Monday, July 22, 2013

Before Sunset -- love, loneliness and heaviness of responsibilities

Director: Richard Linklater, 2004 (R)

Before Sunset picks up the story of Jesse (Ethan Hawke) and Celine (Julie Delpy) that began 9 years ago in Before Sunrise. That movie ended ambiguously, with the star-crossed lovers leaving each other in the Vienna train station promising to reunite 6 months later on the same platform. Did they? Didn’t they?

Now we find Jesse is an author, and is in Paris on a book tour promoting his book which is a “fictional account” of two people who meet and spend a day in a European city. It sounds a lot like his story. The journalists want to know how it ends, whether the two meet up again, and he leaves it as a cynicism test. Those of a romantic mind will imagine they do; cynics will believe they don’t. But as he closes his interview he spots Celine in the bookstore, looking at him. He excuses himself and meets her, and they embark on another pedestrian journey of long conversation in a European city. But this is only pedestrian in the literal sense. The film is as good, if not better, then its predecessor. Once more, Linklater has crafted a gem. This time the two stars worked with him to cowrite the script and it shows in the realism of their words. Their acting is once again superb and they are totally believable as the two lovers reunited but now in their early thirties.

Time has had its way with both. Jesse is in a loveless marriage and has a son that is the only glue keeping them together. Celine is an eco-activist, full of ideals, but jaded enough to question her accomplishments. She is in a long-term relationship with a photojournalist who is away more than they are together. Jesse and Celine come together at a time when they realize they are being offered a second chance at love. An opportunity few people get in this life.
Like the first film, there are long takes of the two of them walking and talking, through parks, through streets and alleys. They visit some locations that reflect back on the earlier film: cafes, parks, boats. It’s as if this is a way to reconnect as much as their conversation. And the conversation once more hits light and deep topics, including sex, politics, religion and love.

Whereas Before Sunrise showed Celine’s romanticism contrasted with Jesse’s cynicism, now these characters have matured and both have become jaded.  Celine’s romanticism has faded and she has developed the cynicism that Jesse had 9 years before, but she still displays a vulnerability, a desire for a lasting relationship.

The two circle around in their conversation, both vulnerable and afraid that the love that found and lost a decade ago might have dissipated. Both wanting to find it, and yet not wanting to be hurt. Haunted by that missed connection, Jesse exclaims: “God, why didn’t we exchange phone numbers and stuff? Why didn’t we do that?” But Celine replies, “Because we were young and stupid. I guess when you’re young, you just believe there’ll be many people with whom you’ll connect later. Later in life, you realize it only happens a few time.”  Here, both loneliness and maturity come across loud and clear.

Celine is lonely despite being in a relationship, or having been in several. In fact, reflecting on that magical night in Vienna, she says: “Memories are wonderful things, if you don’t have to deal with the past.” She is hiding from her loneliness and pain. She pines for what she had and lost. She wants love from a soul-mate, a man whose connection with her is consummate.

We all want love. It drives us. We hunt for it, until we find it. And we often take it for granted until we lose it. Then loneliness rears its head and we hide in the memories, often colored with rosy tints, forgetting the painful details. It may be true that there are only a few people we will connect with. What is more true is that when we find that one person, we should  grab them with a gusto and become united in marriage. God has designed marriage to be two people becoming one flesh (Gen. 2:24). If we pursue our spouse with a self-giving sacrificial love, like Christ loved the Church (Eph. 5:25), and with a lifelong commitment, we will avoid such loneliness. Instead, we will find ourselves growing ever-closer and ever more knowing of our life partner and realize we don’t need another person to connect to. This is a rare blessing. But this takes work and effort.

The heaviness and hardness of relationships and responsibilities is a key theme of this second film. Jesse describes his marriage by telling Celine: “What is love? Respect, trust, admiration.  I felt all those things. So cut to the present tense and I feel like I’m running a small nursery with someone I used to date. I’m like a monk. I’ve had sex less than ten times in the last four years.”  He got married for the wrong reasons and now he has no feelings of love. Like Celine, he finds himself in a dead-end relationship. But he feels more committed because of the ring and the kid. Both characters are now older and wiser, but more jaded. They have learned that relationships don’t always work out, and they often carry consequences for the future that won’t disappear. This brings with it a sense of mistrust, a carefulness that they display in the early part of this film.

No one ever said relationships or even marriage was easy. It is not. But it is worth the work. When two people put their hearts and minds into marriage, the payoff is tremendous: a celebration of life together and an intimacy of partnership found nowhere else.

A wonderful scene occurs early in their walk in a park. Celine asks him, if he were to die tonight what would he want their conversation to be about and what would he do.” He answers by focusing on gratifying sex, as if the physical act would be his desire for his last night. Sex and love seem to be the apex for what we seek in life.

Life is about more than sex and love. These will eventually disappear. Our bodies will decay as we age. Our partners may die before us. We may be left alone. Our physical capacity and appetites may erode. But above all there is a need to look at what comes after. Where will we be after we die? The Bible tells us there is an after-life, one that is more real than this. And there are only two destinations: heaven and hell. If we had but one night to live we should make sure we know we have chosen our eternity. By choosing to receive Jesus as our God (Jn. 1:12), even in the last hours, we can be assured we will have a place with him after we die (Jn. 14:2-3). And if we are in conversation with someone, we should assure them of our certainty while seeking to offer that same assurance to them.

The best scene in the whole film occurs at the end when Jesse ends up with Celine in her apartment before sunset where she sings him a beautiful song. And as this plays out, Linklater leaves us with another ambiguous ending, leaving us to wonder if Jesse and Celine choose to grab with both hands that second chance with the one that got away. Once again, you’ll have to decide for yourself. Or wait and watch the third chapter that just came out this year.

 Copyright ©2013, Martin Baggs

Sunday, July 14, 2013

Before Sunrise -- two perspectives on love

Director: Richard Linklater, 1995 (R)

Two young people meet on a train, spend a day walking around a beautiful European city, talking to each other about various topics, slowly falling in love until they part before sunrise. On paper, this sounds blah and boring. But under the skillful hands of Richard Linklater, who also wrote the screenplay, this independent film, lowly in concept, has become the first chapter of perhaps the most important cinematic love story of all time. It’s truly magical and engaging as few American films are. It seems almost akin to a foreign film in this respect.

Travelling from Budapest to Vienna, American tourist Jesse (Ethan Hawke) meets by chance Celine (Julie Delpy), a French grad student en route back to La Sorbonne in Paris. When they strike up a conversation, the chemistry is evident, and they proceed to the restaurant car to continue their discussion. On a crazy whim, arriving in Vienna Jesse suggests Celine get off and spend the day with him walking the streets. He has no money but a day to burn in this city before flying back to the States. They could enjoy each other’s company until he has to depart for the airport, almost a day later. Surprisingly, she agrees and so begins a wonderful journey.

Both in their early twenties, these two will talk about topics that span the spectrum from childhood to death, parents, boyfriends, girlfriends, music, reincarnation and love, especially love. Indeed, they offer two perspectives on love. Jesse comes at it from a cynicism that seems too mature for his age, while Celine is a classic romantic.

Linklater shows them walking around together, with the camera either walking and facing them or showing their backs. Either way, the takes are long, very long, and the dialog is rings so true it seems that we could recall similar conversations in our own past. It is testimony to the quality of the script, as well as the actors who deliver the lines, that despite the moving seeming to move in ordinary time, it sweeps us along like a rushing river. We care for this couple, even when we don’t know where they are going.

Perhaps the veracity comes from the fact that Linklater based this on a personal experience he had when he was younger. He met a woman, Amy, and spent a night walking around Philadelphia with her until they parted ways the next day. Certainly Vienna is a better location than Philadelphia and casting a French woman adds an element of mystery.

Despite the fact that there are virtually no other known actors in the film and 90% of it is spent with dialogue between Jesse and Celine, there are a couple of other individuals who show up briefly in key scenes. Indeed, there are a number of fantastic scenes.

The opening scene in the train, of course, sets the tone. It will be a talking show. Then there is a scene in a café where each pretends to phone a friend to recount the romance of this meeting. It is an excellent way for each of them to share with the other what they are feeling, becoming vulnerable while retaining a certain level of separation and protection.

Early discussion eventually comes round to relationship. Celine has the romantic ideal of finding someone, but Jesse seems to be more focused on tasks. He says: “It’s just that, if I’m totally honest with myself I think I’d rather die knowing that I was really good at something. That I had excelled in some way than that I’d just been in a nice, caring relationship.” It’s as though he has been hurt so much he wants to protect himself.

It’s been said that men are task-oriented in early years, as ambition and drive propel them forward into careers, to conquer the world. While at the same time women are relational in these years. Certainly, Linklater echoes this here, but it is more than stereotype. It is a glimpse into two people who are reflecting on their upbringing: one has been damaged by divorce; the other has been nurtured and is now flying free.

A turning point occurs when they encounter a fortune teller who walks up to a table where they are sitting at an outdoor piazza. When she reads Celine’s palm, Celine gushes with appreciation. But Jesse reacts with a cynicism that borders on hostile. Two samples of dialogue illustrate Jesse’s cynical approach to love compared to Celine’s romantic view. At one point, he says: “I kind of see all love as this, escape for two people who don’t know how to be alone. People always talk about how love is this totally unselfish, giving thing, but if you think about it, there’s nothing more selfish.”

Of course, Jesse’s view contradicts the biblical perspective. We are indeed selfish, in our old nature, according to many Scriptures (Phil. 2:3; Jas. 3:14). But true love, a love that is rooted in God and his very nature (1 Jn. 4:16), is fundamentally not selfish. Perhaps the most famous passage on love in the Bible is found in 1 Corinthians 13:4-8. It says: 
Love is patient, love is kind. It does not envy, it does not boast, it is not proud. It does not dishonor others, it is not self-seeking, it is not easily angered, it keeps no record of wrongs. Love does not delight in evil but rejoices with the truth. It always protects, always trusts, always hopes, always perseveres. Love never fails.
Love is not simply an escape. Love is a journey and an end point.

Celine, in a contrasting opinion on love, picks up this thread and comments: “But loving someone, and being loved means so much to me. We always make fun of it and stuff. But isn’t everything we do in life a way to be loved more?” Love is central to human experience. God made us with a desire to love and be loved. We find Adam standing alone in the garden (Gen.2) because he has no one to love. God gave him a partner to satisfy this need. And of course, we have an innate emptiness where our love for God could and should be.

Another terrific scene occurs as the two come across a street poet sitting by the river’s edge. Offering to create a poem for them, he writes:
You have no idea where I come from
We have no idea where we’re going
Lodged in life
Like branches in a river
Flowing downstream
Caught in the current
I carry you
You’ll carry me
That’s how it could be
Don’t you know me?
Don’t you know me by now? 
This captures perfectly the moment for them. They are flowing along, not knowing where they have come from or where they are going. Neither really knows the other, yet their conversation has carried them along way along the path of mutual knowledge. But Celine springboards off this point:
“When you talked earlier about after a few years how a couple would begin to hate each other by anticipating their reactions or getting tired of their mannerisms-I think it would be the opposite for me. I think I can really fall in love when I know everything about someone-the way he's going to part his hair, which shirt he's going to wear that day, knowing the exact story he'd tell in a given situation. I'm sure that's when I know I'm really in love.” 
Celine sums up one essence of love: total self-giving through total self-revelation. It will take a life-time of relationship to fully make ourselves known. It cannot occur in one night or even one year. But knowledge leads to love and complete knowledge brings love to completion.

Knowledge also leads to life. This scene and dialogue reminds us of Jesus words to his disciples in the Upper Room Discourse: “Now this is eternal life: that they know you, the only true God, and Jesus Christ, whom you have sent” (Jn. 17:3). Life is knowing God. And conversely, knowing God imparts true life. With that true life, comes the true love that was mentioned in the quote above.

When Before Sunrise came out, no one knew it was merely the beginning. It is now seen as the opening chapter in a trilogy that is unique in its longevity and brevity of characters. But it is one that once seen will not be forgotten.

The film ends on an ambiguous note, one that can be interpreted either cynically or romantically. It is up to us to decide.

 Copyright ©2013, Martin Baggs