Please, please don’t call this third entry in the story of Celine and Jesse the final chapter of a trilogy. The audience is almost as invested in them as we are in the stories of the “Up” movie documentary series that has visited a group of English people every seven years since they were children and now shows us how they are doing in their 50′. Those of us who follow the series know their stories almost as well as our own and look forward to the next installment as though it was a college reunion of our friends.
We almost feel that way about Jesse and Celine. They may be fictional characters, but they are so closely connected with the actors who play them and co-write the screenplays that are so intimate, so true to the nature of love in ways that movies seldom approach that it invites us into their most intimate moments, and our own. Most movies take shortcuts when the characters fall in love, giving us a quick, “You’re a fan of that esoteric musician/writer/sports figure no one heard of? So am I!” or just a montage with a pop song while the couple bicycles on the beach and marvels over the choices in an open market.
But the first in this series, “Before Sunrise,” was that rarest of films that show us that falling in love is when you start a conversation you never want to end. Jesse (Ethan Hawke), a college student on his last night in Europe before returning to America, impetuously invites a French student named Celine (Julie Delpy) to get off the train and spend the night with him, walking around Vienna. They talk about life, love, and everything and agree to meet in six months and part without exchanging contact information. This was 18 years ago, before texting, tweeting, Google, and Facebook. Writer-director Richard Linklater did not plan to tell another Jesse and Celeste story, though he did include a brief scene with the two of them talking in bed in his animated film, “Waking Life.”
That scene, as marvelous as it was, was non-canon (or, as comic books would say, “an imaginary story”). When we meet them again nine years after their original meeting in “Before Sunset,” they have not seen each other since they said goodbye in Vienna. Like “An Affair to Remember,” one of them was there six months later, and one had a good reason we will find out for not being there. Jesse, married and with a young son, is a writer whose recent novel was inspired by his night with Celine. When he goes to a book signing in Paris, she is there. Once again, he has to catch a plane back to America, and once again they walk through a European city and talk and talk and talk. This time, Hawke and Delpy were credited as co-writers. In the swooningly romantic last moment (spoiler alert), he misses the plane to stay with her.
And now, another nine years have gone by, and they walk around another spectacularly beautiful city, this time on their last night of a working vacation in Greece. Once again, there is a plane returning to America, but this time it is taking Jesse’s son back to his mother, Jesse’s now-ex-wife. It is a wrenching goodbye, in part because Jesse’s son, a young teenager, is so mature and understanding. “It’s like sending him back across enemy lines,” he tells Celine. “This is the one thing I promised myself I would never do.” And then Jesse gets some bad news from home, increasing his sense of isolation from his home.
Jesse and Celine are happily unmarried and the parents of twin girls. In the first movie, they had the excited rhythm of very young people discovering the pleasures of connection. In the second, they had the tentative rhythms of people who knew pain and loss and were struggling to trust again, exploring the possibility of re-connecting. Here, in a long drive from the airport, they talk with the rhythm of people who are deeply connected, laughing, sometimes pointedly, about petty irritations, skirting old wounds. They are comfortable with each other, but struggling to keep a sense of themselves as individuals and as people in love in the midst of domestic chaos. Jesse hates being away from his son, but cannot get custody so he can live with them in France or move back to the United States without disrupting Celine and their daughters.
They have a long, luscious lunch with friends who exemplify every stage of love and talk about meaning and memory and love and art and relationships and the notion of self and the differences between the sexes and the way each generation thinks it is inventing the world and watching it collapse. When they were young, they could not wait and wanted everything to speed up. Now, they want everything to slow down.
Then once again Jesse and Celine go for a long walk and talk, sparing, flirting, testing each other. Their friends have given them every parent’s greatest desire, a night away from the children. They find themselves in a surprisingly generic hotel room, begin to make love, and then enter into the kind of massive meltdown of an argument that only people who know each other very, very well can have. Early in the film, talking about her career, Celine says she is “tired of being a do-gooder that rolls the boulder up the hill” like Sisyphus. We get the feeling that the same applies to the stresses of keeping a relationship strong and intimate when you have to spend so much time scheduling and handing off.
They sit to watch a sunset. Celine says, “Still there, still there, still there….gone.” They know that ahead of them lies loss of all kinds. Will they face it together? There are movies where the sequels are so bad that they reduce your affection for the originals. With this series, each film deepens the meaning and sensibility of the story so that now, taken as one whole, the three (so far) have become one of the most romantic stories in the history of film. I’m counting the days until part four.
Parents should know that this film includes very strong and crude language, sexual references and situations, female nudity, and tense emotional confrontations.
Family discussion: How do the other people who join Jesse and Celine for lunch illuminate the stages of relationships? What do you think will happen to them in the next nine years?
If you like this, try: “Before Sunrise” and “Before Sunset,” the Canadian film “The Barbarian Invasions” and one of the best movies ever made about a relationship over many years, “Two for the Road” with Audrey Hepburn and Albert Finney