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

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