes a relationship change and evolve, the whole film is absolutely about the survival of love over time, and the couple rightly question whether they would even function well together in the long-term (Céline: “Maybe we’re only good at brief encounters, walking around in European cities…”).



Yet, despite all this temporal realism, the irony is that, when watching the film, a part of us (and certainly a large part of them) desperately wants an ending that will put an end to time-based concerns forever through the comforting illusion of Altman’s “timeless” finality that would “project the narrative into an undifferentiated ‘happily ever after’”. Although, in actuality, we know it will not happen, and we know that it would be completely at odds with the realist tone, genre and style of what has gone before, we still have a large part of us that wants the couple to resolve their issues, for them to kiss, and for the film to fade out. It would be entirely ‘unrealistic’, and in that sense an unsatisfactory conclusion - yet despite this, I believe we would still, secretly, love the film to end as if it were a romantic comedy (or at least - and this is key - to be reassured, as in Sunrise, that such an ending is likely to occur in the future). I defy there to be part of even Robin Wood that does not feel likewise; the concept is, in his words, too “seductive” to cast off completely.

Which brings us back to the romantic comedy I have been analysing, Sleepless. I have illustrated ways in which Sunrise and Sunset can be seen as inhabiting more common ground with Sleepless and its genre than would at first seem apparent, if not in terms of their modes of production, then as regards their conceptualising of romantic love. As this essay now runs towards its end, I shall attempt to take from my theories something resembling a conclusion about what all I have been discussing has to do with the possibility of creating a ‘realistic’ representation of love.


Conclusion - “Baby, You Are Gonna Miss That Plane…”:

True Love

Essentially, all my discussion of what is a ‘realistic’ and what is an ‘unrealistic’ depiction of love - from the self-conscious romantic comedy to the structuring concept of the happy ending - has revolved around the difference between art and life. Speaking of the problem facing anyone who lives in our so-called age of ‘postmodernism’, Umberto Eco wrote in Reflections on The Name of the Rose:

“I think of the postmodern attitude as that of a man who loves a very cultivated woman and knows he can’t say to her ‘I love you madly’, because he knows - and he knows that she knows - that these words have already been written by Barbara Cartland. Still, there is a solution: he can say, ‘As Barbara Cartland would put it, I love you madly’. At this point, having avoided false innocence, he will nonetheless have said what he wanted to the woman: that he loves her, but that he loves her in an age of lost innocence. If the woman goes along with this, she will have received a declaration of love all the same. Neither of the two speakers will be innocent… both will consciously, and with pleasure, play the game of irony, but both will have succeeded once again in talking of love.”

It is interesting that he should choose the problem of speaking of love for his example. Personally, I don’t think that acknowledging previous portrayals of love has only become necessary in a ‘postmodern’ age; rather, Eco’s image unintentionally cuts close to the heart of the problem faced by anyone who has ever attempted to speak of, depict, or express love: the inextricable relationship of love with art.

We have seen, in Sunrise, that the very fact that our two central characters fall in love necessitates the transformation of a potentially (by comparison) ‘realistic’ Open Story film into an unfinished, more ‘unrealistic’, Closed Text film. Such is the strange power love wields: its very appearance makes a story less like life.

For some reason (which it is no business of this essay to attempt to unravel) romantic love is something that has always tended to be more associated with art than with real life. This stretches back to any number of naturalist novels or plays whose protagonists spend their days immersed in tales of romance only to find that real life does not live up to their ideals (Madame Bovary being an obvious example). It in fact goes back even further, at least to Shakespeare and his use of existing literary and classical romances as starting points for - and as references within - his own love stories (A Midsummer Night’s Dream springs immediately to mind). I would go so far as to say that, perhaps more than any other narrative event, a couple falling in love is universally evocative of the world of art and fiction, whether it be in Shakespeare or Barbara Cartland.

And yet, of course, it does happen in the real world. How then does one represent this real love ‘realistically’ in art, particularly in Hollywood, when it is so associated with fiction, with ‘unrealism’? The answer must now be, I think, what it has always been: by acknowledging that, in the real world, romantic love contains - and partially relies upon - a certain amount of belief in the unrealistic ideal if it is to be pursued. It relies upon a faith that the image of love constructed by art, and condensed in the happy ending as the promise of sustained union, is both attainable and worth striving for. One way this can be done is, as Eco suggests, by speaking clearly through art.


I have described what happens in the story and the style of Sleepless at its end, but what also happens in the final moments is that we are asked, really rather explicitly, to see Annie and Sam for what they are: characters in a film. Throughout, it has been just about possible to view the continual use of An Affair to Remember, and the way it has driven the narrative towards its conclusion as - rather than simply a sly acknowledgement of Sleepless’ own status as a fictional romance - a technique to increase the authenticity of the film’s world: these characters, like us, watch, discuss, and are influenced (sometimes negatively) by, films.

However, at the moment when Annie and Sam manage what even Cary Grant and Deborah Kerr did not - to keep their date at the top of the Empire State Building - McCarey’s film almost swallows Ephron’s whole. When the lovers’ eyes meet and hands are held, the moment is scored on the soundtrack, not by Mark Shaiman, the film’s composer, but by the score of An Affair to Remember (which we recognise, even if we do not know the film, because it has been heard on video clips throughout Sleepless). Add to this Jonah’s look-to-camera as the elevator closes, the gloriously artificial zooming out from America, and the fireworks into space, and what we have is an ending that says very explicitly “this is a movie happy ending”.

When Annie turned up to find the observation deck empty, her ‘movie love’ plans scuppered, the film fulfilled Ephron’s first aim: “our dream was to make a movie about how movies screw up your brain about love”. The turn-around - the leaving of the rucksack, the launch into the happy ending - fulfils the second: “… if we did a good job, we would become one of the movies that screwed up people’s brains about love forever.” The film can only give us the happy ending by giving its characters, who, perhaps like us, wish they could not simply “be in love” but “be in love in a movie”, their wish, and, in so doing, removing itself from the real world entirely.

This approach, practised to a lesser extent by all current self-conscious romantic comedies, is one way to tackle a feeling of distrust of the happy ending, simultaneously qualified by unwillingness to relinquish the concept entirely: it, as Frank Krutnik writes, “presents the fulfilment fantasy of heterosexual union, while underscoring that it is only wish fulfilment after all”. Rather than attempt to reconcile art - in which the happy ending is possible - and life, Sleepless retreats into art completely, sealing the happy ending, and love, forever within it. This methodology truthfully communicates the ‘unrealistic’ way love is often conceptualised by real people in the real world, but it does not itself attempt to depict this real world or ‘real love’.

Sunrise and Sunset are wrestling with exactly the same predicament - a simultaneous ‘realistic’ doubt, and ‘unrealistic’ need, of the happy ending - but are approaching it in a different way. As I have shown, by acknowledging the Closed Text, happy ending, fantasy of love, while remaining themselves Open Stories, they highlight the disparity between art and life by playing on their characters’, and our, generic expectations and desires for a romance, but, unlike Sleepless, never fulfil these desires.

Jesse's Book
Jesse's Book
They, in fact, also show that their characters feel a need to communicate love through art - not simply by attempting to impose art’s depiction of love on to the real world (as in Sleepless) - but by creating a depiction of love in art oneself. We discover that Jesse has written a novel about the night in Vienna early on in Sunset, but we find out towards the end of the film that Céline too has committed the night to art through a song (which she eventually plays to Jesse). These works of art contain and frame the characters’ love in a form that creates for them the structure, the sense of an ending, that their own experience of love in the real world so sorely lacks: they are Céline and Jesse’s own perfect depictions of love, their own romantic projections, their own Sleepless in Seattles. Sunrise and Sunset show the ‘unrealistic’ ways people conceptualise and communicate love, while never conceptualising or communicating love in these ‘unrealistic’ ways themselves.

Celine's song
Celine's song

The difference in approach between the Before films and Sleepless is neatly encapsulated in Sunset’s and Sleepless’, final use of music. Both Sleepless and Sunset’s final songs belong to that genre of popular music now so appropriated by the romantic comedy, the jazz standard: the former uses ‘Make Someone Happy’, performed by Jimmy Durante, the latter, ‘Just in Time’, sung by Nina Simone. In Sleepless, the music appears not in the world of the film, but scores the zoom-out into space, and finishes exactly at the moment of fade-out. In Sunset, the Nina Simone song comes from a CD chosen, and put on by, Jesse (the couple having ended their walk in Céline’s flat); it is the starting point for the characters’ final conversation, and it continues long after the film fades out.

It quickly becomes apparent that Jesse has purposefully picked the song in order that the lyrics might speak for him: “Just in time/ I found you just in time/ Now I know where I’m going/ No more doubt or fear”). Accordingly, Céline smiles, understanding what the music means, and begins to sing along (also allowing the song to speak for her) before beginning an impersonation of Nina Simone in concert, pouting her lips, dancing, speaking seductively: “Ooh, you’re cute… I love you too, baby,” she says, pointing playfully at Jesse. Finally, still speaking in the character of Simone, she looks at Jesse and says, “Baby, you are gonna miss that plane…”. “I know…” Jesse responds.

Celine performing Nina
Celine performing Nina
These people, like Eco’s lovers (and us), for whatever reason, feel the need to speak their feelings of love through art. Unlike Sleepless, however, the film itself does not echo the sentiments of its final song. The slow fade out on Céline dancing, which Sunset finishes on, does not communicate, “Now I know where I’m going/ No more doubt or fear” - it gives no sense of such certainty and resolution. Rather, it again conveys a sense of continuation that is, this time, far more tentative than its predecessor. The fade out is slow, letting us see Céline continue to dance, showing the characters’ world continuing (the music, the soundtrack to the real room they are in, also carries on over the credits), this time alive with the promise of immediate union, but with no plans for the future. Unlike Sleepless, the film is clearly not practising the conceptualising of love that the song is: it is simply showing the presence of such concepts in its characters’ ongoing lives.

My earlier statement, that we wish Sunset would finally give us a happy ending, was perhaps more rhetorical than anything else: we do not want to be lied to (and it would effectively constitute a lie) by a film that has, with Sunrise, hitherto so satisfyingly provided “romance for realists”. My point was that we also do not wish to be discouraged from believing in its possibility; the conclusion to the two films happily does neither. Sunrise and Sunset acknowledge the happy ending for what it is - a potentially harmful but unavoidable ideal - and, by not practising it, but also not destroying it, simply keep hope in this ‘unrealistic’ ideal alive via a ‘realistic’ dot, dot, dot.

Slow fade...
Slow fade...

This article was published on October 10, 2005.

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