The dual-review film criticism site: first a spoiler-free review, then an in-depth Alternate Take.
Happy Endings & True Love: Part 2

Written by James MacDowell.

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

Part 2

In Part One of this essay I illustrated the way in which the Closed Text happy ending is taken to the extreme in Sleepless in Seattle. In Part Two I will show that, although Richard Linklater's romance Before Sunrise seems to avoid the happy ending, it is unable to let go of its idealism completely. I will also suggest possible reasons for this by beginning to interrogate the very concept of the happy ending itself...

Chapter 3: "To Be Continued…?" The Open Story Ending

“Why do people think relationships are

supposed to last forever anyway?”

-Jesse, Sunrise

Since I first saw Before Sunrise, I have always recommended the film to others on the basis that it makes you believe that love in the ‘real world’ is possible - that it achieves the not inconsiderable task of convincing you that it could happen to you.

This assertion betrayed an assumption about the kind of film that does not do this: that was, I suppose, the romantic comedy. The Closed Text, goal-defined, world of the romantic comedy, which I have illustrated through Sleepless, does not feel like our own. As Mernit's Writing The Romantic Comedy puts it: “Romantic comedy heroes and heroines are like questions waiting to be answered - because they are starring in stories in which love is the ultimate path to fulfilment.”

Initially, the characters of Sunrise - like us - do not feel like “questions waiting to be answered”, and its world - like ours - does not feel as if it has one main goal. This is largely because it is what Richard Neupert dubs an Open Story film.

Often associated with Art Cinema, an Open Story, certainly on the surface, resembles ‘real life’ more closely than a Closed Text. Neupert says of the kind of endings these films practise: “Defenders of the Open Story film are quick to compare the openness, irresolution and weakened unity of action in these films as honest avoidance of artificial story norms and a celebration of ambiguity in art as in the real world.”

It is certainly true that, by not claiming to provide a definitive ending to its characters’ lives, the Open Story film acknowledges the continuation of real life in a way that does constitute something of a realistic approach. It is not simply in their endings that these films create a sense of ‘realism’, however: the open ending is generally only possible if a narrative is established which cannot be seen as fully resolved - or otherwise - because it does not have one definite aim. Speaking of The 400 Blows (his Open Story case study), Neupert says: “there is no single goal or quest in sight for Antoine… A film like The 400 Blows presents the difficulty of resolution right from the start by never presenting the story of Antoine as a simple progression toward any final completion point.”

Linklater directs Hawke and Delpy
Linklater directs Hawke and Delpy
For Sunrise and Sunset, the greater realism that this loosening of cause-and-effect can provide fits perfectly with the overall project of the films: to be a ‘realistic’ representation of romantic love. Linklater himself has described them as “romance for realists”. Naturalistic acting style, use of natural light and sound, improvisatory style of dialogue, near ‘real-time’ time span (literally, in the case of Sunset), long but unobtrusive takes - all these things contribute to Linklater’s ambition of making the films feel like “an eloquent documentary… to just feel as if that's how you'd see it if you were there.” Bearing in mind this pursuit of realism, an Open Story would certainly appear to be the obvious choice for the films’ endings.

Let’s look at Sunrise and examine the way the ending works as a conclusion to the rest of the film. The story (that of two young people - Céline and Jesse - meeting on a train in Austria and deciding simply to walk around Vienna for the night, getting to know one another) does not, at first, have an easily-defined goal. It is told through a strictly episodic series of scenes, none of which seem to advance the plot (for what exactly is the ‘plot’?) but rather simply deepen our understanding of the characters.

Whereas Sleepless’ Sam and Annie had their aims (the problems they must overcome, eventually, through finding each other) clearly established within the first ten minutes of the film, Sunrise’s Jesse and Céline are given no such goals. Even the possibility of a relationship forming between the two, therefore, will solve no obvious problems for the characters, as is the tradition for Hollywood’s couples.


As the night - and the film - draws on, however, after the couple have kissed (and, eventually, slept together, therefore sidestepping that familiar potential ending) Jesse and Céline raise the question of what will happen to their new relationship after the night ends. This opens up the possibility of viewing the film as a romance (a story of ‘boy meets girl, boy loses girl, boy gets girl’), and the previously non-existent plot automatically becomes what is surely the bottom line of any romance film: “will this couple form a lasting relationship?”

The film takes an interesting stance towards this question by, at first, attempting essentially to negate it. Because they acknowledge that “the long-distance thing never works”, Céline and Jesse decide to “try something different” by making a pact that the night they spend together will be their one and only night: it will be the beginning and end of the romance. For an audience this means that, although the film could probably still at this point be unproblematically described as a ‘romance’ of sorts (in that it is mainly concerned with romantic love), the usual narrative questions we would ask in this genre are sidestepped. This seems absolutely to suit the Art Cinema style of the piece: neither the structure (it is set over one night), nor the narrative drive (there are no real goals), nor the film style, nor the performances, feel like a classical Hollywood romance, therefore it surely makes sense that the usual questions of the genre are also not relevant.


What happens in the final moments of the story, however, is a retraction of this self-imposed ending to the relationship. As Céline is about to board the train that will take her back to Paris, the two are suddenly overcome with panic over the thought of not seeing one another again, and they make a hurried plan to meet back in Vienna six months later. Having done this, Céline then catches her train, Jesse his bus, and the couple travel away from each other.

What this does is to create an Open Story out of one that had the potential to be closed. Regarding this potential for a Closed Text ending, there is clearly a question of how resolved - and therefore ‘unrealistic’ - an ending in which the couple did not agree to meet again might feel to an audience. The interesting ideas surrounding this question I will return to briefly later, but for the meantime let’s remain with the basic assumption that, because of its irresolution, the Open Story’s ending has (according to my rationale) an essential greater narrative ‘realism’.

The irresolution is - to an extent - borne out stylistically at Sunrise’s (and certainly at Sunset’s, as I will address later) conclusion. Although it does in fact provide a certain amount of formal closure, Sunrise’s ending is certainly far from the emphatic finality offered by Sleepless.

There is a certain ‘book-endedness’ to Sunrise that conforms absolutely to the kind of closure Neupert states is a staple of the Closed Text’s film style. The time-frame of the film has assigned to it a very clear end-point from, pretty well, the very beginning: Jesse must leave Vienna the following morning. This means a certain circularity of plot, and therefore visuals, via setting, is inevitable: they meet on a train at the start of the film and they (or, at least, Céline) must leave on a train at the end of it. However, as each of the couple sit on the mode of transport that is taking them away from the other, Linklater does not give us - as he easily, perhaps obviously, could have - a repetition of the first shots of the film (a train track speeding by, shots of landscape passing), to create a sense that the narrator knew where the story was heading all along, but instead simply shows first Jesse then Céline, in medium close-up, falling asleep in their seats. That we stay close by the characters at these final moments reinforces the sense of near-existential free-will that has been stressed by the dialogue and style of the film throughout.


The moment that communicates Sunrise’s open-endedness to an audience particularly strongly, however, in fact happens before these two final shots of our couple have taken place. As a Bach piece plays, the preceding shots show us, in a series of eleven simple, static, shots, the places that Céline and Jesse have been during the night - the fairground where they first kissed, the restaurant where they made their pact, the park where they made love - now looking different, bathed in the light of the new day. This montage shows us that - whereas Sleepless’ New York served its purpose then could cease to exist - Vienna is still there now without the lovers, and will still be there after the film ends: it tells us that life goes on.

The final fade out on Céline falling asleep gives no obvious sense that we are leaving these characters and their world alone because a resolution has been reached which has caused their fictional lives to finish (as with Sleepless), but rather simply because our time with them has finished. It is as if the film is simply closing its eyes along with its protagonists, and we know - or hope - that they will - or could - opened again in the future to show us more of these characters’ ongoing lives.

Indeed, at this film’s Open Story end, we desperately want to know what will happen between these two characters in the future: essentially, will they meet up six months later? That this question hangs so palpably in the air at the film’s close reveals something specific about the Sunrise’s relationship to the happy ending that distances it from a usual Open Story…

Chapter 4: “After the End”: The Promised Happy End

In a chapter entitled “After The End” in his wonderfully loving essay on Sunrise, ‘Rethinking Romantic Love’, Robin Wood says: “We know of course (having been told so many times) that characters in a fiction have no existence beyond it, and it is therefore improper to speculate about their lives outside it. But Before Sunrise seems to defy such a prohibition: everyone with whom I have watched it immediately raises the question of whether or not Jesse and Céline will keep their six-months-ahead date.”

He then, almost embarrassedly, speculates about what will happen after the end of the film: will they turn up in Vienna? Will one turn up and the other not? His final conclusion is: “The general consensus is they probably won’t… there are simply too many of those mundane obstacles, too many highly unromantic practical questions (about money, work, travel, distance, where to live…) that seem trivial before sunrise but will begin to loom very large after it, as time passes.”


The film, as Wood says, basically necessitates a speculation about what happens after the final fade out, and in this way manages to enter the ‘real’ (that is, outside the film) world through the viewer’s imagination, forcing an audience into considering the possible effect of such ‘realistic’ time-based issues as Wood mentions. This is, of course, diametrically opposed to Sleepless in Seattle’s (and the romantic comedy’s) technique, which is to hermetically seal its narrative within the ‘unrealistic’ (i.e.: concluded) world of the film.

And yet - and this is the crux of my argument - the speculation about what will happen six months later is also, paradoxically, what links Sunrise to the ‘unrealism’ of Sleepless. Céline, Jesse and we, feel that there must be the potential for this ending in the first place.

Speaking of the difference genre makes to our expectations, and experience, of Open Story and Closed Text films, Neupert says: “In certain genres and modes of production the value of the eventual resolution varies dramatically. It does not take a Ph.D in film studies, for instance, to guess that Lucy Warriner in The Awful Truth (1937) will end up back with her nearly ex-husband Jerry, rather than with Dan Leeson… However, it would be nearly impossible to guess that Antoine Doinel will eventually run to the ocean at the end of The 400 Blows. Moreover, simply knowing the ending of this Art Film does not seem to provide us the same sort of satisfaction as in cause-effect ordered genre films.”

Sunrise’s end is not like either of these kinds of ending, yet it contains elements of both; it is certainly an Open Story film, yet it is very different to Neupert’s example of the category. Though, at the end of The 400 Blows, we may wonder what will happen to Antoine in the future, one does not feel anything like the same need for answers and resolution as one does at Sunrise’s close. This is because Sunrise’s Open Story has become, like The Awful Truth, a romance (a story with, generically, a potential answer), and, as an audience, we simply cannot consider a romance concluded without knowing whether or not ‘boy gets girl’. The very act of the characters falling in love, therefore, makes the film (by my definition) less ‘realistic’. It casts the characters of what, almost by rights (based on the naturalistic, Art Cinema, Rohmer-like aesthetic), should be a goal-less, Open Story film, in an unfinished Closed Text narrative of romance, and makes them into - like Sleepless’ lovers - “questions waiting to be answered”.


The way Céline and Jesse make their plan, too, ties it to ‘unrealistic’, romantic comedy narrative, concepts. Why is it that they do not exchange addresses or telephone numbers? It is because it creates a familiar test for Céline and Jesse’s love which puts it partially in the hands of fate, or luck - whichever one wishes to call it. This clearly flies directly in the face of the self-determinism and freedom from fate that the rest of the film has so celebrated in its narrative, and in lines such as, “What’s so cool is that this whole night, all our time together, shouldn’t officially be happening.”/ “Yeah, it’s like… it’s our own creation”. The test says “if this is right - if we really have something special, if we are ‘made for each other’ (to use a term often repeated in Sleepless) - we will meet again”.

It says this to the characters, but (perhaps even more distinctly) it also says it to the audience, and, as such, makes the ending feel safer to us than it should. Because the film has effectively become an unfinished romance, we greatly enjoy and value the familiar reassurance that the handover of responsibility to some larger power provides us with because, in the world of the Hollywood romance film, that external power is - as a rule (as illustrated in Sleepless) - benign. This means that whatever goal is at stake will generally be achieved. What on the surface is an ending that perhaps should feel precarious in fact feels - because, paradoxically, of the lack of any safety net - strangely secure.

My point is that the six-month-ahead meeting can be seen, essentially, as exactly the same as Annie’s plan to meet Sam on the top of the Empire State Building: it is the happy ending, the Closed Text ending, to the film which Céline, Jesse, and we, feel - perhaps even against our better judgement - the lovers must give themselves the chance of achieving.

Even Robin Wood - a self-proclaimed pessimist, and staunch believer in anything that questions bourgeois/capitalist society’s existing social structures - goes on to say of his speculations that Jesse and Céline will most likely not meet again: “…But the verdict is always reached with great reluctance, testifying to the continuing pull, despite the battering it has received, of the romantic ideal as a powerful and seductive component of our ideology of love and sexuality… The tug of the longing for permanence is so powerful that one would love to see a sequel… in which they did keep the appointment and returned together to… France? America?… and tried to work out ways in which ‘commitment’ is still feasible.”

Although his critical and politicised mind then immediately takes over and he effectively chastises himself for such conservatively idealistic thoughts, my reason for briefly mentioning this is essentially to show that even Robin Wood desires the “romantic ideal”, the illusion of “permanence”, that the couple ending up together would provide.


The desire that he, Jesse and Céline, and we, feel is for the idealistic, conservative, ‘unrealistic’ - and yet inescapably “seductive” - centre of romantic love that has been promised to us by dewy-eyed fictions since love narratives began. It is what makes Annie run to the Empire State Building in Sleepless: she wants to catch up to the ending promised by An Affair to Remember. It is what has brought about the ironic stance of recent romantic comedies: they want to expose the inherent ‘unrealism’ of An Affair to Remember. Yet, it is also what keeps these same romantic comedies practising these endings regardless: they still cannot entirely relinquish the need to believe in An Affair to Remember.

Chapter 5 -" “All’s Well That Ends Well”: Creating the Happy End

“A great deal of what we feel about love has been shaped completely by movies.”

-Nora Ephron

The powerful need for the happy ending must clearly be formed from many different sources; I will look briefly at two, firstly those relating specifically to romantic love.

At this point it is necessary to return to Nicklas Luhmann (quoted previously in Wexman) and his statement that embarking on love is only possible if one has “cultural traditions, literary texts, convincingly evocative linguistic patterns and situational images… in short… a timeworn structure of semantics” from which to draw upon. When we suddenly and powerfully experience the feeling of love, as Jesse and Céline do in Sunrise (seemingly, when viewed in relation to Sunset, for the first and only time in their lives), we - unconsciously and unavoidably - fall back onto these structuring systems in order to find a way of dealing with the emotion. Apart from an assumption based on the fact that, of course, we all engage on some level with these systems, how do we know that Sunrise’s lovers too are under these systems’ influence?

When looking at Sleepless we saw that its characters engaged overtly with these concepts, most obviously through An Affair to Remember. Although Céline and Jesse are nothing like as vocal about their connection to existing romance texts and codes, there are references to be found which establish their knowledge of them. In the scene in which they first kiss - overlooking Vienna from the top of the Prater - there are signs that Jesse is trying to impose an image of romance he has in his mind onto the scene:

JESSE: So, we got a sunset here…?…We got the ferris wheel… Feels like this would be a good time to…you know…

CELINE:…Are you trying to say you want to kiss me?

Of course he is: he wants to kiss her at this moment because it is “a good time” to do so - because it conforms to what he has learned is a traditionally ‘romantic moment’. Similarly, towards the end of the night, as the couple are discussing how wonderful their time has been, Céline says:

CELINE: …But then morning comes and we turn into pumpkins, right?

JESSE: God…

CELINE: Well, I think at this moment you are supposed to produce the glass slipper and see if it fits.

JESSE: Yeah? It’ll fit…

Here the couple are using a shared existing romance story - in this case that old romantic comedy favourite, Cinderella - to communicate about their relationship. I will return later to the relation between the use of these types of reference and Sleepless’ use of An Affair to Remember, but for now, it is enough to simply assert that these instances indicate the influence of such structures of romantic love.


The concept of the happy end, as well as being influenced by these systems of romantic love, also clearly reflects another deep-seated human pre-occupation: endings themselves. Frank Kermode’s study The Sense of an Ending explores mankind’s “deep need for intelligible ends”, arguing that we absolutely need the fictive concepts of beginnings and endings offered by narrative in order to make sense of the essential contingency of our lives. He pursues this line of thinking down to what is perhaps man’s most fundamental fiction - time: “Let us take, as a very simple example, the ticking of a clock. We ask what it says: and we agree that it says tick-tock. By this fiction we humanize it… Of course, it is we who provide the fictional difference between the two sounds; tick is our sound for a physical beginning, tock our word for an end… The clock’s tick-tock I take to be a model of what we call a plot, an organization that humanizes time by giving it form.”

This example illustrates how absolutely essential the fiction of endings is to us: it provides us with an order that allows us to live our lives. It is why stories, folk tales, myths and religions were originally necessary and continue to hold the power over us that they do, and is also why Hollywood’s dominant type of ending is the Closed Text: we like, generally, to have our assumptions reinforced via clearly defined endings in art. Though life continues on regardless, we ascribe to it mini-narratives, self-imposed dramas, chapters, which we can view as having begun and ended.

Continuing his argument, with the help of a quotation from Sartre, Kermode writes: “In life, Sartre once remarked, 'all ways are barred and yet we must act. So we try to change the world; that is, live as if the relations between things and potentialities were governed not by deterministic processes but by magic.'… We make up adventures, invent and ascribe the significance of temporal concords to those privileged moments to which we alone award prestige, make our own human clocks tick in a clockless world.”

Sunrise is an illustration of the way in which this applies to the way we conceptualise love, a matter for which such narrative influence is perhaps stronger and more immediately obvious than in any other area of our lives, simply because romance is such a constant in fictional stories (particularly, of course, in Hollywood). At the end of the film, when Jesse and Céline give themselves up for the possibility of their happy ending, they are constructing an “adventure” for their lives, ascribing to their romance a narrative, changing their ‘love lives’ into a ‘love story’. They are also, as I have said, giving their relationship the potential for the illusion that it is controlled, as Sartre says, by “magic”.

Of course, as with everything I have been discussing, this reflects not just the needs of the characters but also of the audience. Our strong desire for a conclusion to their love story (or, as I argued in my introduction, that old illusion of conclusion: the united final couple) testifies to the fact that we feel the same as they do: we share their deep need for an ending - and, because we are also slaves to the same structures of romantic love as I have been discussing - preferably a happy one. That we share the same need further testifies to the fact that it is a very real, and therefore ‘realistic’, phenomenon.

Both the fictional structuring concepts of romance and the fictional structuring concepts of endings are, by my definition, fundamentally ‘unrealistic’ ideas because they offer illusions of finality and refuse to address the effects of time on a relationship, ultimately contributing to the concept of the happy ending. Sunrise, however, shows us that the desire for this happy ending cannot be denied, no matter how ‘realistic’ the treatment of romantic love we are presented with is, or how ‘realistic’ we may think our view of love is.

Its sequel, Sunset, shows us the fallout caused when the happy ending has not been achieved…

Read Part 3 here.

This article was published on September 16, 2005.

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