' Cinema Romantico: Before Midnight's Bitter Aftertaste

Wednesday, June 19, 2013

Before Midnight's Bitter Aftertaste

The first time I watched “Before Sunrise”, rented from Hollywood video on VHS (“Memory…all alone in the moonlight”), was a genuinely revelatory moment. This was early 1998, a tumultuous (relatively speaking) period in my life, and there was a sense of displacement the characters had – two people who did not know one another, wandering around all night in a city where they did not live, kind of untethered from their actual selves – that mirrored the way I felt. And the fact that the film was defiant to that displacement not with anger or depression or violence but with romance……well, you only need to read the name of this blog to know it hit me flush.

It comforted me, it still comforts me, and it’s a film to which I often turn when in most dire need of recalibration. It is simplistic to reduce something such as 9/11 to "The first movie I watched in its wake was..." but, nonetheless, the first movie I watched in its wake was, by very definite choice, "Before Sunrise."


I had never encountered a film quite like “Before Sunrise.” This was in the midst of the period where I was just becoming a cinemaphile, watching everything I could get my hands on – old, new, mainstream, out of left field, whatever, whichever – and so I still had “My Dinner With Andre” and a few Eric Rohmer films (whose ouvre I’m still too far behind on), courtesy of the late, great Roger Ebert’s recommendation, to come, which meant I soon realized other films preceding “Before Sunrise” struck the same sort of conversational tone. But……I’m Gen X. I’m from the slacker generation. I cut my teeth on the era of 90’s Indie. I “knew” Winona Ryder before she ever stole a thing. I had a pathetic goatee and pierced both my ears. I was soulful and idealistic, which is to say I was idiotic and clueless. I was Ethan Hawke’s character in “Before Sunrise."

Well, that’s not right. Let’s say, I liked to imagine I was Ethan Hawke's character in "Before Sunrise." Maybe even more than that I liked to imagine I was meeting a French girl on the train and falling in love. Was there wish fulfillment happening here? Sure there was, and I suppose owning up to it rules me out of order in objectively discussing the film. But then, as the film critic Dana Stevens has noted, "one of the oldest and most compelling reasons there is to go to the movies" is seeing something which we can admit "we'd like to be doing...too...and this is as close as we're ever gonna get."

That, and "Before Sunrise" is not necessarily a film I have ever claimed to examine objectively. While I have written too many words over the years on both it and its eventual 2004 sequel "Before Sunset", I have never written a proper review of either one. This is to say, I have never critiqued them, never appraised them analytically, at least not out loud and in print (or: on the internet). As someone who strives to be (or: likes to fancy himself) a film critic this, I admit, is essentially against the rules. And yet, Jesse and Celine are from a time when I was still just an innocent movie fan, when I didn’t scrutinize text for subtext and attempt to provide a “reading” of each film I viewed. Please don’t misunderstand, I think those things are vital in cinema discussion and I wholly understand and fully embrace the need of objective film criticism, but in penning my reviews I am always attempting to do so in my voice. The voice I hope to project (and I’m not certain I’m always successful) is one that strikes a balance between the emotional and critical, the sonnet and the evaluation.


So, basically, “Before Midnight” was the first Jesse & Celine film I watched mindful of both emotion and analysis. It was…..weird. I wrote a real review. I critiqued it to the best of my abilities. It left my friend Daryl wondering: “So, did you like it? I couldn’t tell.” I’m not sure I could tell either. Which is not to say the film isn’t good – nay, very good. It is. But it’s a sad movie – at first wistfully so and then, in its own way, darkly. The end, the very end, absolutely crushed me. It’s difficult to gauge its exact intention but I swear it wants to be upbeat. Except that I think it plays exactly the opposite. It’s akin to “Sex and the City” (don’t ask how I know this) when Carrie and Berger’s relationship is kinda, sorta on the rocks and they resort to a “bit” – a “Hollywood kiss” when they are “being pissy with each other.” Carrie tells Miranda this to which Miranda, incredulously, replies: “You guys need a bit?” That’s how the end of “Before Midnight” played to me. Jesse and Celine need a……bit? Jesse and Celine???

Which, of course, is what makes it so wondrously bold. I get it! I do! My friend Ryan at The Matinee captures this notion in a beautiful review, writing: "It’s a special moment when any film can make its audience think about these sorts of ideas surrounding love. That writer-director Richard Linklater made these characters confront it feels extra special.” That, though, is simultaneously the overriding dilemma I face. I may have watched “Before Midnight” critically, but I was still feeling it emotionally. But I was feeling it even more emotionally than I do most movies specifically because it’s these characters.

This is a no-man’s-land to which, I think, I have never ventured, stricken by a kind of cinematic cognitive dissonance. The film is a grand achievement, yet my relationship to the characters at the core of the film is too close and too personal. So while I understand that what the film is doing might very well make it great, the greatness with which it goes about doing it simply makes it all too much for me to bear.

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