The dual-review film criticism site: first a spoiler-free review, then an in-depth Alternate Take.
Before Sunrise after Before Midnight: genre and gender in the Before series

Written by James MacDowell.

Photo from the article “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?”

- Robin Wood, ‘Rethinking Romantic Love: Before Sunrise

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…”

Viewed from the perspective of Midnight, a conversation like this seems no longer only to be about Céline trying vainly to convince Jesse (and herself) that their failure to reunite after their parting wasn’t necessarily a tragedy. It remains an idle speculation, but becomes also an idle speculation against which we can bring supporting evidence to bear. If it’s going too far to say that the latest film shows our couple hating one another (though they sometimes speak with such bitterness in the hotel room scene that we could be forgiven for believing that, sometimes, they do), the idea that the pair might have been best suited to brief, loquacious wanderings rather than lifelong monogamous partnership is now given a suggestive power that means Céline’s words can never again be seen only as an attempt to lighten the loss of a missed opportunity.

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.

These suggestions require a little backing up - partly because the latter genre is indeed so relatively rare these days, but also because to slap these films in particular with generic identities at all might at first glance seem a little odd. Unmistakably indie in their production, aesthetic, approach to storytelling, and performance style, the Before movies have always presented themselves as unconventional, non-generic takes on that most conventional of fictional subjects, romantic love. However, as someone who thinks of genres not as restrictive boxes but rather tool kits that can be put to many varied and valuable uses, I’m interested in probing not just what makes the Before films unlike Hollywood romance films, but also what we might learn by understanding that they are unavoidably playing with and within a history of generic conventions.

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.

<I>Now, Voyager</i>
Now, Voyager
The distinction between comedy and melodrama is in part a matter of the different moods with which similar subject matter can be treated. Writing of the different treatment the subject of romance receives in comedy and melodrama in her excellent book Beyond Genre, Deborah Thomas suggests that love in romantic comedy tends to feel liberating - the world in which characters live being geared towards guaranteeing a positive outcome for its couples’ desires. In the world of melodrama, however, love and desire tend to feel oppressive or transgressive - either manifesting in unhealthy, obsessive ways (say, for instance, Vertigo [1958]), or being experienced as a fantasy of escape, often in the form of desire for someone other than one’s partner (as in, say, Intermezzo [1939] or September Affair [1950]), or perhaps simply being left ultimately unfulfilled (e.g.: Now, Voyager [1942]).

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.

If, on the other hand, a narrative addresses the issue of what follows the happy ending, or happy beginning, the developing relationship will almost necessarily have to be threatened, dispensed with, or anxiety-ridden in order to sustain the tensions essential for narrative - a process that will often lead to melodrama. The aptly-titled No Time For Comedy (1940) is particularly striking in this respect: following its couple’s wedding (at about the 40 minute mark) the film immediately begins to display melodramatic tendencies, with the James Stewart character being suddenly revealed to have developed a drinking problem, and a potential affair looming on the horizon. The requirements of plotting itself, then, go some way towards explaining why happy marriage is commonly taken to be what comes after the film, while unhappy marriage is what takes place during a movie. I’ll go on later to suggest some other reasons for the pattern of courtship = comedy / marriage = melodrama, but it’s enough for now to note the convention.

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.

Viewed in this light, the “warm climate” Céline spoke of in Sunset might metaphorically bring to mind the benevolent and safe mood and world of romantic comedy as critics have long conceptualised it - from Northrop Frye’s identification of Shakespearian comedy’s pastoral ‘green world’ to what Celestino Deleyto has called the “magic space” of romantic comedy. In creating what we experience as such an overwhelmingly benign space, romantic comedy is able to, in Thomas’ words, “transform the world into something more spontaneous and, at the same time, safe, providing a home (as opposed to a battleground) for reciprocal erotic desire”. It is the sense of the comedic world being ultimately committed to moving its lovers towards a happy union that allows romantic comedies to maintain their safe and benevolent feel even in ‘darker’ moments (say, when couples fight, or are threatened by misunderstanding). We feel that the logic of the comedic world will finally do right by its central characters - as well as by us, since a successful romantic comedy will encourage us to desire the (usually) inevitable union and reconciliation as much as its protagonists.

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.

While the film focuses mainly on the way the pair talk themselves into one another’s affections, we thus shouldn’t overlook the role of an especially cooperative (comedic) world in fostering their desires. And, although the beauty of Sunrise’s ending of course lies in the way it only promises the six-months’-ahead reunion rather than shows it, given how obliging the film’s world has thus far been towards this couple’s relationship, we could certainly be forgiven for making ‘unrealistically’ romantic predictions. Furthermore, for any viewer for whom the film has worked its magic, this romantic sense of promise can only feel both reassuring and welcome (something I’ll return to later).

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 [1942], Letter From an Unknown Woman [1948], Far From Heaven [2002], 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…”

It is in one sense only the perspective granted by seeing where this couple will have ended up by the time of Midnight that makes this trajectory so retrospectively plain, and it’s certainly also the case that in Sunset Jesse and Céline are still clearly extremely excited by one another’s company (in the manner of so many other romantic comedies). The continued easy flow of their conversation (at least prior to the scene in the car when the mood threatens to turn sour) reignites the feeling of playful intellectual discovery so exquisitely conveyed in Sunrise. It is because of the degree to which they are able to re-spark some of the mood and feelings of the first film that they feel they must try - and just about manage, by the skin of their teeth - to ultimately wrest something that feels close to a comedic ending from the jaws of melodramatic circumstance - “Baby, you are gonna miss that plane…” This is an ending ecstatically alive with the imminent promise of a passionate and cathartic union - a foundational trait of romantic comedy.

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.

It might be objected at this point that I am already downplaying the importance of the other hugely important thing Midnight confirms in its first few minutes, namely: the revelation we receive - in one (uncharacteristically showy and overtly rhetorical) shot taking us out of the airport to the car - that Céline and Jesse have not only stayed together during the intervening nine years, but also have two almost too-angelic-looking little blonde girls in tow. It is certainly true that - especially for fans who have invested in these two characters for the last eighteen years - there is an immediate pleasure to be had in that revelatory tracking shot.

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.

Most obviously, this is the first film in which we have seen Céline and Jesse truly fight. Sunrise featured a moment when Jesse wondered aloud whether the couple had just had their “first fight” (over his reaction to the palm reader), but the teasing tiff was hardly serious, and - in keeping with the cooperative world of the first film in general - it was in any case interrupted by the street poet stepping in and distracting them before it could escalate too far. Sunset certainly had more fractious moments (especially in its car scene), but the grievances aired by the pair were directed less at each other and more at themselves or their circumstances. By the time of Midnight, this is far from the case.

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…

Midnight thus feels melodramatic firstly simply in the sense that the couple’s relationship here is represented as being not primarily playful and mutually enriching, but more like (in Thomas’ words) a conflict-riven “battleground”. When they speak to each other it is usually not firstly to learn about one another’s thoughts and feelings and deepen their intimacy, but rather to discuss mundanities, debate their potentially troubled future, or to air grievances.

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.

The shift towards melodrama in the series’ treatment of this now long-term relationship might thus partly be explained by the combination of (a) the necessity of constructing conflict for a narrative (a requirement fulfilled in the first two films primarily by deadlines), and (b) the increased burdens that typically accompany ageing - at least ageing as social convention so frequently dictates it: pursuing a successful career, acquiring a long-term significant other, raising a family, etc. Related to this second point: it’s worth noting that the moments in the third film when conversation is at its most congenial and philosophical (i.e.: is most like the dialogue in the first two movies) come not in scenes between Jesse and Céline alone, but between them and other people. It’s not with Céline but with three other men (more on this shortly) that Jesse excitedly discusses his next book about the nature of time; the speculation about how technology might change human relationships isn’t prompted by the ponderings of the two of them alone but is rather part of the dinner table conversation with the other guests; likewise for the toast to “passing through”, and so on. At this point in their lives the couple’s time can no longer be private (“our own creation,” as Céline put it in Sunrise); instead, they must exist within ever-more intricate social webs with others (again, the fact that the film begins with a conversation between Jesse and someone other than Céline is significant here).

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.

The kinds of oppressive experiences that melodramas commonly represent usually draw on the potential for tensions within the social institutions of marriage and family themselves. The widespread theme of the lure of adultery, for instance, acknowledges the fundamental challenge posed by attempting to build stable, long-term relationships and families on the bedrock of an ideal so unstable in practice as compulsory lifelong monogamy (Brief Encounter [1945] would be a paradigmatic example). Equally, a common way of creating tension is by admitting to the frequently challenging nature of (particularly female) parenthood, as in maternal melodramas such as Stella Dallas (1937) or That Certain Woman (1937); another common source of trouble is the conflict between domesticity and gainful employment (see: Mildred Pierce [1945] or Imitation of Life [1959]); yet another is to explore ways in which the ideally egalitarian roles of husband and wife can in practice be far from equal, as in those films that see authoritarian husbands seeking to subordinate, control or even eradicate their wives (e.g.: Gaslight [1944], Caught [1949], etc.).

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”.

<i>Imitation of Life</i>
Imitation of Life
Expressed perhaps a little too simply: the classic romantic melodramas thus explored (and often critiqued) the seemingly intractable conflicts involved in pursuing romantic love, marriage, and parenthood within a culture that invariably consigned women into various forms of explicit and implicit subordination. And usually, as befits their status as so-called ‘women’s films’, they were broadly speaking on the woman’s side in this fight, even when they ultimately dramatised her defeat by social pressures - often presenting, as Linda Williams puts it, “a recognisable picture of woman’s ambivalent position under patriarchy”.

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

Sexual politics were never absent from Céline and Jesse’s conversations in the first two films, but they weren’t granted nearly as much attention as they receive in Midnight, and seldom did they give rise to conflict (more on this later). It is Céline in particular who is usually required to raise the subject in the most recent film - and not only in relation to the central issue of whether the couple should relocate to the States. A fiercely intelligent, politically-minded woman, she constantly demonstrates she is acutely sensitive (far more so than Jesse) to the social and historical context in which their relationship - indeed, any 21st-century heterosexual romantic relationship - exists. Her repeated raising of such concerns is a main feature of many of the most bitter arguments in the film.

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.

For instance, she argues over dinner that Jesse’s desire to move the family to the States is an example of the darker side of his inherited “closet macho” mentality (prompting the first truly sour - if brief and subdued - exchange of words between them in the film). She repeatedly frames her arguments in ways that imply that she constantly feels the inescapable context of a millennia-old history of female oppression - whether the subject be what she sees as Jesse’s dismissive attitude towards her career (her “secret fear” being that men ultimately want to make her into a housewife who “sews the drapes”), her anxieties about motherhood (see: her critique of the assumption that women should be instinctive nurturers, and the depression she suggests that this expectation caused in her), or the way Jesse always attempts to win arguments with claims to being “rational” rather than “emotional” (“the Final Solution was a very ‘rational’ plan…”). “This,” she claims at one point, “is bigger than me…”

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?

I ask this because I would suggest that the new film does indeed imply different judgments on each member of the couple, and that this is another thing that makes it different from Sunrise and Sunset, both of which were remarkable in part for quite how even-handedly they treated Celine and Jesse. This was obviously true in terms of basic facts like the respective screen time the earlier films allowed each partner (especially Sunrise), and the degree to which each drove and contributed to conversation, but it was also a question of the viewer never feeling encouraged to sympathise with one character more than the other; as Robin Wood wrote of the first film, “from first scene to last, Before Sunrise systematically and rigorously resists identification with one character above or against the other”. I think that this can no longer be said of Midnight - in contrast to Linklater himself, who has suggested of the latest film too that “I don’t think there’s one perspective, and I’m proud of that. You can see both their points of view - it’s not seen more from the male or the female side…” While I don’t doubt that this was the filmmakers’ intention, I do have doubts about the extent to which it’s borne out in practice.

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.

Céline’s arguments

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.

As well as this, the latter objection (to the apparently exclusive walks) also serves as a reminder that questionable hierarchies can play out not only in straightforward binaries like male as provider / female as homemaker, but in more insidious ways too - for instance, in terms of unequal access to the role of ‘artistic genius’ or the status of the ‘intellectual’. (This notwithstanding Patrick’s mildly condescending compliment that, of all the writers he has hosted, Jesse is the first whose partner has proved even more interesting than the artist themselves.) The weight of this particular gender imbalance is perhaps felt most strongly at the moment when Jesse pushes Céline against her will into signing a copy of his book for a fan - a nod to the sexist tradition of the female artistic ‘muse’ in which Jesse surely participates. Some of the realities that can encourage this inequality are allowed to be explicitly invoked by Céline too: firstly, there’s her intriguing idea that the historical paucity of female prodigies might have allowed her to avoid the sense of inadequacy Jesse feels when contemplating his male heroes’ extraordinary achievements; secondly, we learn that she still desires to be making music, but can’t find the time - amidst, that is, the combined demands of work and (what she suggests are) unbalanced child-rearing duties.

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.

Differing aims

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.

In Sunrise and Sunset both characters certainly have different views and feelings on myriad topics, but their basic desires for the aims and nature of the relationship itself could be said to be pretty well aligned - and, indeed, are aligned with ours. In Midnight, by contrast, for the first time they seem to have different goals - or at least very different ideas on how best to interact. These differences are likely to have important effects on our attitudes towards each character.

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…”

Indeed, he is in general suggested to be still more or less the same romantic young man that he was in the first two films. This is stressed in moments like his wishful imagining in the car that his son might spend his whole life with a girl he had only flirted with during this holiday (“That’s so corny!” is Céline’s far more hard-headed response, “What are you - a twelve-year-old girl?!”), and his stressing that - in contrast to her - Céline is the only woman he has ever loved (clip here). In other words, he is painted as still being fairly uncomplicatedly committed to the basic aim that the characters (and films) seemed to share in Sunrise and Sunset - the wish that was only a wish back when he first dreamed on the tourist boat that “our lives could have been so different…”: he wants them to stay together. And, importantly, this very traditional and uncomplicated aim (the aim, fundamentally, of all romantic comedy) is also one that the viewer has likely shared in since virtually the first scene of Before Sunrise.

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”.

One thing we might say about this is, firstly, that Céline is thus in Midnight placed in the unenviable position of being a veritable thorn in the side of the possibility that the film might fulfill the fundamental goal of any romance narrative - which, however, ‘realist’ it has been, the Before series undoubtedly nonetheless remains. Secondly, this is also - as such - the goal we have felt encouraged to share with the characters since Sunrise and Sunset. Furthermore, the way she is made to enact this role frequently relies upon her invoking feminist concerns. And - finally and importantly - the only way that we could ever have a chance of being drawn significantly towards to her way of thinking is if we can be convinced that the problems she diagnoses in the relationship are indeed a cause for concern. Unfortunately for her character, though, the film’s approach to storytelling significantly compromises its ability to provide us with the evidence we would so badly need to grant her position equal sympathy as Jesse’s.

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.

It’s worth reminding ourselves that, until Midnight, these characters had spent almost the same amount of time with each other as we had spent with them. By the time of the third film this situation has radically changed - but the approach to the storytelling has not. This is unsurprising - as Hawke has said, the filmmakers have tried almost to make all the entries in the series feel like “one long film”. However, how well does this approach fit with the new things this film in particular is attempting?

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 [1973]). 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.

A main outcome of the film’s highly-restricted 12-or-so hour period is that we aren’t in the best position to assess the validity of any complaints either member might make about the other, since we just haven’t been made privy to much of the evidence. This fact has far greater significance for Céline’s role in the film - as the one required to resist happy reconciliation - than for Jesse’s, as the one seemingly trying to forge it. The only chance she has of persuading us to feel sympathetic towards her often confrontational manner and views, I would suggest, is if we can be convinced that her critiques of the status quo of this relationship are warranted. Regrettably for her, the film’s structure means that so much of her argument relies on access to parts of the couple’s life that we will never see.

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 skewing of the terms of conflict in Jesse’s favour is compounded in other ways too. For instance, another important outcome of the lack of available evidence for Céline’s accusations is that her reactions to the largely unseen sources of her resentment can thus easily appear to be overreactions - especially when she’s given lines that might seem histrionic at the best of times, such as when she tries to draw parallels between Jesse and Dick Cheney, and even the logic of the Final Solution. This is a kind of argumentative move that is always likely to make us question any character, but if we were allowed to see more of the couple’s history we could perhaps at least better grasp the anger that might give rise to it. Since we’re not, however, the film sometimes risks playing Céline’s feminist passion for laughs, while Jesse’s defensive and mocking demands for moderation can invite us to laugh with him and at her: his line “You are the mayor of fucking crazy town!” (which reliably elicited the biggest laugh from audiences I’ve seen the film with) springs immediately to mind here. This approach means, apart from anything, that Midnight sometimes comes dangerously close to endorsing the age-old bogus gender binaries Céline is trying to question. “You’re fucking nuts!” Jesse exclaims at one point: “Good luck finding somebody else to put up with your shit for more than, like, 6 months. But…” he goes on - creating again an impression of being a martyr for the cause of love - “…I accept the crazy and the brilliant: it's called accepting you for being you.”

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.

My concern with this is not where the film ends, but rather the terms on which it has arrived there - terms that have (a) established Midnight as being predicated on a gendered conflict between Céline and Jesse, then (b) stacked the deck of the conflict in favour of one member of the couple, ultimately resulting in (c) Céline and her feminist perspectives being cast as problems that need to be overcome by Jesse in his quest to keep alive the romantic hopes of both the series and its fans.

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.

This isn’t just about the aforementioned matter of the two sharing the same aims or receiving the same amount of focus - though both these things are true. It’s also a question of how egalitarian all their interactions are throughout the whole movie. The couple’s ceaseless explorative dialogue is not only thrilling for its content, but for the democracy of voice and utterly mutual respect it fosters. It’s this aspect of the film that prompts Wood to observe, “The lovers of Before Sunrise meet and negotiate on a level of equality. […] That the film seems so inspirational and life-giving is surely because, within a cultural situation that often seems incorrigibly and fathomlessly discouraging, it reminds us that there have been advances, and important ones.” I have always been inclined to agree. Not only this, but the couple’s stated belief that “it’s a healthy process to rebel against everything that’s come before” seems to extend promisingly to their thinking about romantic relationships. Pulled between skepticism about “romantic projections” and the hope that “if there’s any kind of magic in this world it must be in the attempt of understanding someone, sharing something”, they appear prepared to question and reconsider familiar assumptions. “Maybe we should try something different,” Céline suggests when they hatch their plan to treat their night in Vienna as the beginning and end of their relationship - a thought met by Jesse with the probing question, “Why do you think everybody thinks relationships are supposed to last forever anyway?” While they ultimately renege on this initial plan when they realise in their last minutes together that they must try to re-meet, the fact that they even raise such questions and desire to “try something different” suggests something hopeful and progressive about the character of the hypothetical relationship they could eventually construct. “My one clear wish for the project,” co-writer Kim Krizan has said of Sunrise, “was that it attempt some kind of optimism and hope regarding human connection. […] Cynicism is cheap, safe, and easy. Could we possibly move beyond it?” This wish to try different things, move beyond old models, seems to represent - in Krizan’s words - a hope that “perhaps we can forge a new romanticism,” whatever that might ultimately look like.

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”.

It is the great contrast Sunrise allows us to draw between the thrilling equality of Jesse and Céline’s brief meeting and such reminders of the potentially tragic outcomes of far more stratified models of romantic love which prompts Wood’s question about the end of the movie. “If we want them to form a relationship (as surely we do),” he suggests, “then it must be of a quite different order than anything offered by the familiar models.” And perhaps, Wood wonders, the risk that their love will lose its vital egalitarianism if pursued further - the risk that it will merely fall back into damaging inherited gender hierarchies and power battles - is simply too great. “If a relationship must lead either to the tragic waste and desolation offered by past concepts of romantic love, or to the stagnation and bitterness into which so many contemporary marriages seem to degenerate,” Wood asks, “would it not be better if Jesse and Céline were left at least with indelible memories of one magical night?”

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.

The look that the young Jesse gives the older arguing couple as they storm past him in the train carriage, spitting insults at each other, is one of mock bafflement and quiet amusement, accompanied by the smallest of laughs. It’s a look that suggests, with mild hints of condescension and pity, just how distant from this couple and their ways of behaving Jesse currently views himself as being: “whatever could make two people act like that towards each other, in public?”, it seems to say. His look turns into a glance across the aisle towards Céline - a subtle invitation to create a moment of spontaneous intimacy at the older couple’s expense, which she graciously accepts with a returned glance and the tiny gesture of a furrowed brow, before turning back to her reading with a smile. Taking this smallest of shared looks as permission enough to take the communication further, Jesse asks his first question: “Do you have any idea what they were arguing about…?”

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.

If looking at Sunrise in isolation, the resonance created by the decision to use an arguing older couple to bring our young protagonists together was in large part the contrast it allowed the film to make between the two pairs. It created such a gap between one image of romantic relationships and the one Céline and Jesse will offer throughout the rest of the film (in the make-believe telephone scene Jesse will later describe the Austrian pair as a “very weird couple”). Not for our couple the yelling and intolerance of this model of heterosexual romance, the film seemed to say. Where the older man and woman seem to represent a failure even to hear and speak to each other civilly, Céline and Jesse’s hours together are characterised by almost nothing else other than open, generous conversation, unburdened by all the pent-up resentments so clearly driving the Austrian pair. Indeed, it’s our protagonists’ own sense of difference from and interest in this model of coupledom that provides the opportunity for that first tantalising taste of their intellectual compatibility, initiating the pattern of easily-offered mutual interest in each other’s views and feelings that will develop so touchingly throughout the film.

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.

This can be felt, in fact, at those moments in Sunrise when the subject of gender roles does explicitly come up as a topic in the couple’s meandering conversation. What is so notable in retrospect, after Midnight, is the ease with which the couple seemed able to deal with this subject, rather than allowing it to drive them either apart or towards each others’ throats. Of especial note in this respect is the moment when a discussion about the differences between men and women (prompted by Jesse’s anecdote about his ex-girlfriend pushing him to fight a lecherous stranger) threatens momentarily to turn sour. Céline is becoming slightly upset about the subject of whether men or women have the greater power to “destroy” the other, stumbling over her words and trailing off into: “…It’s depressing. Ah - you know what…?” Jesse immediately intuits her desires correctly: “What? You want to stop talking about this?” “Yeah.” And they do, walking away from camera, laughing, completing each other’s sentences in the characteristically free-flowing and democratic style of the first film in general:

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.

Of course in fact they, and we, were not - as Midnight so forcefully demonstrates. What makes the third film feel quite as sad as it does, though, is the way that - rather than following through on Sunrise’s promise of "something different" - it falls back into old grooves quite so resolutely: a happy, democratic comedic couple can still only precede the long-term relationship, while a conflicted, gender-stratified melodramatic couple is still created by the relationship. What’s more, as I have argued, Midnight goes further still by doing at least a minor disservice to Céline and her feminist-influenced arguments, making it not only a melodrama, but a melodrama that may actually be less sympathetic to the exploration of gender inequalities than many of its classic forbears.

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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