Written by James MacDowell.
“Everyone with whom I have watched Before Sunrise immediately raises the question of whether or not Jesse and Céline will keep their six-months-ahead date. […] Yet the question of ‘Will they or won’t they?’ may be a simple (and sentimental) evasion of the real question posed by the film’s ending, which is far more radical and disturbing: Would it be better if they did or if they didn’t?”
After Before Midnight...
The first words we hear in Before Sunrise (1995) are spoken by an arguing middle-aged couple. It is underneath the sounds of this Austrian man and woman’s increasingly heated exchange that we first receive shots of Céline and Jesse. It’s also the ramping up of their dispute that prompts Céline to move away from them and sit across from Jesse. Finally, it is the couple's storming out of the train compartment and past our protagonists that provides the opportunity for the first communication between the two young strangers. Céline glancingly meets Jesse’s eyes with a gently amused, quizzical look before returning to her book, prompting the first words our will-be lovers ever speak to one another - Jesse: “Do you have any idea what they were arguing about…?”
For the non-German-speaker this question is never answered (though see this attempted translation), but what will be obvious to anyone is that the couple’s war of words built up quickly from a passing, pointed, comment made by the male member of the pair. The speed with which the woman’s quiet harrumphing at her partner’s words escalates to a sudden outburst (her slapping the newspaper out of his hand), and from there develops into a full-blown public row (the couple yelling at one another as they stamp out of the carriage), communicates that they are clearly tired of each others’ company, are each intentionally testing the others’ nerves, and are also - we might now realise with uneasy shock - probably about the same age as Jesse and Céline will be by the time of Before Midnight (2013).
No doubt many fans of Linklater’s series of films watched Sunrise and Sunset (2004) again before Midnight was released in order to prepare themselves for the latest entry. I had the opposite experience, rewatching the first and second soon after experiencing the most recent. The effect has been instructive, and not a little devastating.
For one thing: if we can say (and I’m not certain we can) that the relationship between Céline and Jesse as we see it in Midnight is on the verge of breaking apart - or at least becoming so fractious that the bad times are in danger of outweighing the good - then our experience of the first two films is now filled with moments that become retrospectively charged with a poignant sense of prophecy. In Sunset, for example, we might return again to the exchange between our couple on the tourist boat, in which Jesse frustratedly exhales, “Oh, God - why weren't you there in Vienna?”, going on wistfully, “our lives might have been so different…” “You think so?”, counters Céline - “Maybe not, maybe we would have hated each other eventually”. “Oh what,” Jesse responds sarcastically and sadly: “like we hate each other now?” “But maybe we're only good at brief encounters,” Céline offers with a rueful smile, “walking around in European cities - in a warm climate…”
In this article I want to think about the third film, and the effect that it has on its predecessors, in two main ways. Firstly, in terms of the relationship between these films and the genres of romantic comedy and romantic melodrama; and secondly, relatedly, in terms of the series’ representations of gender. My hope is to express something of what makes these films so unusual and valuable, but also to suggest some ways in which it makes sense to view them as entering into a dialogue with certain longstanding traditions in the fictional treatment of romantic love. For the most part this train of thought has only increased my admiration for these films, but I also want to build towards a minor criticism of - or at least a critical question about - the third in particular. So - firstly, the question of genre…
Comedy, melodrama and romance
In my short review of Midnight I referred to it as a realist take on a now seldom-attempted genre: the marital melodrama. I now want to go further, and suggest that one schematic way of describing the shift in perspective that Midnight brings to our experience of its predecessors would be to say that the earlier films (especially the first) depicted love in a way that came close to the realm traditionally offered by romantic comedy - but that they have now forever been retrospectively cast in the role of preludes to a movie that feels far closer in mood and subject matter to romantic melodrama.
Thus, whereas a recurrent motif in the reviews of Midnight was to suggest that the series has become progressively less ‘romantic’ and more ‘realistic’, I’d like to rethink this instead as being in part a move away from the comedic and towards the melodramatic. It seems useful to make this comparison with these genres, apart from anything, to highlight one thing about the Before movies that definitely is unconventional: the fact that they offer sequels within a generic field - romance - that almost never produces sequels. A brief discussion of some of the basic differences between romantic comedy and romantic melodrama is needed before I can get into detail about the importance of this unconventional approach to such a conventional subject.
In American cinema, as a general rule of thumb, a narrative about a couple’s romantic courtship will usually be a comedy, while one depicting a marriage or a long-term relationship will tend to be a melodrama. The former kind of story stereotypically deals with only the promise of a couple, ending happily at a moment which (if one gives it a second’s thought one quickly realises) is only in fact a ‘happy beginning’ - the formation of the relationship - and leaving what comes after to the imagination. This genre, romantic comedy, is historically notable for having produced very few sequels. The romantic melodrama, by contrast, in a sense is the ‘sequel’ to romantic comedy’s tale of courtship, often telling what Kathleen Rowe calls “the story of what follows that happy ending”. It attempts to show that which the other genre can only hint at: what the future life of a couple looks like following its formation. What that future looks like will often be rather less promising and fulfilling than the one we might hope to imagine at the close of romantic comedies about couples for whom we want to wish the best.
This general pattern - the happy comedic world of courtship versus the more distressing melodramatic mood surrounding sustained relationships - can to an extent be explained by the nature of narrative itself, which of course usually relies on the presence of conflict. As John Updike once said of courtship narratives, “happy love, unobstructed love, is the possibility that animates all romances,” and yet “their plots focus on obstruction because they are plots”. Because “happy love” is “unobstructed” it is difficult for it to be represented in the form of a narrative, which usually requires some form of impediment or conflict in order to exist in the first place - hence the tendency of films to lead to and promise happy romantic relationships rather than try to represent them.
Between comedy and melodrama: Sunrise and Sunset
In taking the radical decision to add sequels to Sunrise after the way that first film ends - with its effective promise of at least the possibility of a future ‘happy ending’ (see here for more on this) - I suggest that these movies have thus done something generically unprecedented: they have transformed what might have been a standalone (unconventional and realist, but still passingly familiar) romantic comedy into merely the first act in what has become an ongoing romantic melodrama - culminating (for now) in the pain and bitterness we find in Midnight.
Sunrise is certainly more ‘realistic’ than many romantic comedies, and in this sense is invested in making its world seem more like our own - i.e.: less magically helpful - than do others. Nonetheless, it does seem to stick fairly closely to the pattern laid out by Thomas above. The city of Vienna in this first film appears extremely accommodating and welcoming towards Céline and Jesse’s burgeoning love: the barman who selflessly gifts them a free bottle of wine, the harpsichord player whose music floats up magically from a basement and allows for a brief dance, the walking band that strikes up at just the right moment during their conversation on the café boat, the street poet whose lyrics relate suspiciously well to the couple’s circumstances, the music store that provides the right soundtrack and space for one of their most romantically-charged moments, the ferris wheel in the Prater that offers a beautiful view and privacy for their first kiss, and so on.
Yet the series’ gradual movement in the direction of melodrama is quickly gestured towards at Sunset’s opening when we learn that they failed to re-meet: Jesse, we discover, turned up on that platform back in 1994, and Céline (because of her grandmother’s funeral) did not. This is a narrative twist immediately suggestive of a melodramatic world. Not only does its imagery recall the many lovers in the genre left abandoned on train platforms (see: Casablanca , Letter From an Unknown Woman , Far From Heaven , etc.), but the impediment to Céline might make us think of the kind of unforeseen tragedy that prevents, for example, Terry (Deborah Kerr) from keeping her planned appointment with Nicky (Cary Grant) atop the Empire State Building in An Affair to Remember (1957). In such films and such worlds, Thomas suggests, romantic love “finds itself embattled and at constant odds with the requirements of melodrama”. This sense of Sunset’s world being somewhat less welcoming and helpful towards its lovers’ desires is only increased by the fact that Jesse is now married, the ever-present reminders of his deadline of the flight home (constantly needing to be desperately put off as long as possible), and - especially - by the shocking news that Céline and Jesse were for several years living in New York at the same time but never re-met. Jesse’s pained recounting of the moment when he thought he saw Céline from a taxi window while en route to his wedding (and Céline’s confirmation that she did live close to that spot) is classically melodramatic in its sense of tragically/ironically bad luck and near-missing - what Steve Neale calls the genre’s characteristic feeling of “if only…”
Yet of course the conclusion is also here considerably burdened by the very messy and unpromising consequences that the forthcoming moment of passion could have for Jesse, as well as the fact that it will be (lest we forget!) adulterous. Both of these considerations point firmly back towards the realm of melodrama. Nonetheless, the extraordinary poignancy of Sunset’s ending lies partly in its ability to hover so tantalisingly and precariously between moods of desperation and hope, tension and ease, melodrama and comedy. And again - as with romance genres in general - if the film is working for its viewer in the way it undoubtedly hopes to, our ability to make pessimistic predictions won’t lessen our intense desire for them to somehow be overcome.
Midnight, melodrama and conflict
By the time of Midnight, however, the bleaker forecasts available to us at the end of the second film have been confirmed by the revelation of the terrible relationship Jesse apparently now has with his ex-wife: “She just hates you so much…”, his son reminds him in the opening scene. By beginning with this farewell in the airport, the third film thus immediately stresses the melodramatic cost of romantic comedy’s sense of promise - the ‘broken’ family caused by Sunset’s happy ending. In this way, it continues the tradition begun by the second, of tamping down early on the hopeful, comedic aspects implied by the end of the previous film.
Yet the decision to begin the film not with this image of family - but rather with a reminder of the fragmented other family from which Jesse has estranged himself - does also have the effect of lessening slightly the joy of discovering our couple stuck it out for the years since Sunset’s ending. In addition to this - as with almost all films about long-term relationships rather than courtships - as the film progresses we will learn that this relationship is no idyll, and that it’s in no small part the pair’s respective roles as parents that is causing tensions (more on this shortly). It is such tensions as these that make this film easily the most melodramatic of the three, and indeed make Midnight appear to be the melodrama towards which the more comedic aspects of the earlier films now seem always to have been moving. This is true in two main ways: the foregrounding of conflict, and the nature of the conflicts.
The major argument between them in the third film - the seeds of which are sewn in the very first scene - concerns Jesse’s son, his fear as a father that he is missing out on crucial years, and his resultant desire to move to the U.S. in order to be closer to him. Céline believes it is asking too much of her and the children to uproot their lives by relocating to the States again. (It’s worth stressing again, since one thing we learn in the hotel room scene - in dialogue that passes quickly enough to be missed on first viewing - is that Céline did previously move to New York with Jesse for two years.) Key to this argument is that Céline feels both that the move would negatively affect her career, but also - and more importantly - that for Jesse even to make the request reveals something troubling about the way he regards her career. Yet there are many other points of contention besides. They clash over (unconfirmed but heavily implied) extra-marital sex each may have had; the division of labour in their child-rearing (and during their current holiday); the way Céline speaks to Jesse’s son about his mother; her refusal to let Jesse speak to the son when he calls; Jesse’s long periods of absence while on book tours; the routinized nature of their lovemaking; Jesse’s using aspects of their lives in his writing; their respective styles of arguing, and on and on…
This, in fact, is perhaps the main difference between third film and its predecessors: the extent to which it is structured around a conflict between the couple. And although there are moments when their discourse still conveys the more liberatingly improvisatory mood of the first two films’, these moments are usually also accompanied by acknowledgments of how rare these kinds of interactions have become: during the walk to the hotel they mention the strange sense of momentary freedom that comes with not needing to perpetually manage their children; early in the hotel room scene Jesse opines, “I haven’t heard you think in years…”
That line cuts particularly deep, because it reminds us that this is essentially what the previous films so valuably offered them (and us), and makes us consider anew the conditions that made this possible. The deliciously comedic climate of Sunrise in particular stems partly from the fact that (as well as being at least somewhat financially privileged), Jesse and Céline also had so much still to learn about each other, sharing no messy history and complicatedly enmeshed lives that might encourage deceit, recrimination, secrets. They were unburdened by marriage, then, but also family, serious jobs, and thus permitted the time and space for leisure; moreover, they were blessed with a sense of possibility - what Larkin brilliantly called “that certainty of time laid up in store” - that can accompany youth. This is one thing sorely lacking in Midnight.
Yet there is also something else that needs noting about the melodramatic nature of our couple’s relationship in Midnight - something that can’t be explained by the nature of narrative or ageing alone, and towards which the subjects of their arguments mentioned above firmly point. This is where not just the word ‘genre’ but also the word ‘gender’ in this article’s title becomes important…
Melodrama and gender
Melodrama isn’t only a matter of the mood or feel of a film - it will also often be a question of how a movie depicts a social world.
I suggested earlier that the oppressive and troubled nature of marriage in romantic melodrama is in one sense caused by the nature of narrative itself - the simple necessity of providing the conflict needed for plot to exist. But this can’t tell us the whole story. Although a narrative focused on what follows marriage virtually requires some kind of conflict just because it is a narrative, in order to explain the particular kinds of conflict we regularly see in romantic melodramas we have to broaden our thinking. Specifically, we need to think of genres as constituting a culture’s conventionalised attempts to work through feelings and attitudes about various social realities.
All this is to point out that, faced with the basic necessity of generating narrative conflict, melodramas about long-term romantic relationships repeatedly exploit precisely those myriad aspects of traditionally-conceived Western heterosexual marriage which can easily encourage such conflict. And, as the examples offered above suggest, those aspects usually come down, ultimately, to power relations between the genders; as Thomas puts it, melodramas typically depict “a hierarchical social setting whose privileges are heavily dependent upon markers of difference based on such things as gender”.
Given that the dates of all the films mentioned above fall between the 1930s and the 1950s, we might hope that a marital melodrama released in 2013 wouldn’t need to cover the same territory. And unsurprisingly, we can say that Linklater’s doesn’t quite. Jesse is most certainly not an unrepentantly authoritarian husband in the manner of Caught’s Robert Ryan; the fact that the couple’s relationship began as adulterous doesn’t mean that Céline must ultimately be punished for being ‘the other woman’, as in a film like Intermezzo; nor does the movie focus on the possibility that Céline’s pursuit of a career might have caused to her to be regarded as a bad mother, as does Imitation of Life.
Nevertheless, the influence of age-old gendered hierarchies and assumptions still haunt Midnight in troubling and important ways, further reinforcing the sense of it as a contemporary, realist take on the traditional romantic melodrama. The question to consider now is its treatment of this familiar generic terrain.
Gendered conflict in Midnight
In the dinner scene Céline accuses Jesse of being a “closet macho” - a shoe that perhaps fits, given - say - how visibly turned on he gets by her parodic performance of a bimbo dying to flatter his ego, or his anxiety in the car scene that his son can’t throw a baseball: “a father is supposed to teach you that”, he asserts. In contrast to these apparently unthinking adoptions of traditional gender roles by Jesse, Céline (whose parents were, we learned in Sunrise, “angry May ’68 types”) strives always to place her and Jesse’s experiences as contemporary men and woman in a more critical light.
In this way, the film permits Céline to voice what amount to feminist - or at least feminist-influenced - views at several points. By contrast, Jesse’s general position on these matters seems disappointingly complacent and masculinist, i.e.: he believes they just aren’t relevant, and moreover are perhaps simply getting in the way of a conversation about how best to save their relationship. “This isn’t the 50s, you’re not oppressed!” he pronounces in a heated moment, and at another: “I’m sure life was so hard for you growing up in post-feminist-era Paris - how ever did you survive…?” He seems, in short, unwilling to consider his views, actions and relationship in the social context Céline wants to place them in.
Far more than either of the previous films (but like many older romantic melodramas), then, Midnight firstly sets up a context that effectively pits the members of its couple against one another. More specifically, the nature of the conflict revolves around contrasting attitudes towards the politics at play in the relationship: in general, Céline voices various concerns by contextualising their life together in gendered terms, while Jesse pushes back against this impulse and wants simply to patch the relationship up. Given how central this new dynamic of conflict is made to the film, a key question becomes: how sympathetic or otherwise does Midnight ask us to be towards the characters’ respective positions?
As such, I want to look at each character’s treatment by examining further the nature of the conflict the film establishes. This requires that we look not only at the characters’ arguments themselves, but also at how convincing they are allowed to appear in the context set up by both Midnight and the rest of the series.
To some extent Midnight provides us with chances to see validity in Céline’s side of the conflict. I mentioned earlier that Jesse has his discussion about his novel not with Céline, but instead during a conversation with the other men staying at the villa. It’s significant that at this moment these men’s partners are not only absent, but are actually revealed (by a pointed cut) to be in the kitchen preparing food for the forthcoming dinner scene. Céline obliquely brings up this state of affairs during the hotel argument, speaking of the “fairies” men think take care of such household labour. She also mocks resentfully the long wanders Jesse has been taking all summer with their author host Patrick - assumedly the kinds of philosophical walk-and-talks that our couple used to share together, but from which Céline now feels excluded. Both of these complaints are thus implicitly backed up by the film through the subtle but vivid sketch we get of the kinds of unquestioned gender roles that can still be assumed and unconsciously slipped into, even by the most seemingly ‘enlightened’ or ‘modern’ of long-term couples.
The parenthesis I’m required to use in this last example, though, is indicative of a troubling possible limit on the extent to which we could ever feel encouraged to side with Céline and against Jesse within the terms of conflict the film establishes. This limit is created through a combination of the film’s approach to its characters and its approach to storytelling.
As I have said, Midnight pits Céline and Jesse against one another in a way that the previous films do not. This is true in the basic sense that they are made to frequently argue, but it’s also a question what their aims are suggested to be throughout the film - and, crucially, how the previous films have prepared us to feel about those aims.
Jesse’s aims are still presented as being fairly simple. As noted above, he resists at each turn the feminist discussion Céline wishes to have, presenting himself as being concerned only with what he sees as separate and more personal aims: to live closer to his son (“ideally as a family,” he adds in one slightly threatening aside), and for the couple to overcome their current problems and keep their love alive. “If you're looking for permission to disqualify me, I'm not gonna give it to you,” he says at one point; at another, he continues this trend of implying that Céline may merely be over-complicating with politics what should be a more simple matter of the heart: “I love you,” he tells her with full feeling, “and I'm not in conflict about it…” To this end, despite sometimes giving as good as he gets in the argument, he also refers repeatedly to the events of the previous two films in an attempt to cause Céline (and us) to recall the romantic promise felt in them: “I fucked up my whole life because of the way you sing,” he says at one point (invoking Sunset’s ending); at another: “I’m still that same guy who asked you to get off the train with him…”
While Céline might still fundamentally share this aim, her relationship to it is now presented as being far more complex than it ever was before. From Midnight’s second scene, when she first (correctly) infers Jesse’s desire to move countries, she is already anticipating a possible end to this relationship that we’ve been rooting for across two realist romantic comedy films, and eighteen years: “this is how people start to break up”, she worries aloud. It’s she who resists from the outset going to the romantic retreat their friends have organised for them, and it’s she who dislikes it once they’re there. It’s her who causes most of the fights to escalate, resisting the mood Jesse (and probably we) desires for their rare shared night away from responsibilities, and her who twice storms out. Finally, after airing her various grievances, it’s she who utters a line that can’t help but sound devastating to any fan who has invested so much time, interest and hope in these characters: “I think it’s obvious what’s going on here: I just don’t love you anymore.” All in all, it seems overwhelmingly to be Céline - and her feminist critiques - that are made to serve as obstacles to the film fulfilling the promise felt so keenly throughout both previous films - essentially (in Updike’s words): the promise of “happy love, unobstructed love”.
A clash of form and subject matter?
Midnight, of course, follows the storytelling model established by Sunrise and Sunset - that is: it offers only a small window onto one short moment of time that feels almost as if it is unfolding in a heightened present tense. This idiosyncratic and seductive strategy made an immediately obvious kind of sense for both the first two films: Sunrise is about a brief meeting, so it seems entirely fitting for its narrative to concern itself only with (a slightly condensed representation of) the time the couple spends together. And while Sunset could more easily have continued past the point it does, both its real-time conceit, and the way it echoes the original’s focus on a heightened (re)meeting, go a long way towards justifying the decision.
In Midnight, though, the storytelling approach of the highly restricted time-frame has the chance of appearing more perverse - and potentially, I would suggest, in a way that has the unfortunate side-effect of tipping the scales of the film unavoidably in Jesse’s favour.
If any narrative is interested in telling a story that allows us to make judgments about the health or otherwise of a nine-year relationship (as Midnight at least on one level is), then this might seem to necessitate it covers a relatively broad time-frame - one that permits a wide-ranging investigation of the ups, downs and intricacies of a couple’s lifespan. This happens, for instance, in melodramas like Penny Serenade (1941) or The Marrying Kind (1950), or even Ingmar Bergman’s epic television film Scenes From a Marriage ). In the case of Midnight this approach would constitute a major break with the established template. However, given that the events of the film now imply no obvious brief time-frame, it could make sense for it to try something similar, i.e.: attempt as full (if unavoidably condensed) a depiction of Jesse and Céline’s life together as possible, so that we might assess it with the kind of depth perhaps needed to understand such a long and necessarily complex relationship.
Of course, it seems unlikely that Linklater, Hawke and Delpy would ever have considered opting for such a dramatic change in storytelling style, and there is absolutely no guarantee that such a change would have worked had it been attempted. I’m simply questioning, firstly, whether this film’s form fits its subject matter nearly as comfortably as its predecessors’ so manifestly do. (Hawke has acknowledged that “the two most difficult things about the third one are no ticking clock, and the fact that they’ve now known each other for so long”.) Secondly, I’m interested to tease out how this approach to storytelling affects the film’s depiction of the (highly gendered) battle it establishes between Céline and Jesse.
A stacked deck?
As noted, in setting up its melodramatic conflict the way it does, Midnight gives Céline a difficult job: convincing us to be sympathetic towards arguments that are capable of breaking apart a relationship that we’ve been rooting for for eighteen years. This is already a challenging task. However, the film’s approach to storytelling further compromises her ability to emerge from this conflict with us on her side.
For example: do the majority of parenting and household responsibilities fall to her? Does Jesse always take the infuriating argumentative tack of denying her ability to converse rationally? What is his attitude towards Céline’s career in general? How do Jesse’s prolonged absences affect his partner? Has their sex-life become routinized? Did the suggested infidelity(/ies) take place, and if so under what circumstances? The answers to such questions are crucial to how much we can feel encouraged to sympathise with Céline in Midnight, and none of them can be known thanks to the form of storytelling adopted. We can make educated guesses based on what we’re shown, and - as I have said - some of what we do see does lend credence to Céline’s complaints (and thus - importantly - the feminist analyses she subjects them to). Yet her character is required to draw on so much evidence that to us must remain mere conjecture: the sacrifice she made by moving to New York, how she felt abandoned by Jesse in their children’s early years, the matter of whether Jesse has ever arranged a babysitter - even so recent and small a matter as whether Jesse’s walks with Patrick have typically taken two hours or three, and so on.
Even if a viewer is predisposed to take her feelings and concerns very seriously in theory, then, the way the film’s storytelling works makes it difficult for it to dedicate itself to demonstrating their validity in practice. So Jesse is helped by the film in at least two ways: (a) his most basic ostensible desire - simply to make this relationship work - aligns perfectly with the most basic desire the series is likely to have instilled in its audience from the first film onwards; and (b) most of the questionable, unthinking actions Céline accuses him of - which might cause us to look critically at him and his claims to be just a romantic trying to make things work - must remain forever unseen.
This is all to say that the film itself often seems more closely aligned with Jesse than Céline. This sense is never stronger than in the moment following Céline’s final exit from the hotel room. Breaking the habit of a lifetime for this series - which has previously always striven to grant each member of its couple almost rigorously equal time and attention - at this moment the film elects not to follow Céline outside and show us her emotional state upon making this momentous exit, but rather stays only in the hotel room with Jesse, and even gives us a sequence of what seem to be POV shots from his perspective as he surveys the room: the bed, the bottle of wine… This is a very unusual stylistic decision in the context of the Before films - whose camera has invariably appeared to be looking at rather than with characters - and it’s very tempting to see the choice as indicative of the extent to which Midnight has gradually edged towards becoming Jesse’s film rather than his and Céline’s together (we might here remember the opening scene too). It now seems that our hero - and this moment suddenly makes him feel more like one than he ever has before - is going to have to pursue the difficult, passionate woman he loves if this film is going to end in anything like the way we surely can’t help but hope that it will.
He ultimately does so, by following her out to the veranda, and - especially given the history invested in this couple - there can’t be many viewers who aren’t ardently willing him to do whatever it takes in that final scene to win Céline back, to convince her to abandon or rethink her objections, and to assent to fulfilling Jesse’s and our desires for one more - provisional, always only provisional - happy ending.
One could certainly justifiably argue that it would be far worse if Midnight chose not to depict and discuss gender hierarchies at all, especially given the series’ self-identification as ‘realistic’. As Thomas notes, “the world in which we live has a kinship with the melodramatic - in being hierarchical, gendered, class-based, and so on”. My point is simply that I don’t believe Midnight has found the form most appropriate to that aim, if what we hope for from such a discussion is that it take place on a level playing field.
Perhaps, though, the most fundamentally disheartening aspect of Midnight is simply the fact that it is constructed around conflict caused by gender hierarchies in the first place. I say this because of where this series began.
Before Sunrise after Before Midnight
In the article quoted at the top of this feature, Robin Wood’s ‘Rethinking Romantic Love’ (published 1998, before any of the sequels), Wood raises an unexpected and troubling question about the ending of Sunrise. The most interesting thing that the conclusion invites us to ask, he argues, might not in fact be will Jesse and Céline meet again, but instead should they meet again? Wood makes this point for two main reasons. Firstly, there is his great appreciation for the extraordinarily equal nature of the relationship as played out in the first film, and the way that Jesse and Céline seem to express and represent a desire somehow to reconceptualise romance in positive ways.
The second strand feeding into Wood’s pressing question about the end is his observation that - in contrast to the democratic nature of Céline and Jesse’s relationship - Sunrise also subtly invokes various reminders of a far less utopian cultural history of heterosexual romantic love - away from which advances assuredly need to be made.
Along with the arguing married Austrian couple in the first scene (more on this in a moment), Wood suggests two important cultural reference points. Firstly, there is the classic Max Ophüls melodrama Letter From an Unknown Woman, set in early 1900s Vienna, which is one of cinema’s most poignant dramatisations of a woman’s destruction by internalised ideological forces and the harmful potential contained in the concept of romantic love. (Linklater confirmed to Wood that he showed this film to Hawke and Delpy before shooting began.) Obsessed by a romantic notion of self-sacrifice and victim to a self-abnegating belief in fate, this film’s titular character deludes herself that a notorious but charming and appealing womaniser is the love of her life, sleeps with him, then proceeds to regard herself as unworthy of imposing upon him when he abandons her - even after she becomes pregnant out-of-wedlock. Perhaps the most devastating moment in the film from this perspective comes with Lisa’s heart-rending response to being told by a concerned party that “You have a will - you can do what’s best for you”: “No,” she counters with full belief, “I’ve had no will but his, ever”. The other reference point Wood mentions is Purcell’s 17th Century opera Dido and Aeneas, the overture from which is used in Sunrise’s opening credits. Depicting the death-by-broken-heart of a woman who is abandoned when her lover leaves her to found the country of Italy, one of things this tragic opera’s story does - like Ophüls’ - is dramatise in Wood’s words, “the subordinate position of women in patriarchal culture”.
Perhaps the most dispiriting thing about Midnight is that it tempts us to answer this question with “Yes”. When the most recent Before movie is placed alongside the first it creates the sense of a tragic fall from grace - a feeling of deep loss. Part of this loss has simply to do with the loss of youth, as well as the loss of a sense of romantic promise. But there is another kind of loss too: a loss of the hope that Jesse and Céline might have somehow been able to escape the depressingly familiar traps that long-term romantic relationships can so routinely set for lovers. Once Midnight has shown the couple re-enact and clash so bitterly over (contemporary variations on) some of the most persistent gender binaries constructed by Western culture, the extraordinary degree of ease, mutuality and equality the lovers embodied in the first film feels even more valuable, but also more utopian.
This is now never truer than at the retrospectively heartbreaking moment of their very first meeting in Sunrise’s first scene, which began both this series and this article. Returning to those initial moments in light of how we have seen the couple interact by the time of the third film, the gulf between the two feels unconquerably vast.
After a brief lull that could have potentially brought an end to their dialogue, Céline offers up a related anecdote as a topic of possible interest: “Have you ever heard that, as couples get older, they lose their ability to hear each other?” Jesse is immediately receptive and amused, answering with a smile and a leading “No…” “Well, supposedly,” Céline goes on cheerily, “men lose their ability to hear higher-pitch sounds and women eventually lose their hearing at the low end,” adding with a smile, “I guess they sort of nullify each other or something.” Jesse gratefully leaps upon the premise - “Yeah, I guess,” developing it slightly with his half-joke suggestion that this could be seen as “nature’s way of allowing couples to grow old together without killing each other”, a gag Céline acknowledges with a small laugh. Following a moment when they each ask to see what the other is reading, the Austrian couple reappear, their mood slightly calmed but still tense; Jesse and Céline again follow them with their eyes as they pass, Céline’s look especially seeming to say, “What a shame…” Jesse then invites Céline to accompany him to the lounge car, she agrees, and the couple move off together to begin the rest of what will become perhaps the most significant hours of their lives.
When Jesse laments to Céline in Midnight that “I miss hearing you think…”, it is surely the kinds of conversations ushered in by this first exchange that he is fondly remembering. To cast our minds forward to Midnight at this moment, though, is also now unavoidably to be encouraged to see the older pair as prophetic of our lovers’ own eventual future, and the fact that their arguing inadvertently brings the young couple together as something of a cruel cosmic irony. The unbearably poignant quality of this opening thus now lies equally in how different from the Austrian couple they once seemed, and how like them they appear eighteen years later.
Relevant here is not only the issue of time, but also how the concepts of comedy and melodrama relate to the films’ treatment of gender. In the same way as the melodramatic approach isn’t only about mood but also about how a film depicts the operations of its social world, so can comedy be thought of similarly. “It is a central aspect of comedic films,” writes Thomas, “that the social space within them is transformable into something better than the repressive, hierarchical world of melodramatic films.” Contrary to much popular belief, the sense of liberation and freedom that can accompany comedic films may extend to a movie’s politics - yes, even the politics of a romantic comedy. The helpful, benign comedic world of Sunrise thus wasn’t just important for how it helped bring Céline and Jesse together, but also for how it allowed them initially to escape the kind of intractable gendered hierarchies represented in a melodrama like Letter From an Unknown Woman, or a high tragedy like Purcell’s Dido and Aeneas, or even just in the daily bitterness and anger of an average middle-aged couple.
CÉLINE: “You know, men, women, there’s no end to it, it’s like - you know…”
JESSE: “It’s like a skipping record…”
CÉLINE: [Laughing] “Yeah…!”
JESSE: "Every couple’s been having this conversation forever…”
CÉLINE: “…And nobody came up with an answer”.
And they move onwards along Vienna’s nighttime cobbled streets, towards the next topic of mutually agreeable discussion. The gender argument here is deferred rather than solved, but that is precisely the point. At this moment in the series and the relationship this couple were able to convince themselves that they could - or at least needed to - move the needle past the skip, however briefly - move past this treacherous argument of their culture’s past, with its ignoble history of patriarchal power relations, which informs so much of our present. At this privileged point in time, protected by the impervious idealism of youth and the “warm climate” of romantic comedy, they - and perhaps we - could momentarily be seduced, deluded, into believing that they were somehow beyond this.
Nothing prevents us from returning to Sunrise whenever we wish to re-experience its inspirational promise of a more mutual and equal romantic future than the genre of romance is usually able to offer. We can revisit the couple’s first meeting, with its playful supposition about men and women’s hearing - an exchange that might at first have seemed casually cynical or defeatist, but which on second glance actually contains something impossibly hopeful at its heart: a proposition that “nature” might somehow be committed to magically easing the process of lovers staying together into their dotage. The pity of Midnight is that the same man and woman who once laughed over the idea that a couple should need to be spared the ability to "hear each other" now seem so in need of just such magical assistance, but that their world also now appears far less helpful and cooperative than it did eighteen years ago. The only hope, perhaps, is the possibility ("if only...") that it could yet seem a little more so another nine years hence.
This article was published on September 17, 2013.
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