Something happens in Before Sunrise and Before Sunset that I didn’t see in Before Midnight because it couldn’t be in Before Midnight. The first time it happens in the back of a Vienna streetcar, not too long after Jesse and Celine decide to spend the night together and get off the train not knowing each other’s names. They are talking (they are always talking), and Jesse moves to brush her hair out of her face and then catches himself.
And then in the Before Sunset, it happens again. This time Celine catches herself.
It couldn’t happen in Before Midnight because Before Midnight takes place after two children and 18 years. It takes a certain kind of nervous, breathless love to not quite touch someone’s hair like that.
The first time I saw Before Sunrise, I hated it. I don’t remember the circumstances of the first viewing, but if it I was in high school as I suspect, then I probably watched it alone. I used to know someone who was 22 when it came out in 1995, and he got a faraway look in his eye when he talked about it and told me I didn’t understand because my generation was cynical about love.
The second time I saw Before Sunrise was last Wednesday, and that time I thought it was brilliant. I told my friend Drew about this, and he said the movie was a mood ring. I don’t know if it was my mood last Wednesday or the fact that I, like Jesse, fell foolishly in love with a blue-eyed girl and left her in Europe. Whatever it was, Julie Delpy was impossibly lovely, and everything they did seemed both stupid and irresistible.
What the trilogy does is perfectly capture the ridiculous paradox of love: that the small and fleeting hesitation to touch another’s hair is universal, yet feels so unique when it happens. Anyone who has been in love knows this exquisite delusion that there has never been a love quite like this one.
This means that the trilogy also captures the banality of love. The first words spoken in English in Before Sunrise are Jesse’s, after a German couple storms off to another train car.
In other words, the first English line in this trilogy is a stupid question. “Do you have any idea what they were arguing about?” You don’t need to speak German to know exactly what they were arguing about: on the surface, nothing. Not what it seemed. Their whole relationship, maybe. Celine’s response betrays that she is just as stupid as Jesse. “My German is not very good” is no excuse for not knowing the answer to his question.
Before Midnight catches up with the two of them 18 years after this stupid question and nine years after they meet for the second time in Paris and Jesse, as he says in Before Midnight, “fucked up my whole life ‘cause of the the way you sing” (the way she sings: another beautiful, nonsensical, specific, irreplaceable detail). Now that they are 41, they have learned the answer to their question, and they spend much of the movie arguing and threatening to fall apart.
“I don’t want to be a great story,” Celine says, lying in the grass in the first movie. At the beginning of the second movie, we find she has become a “great story,” as the subject of Jesse’s book. In Before Midnight, she forbids him from using her in his books. Everything has come full circle. Even Jesse’s new idea for a book sounds like the “pseudo-intellectual story” he thought would infuriate Celine in 1994: of the characters in the new book, he says, “it’s not time they’re lost in; it’s perception.” “How is that different from time?” asks his friend after Jesse explains the book idea at great length and it sounds like they may be lost in time. The characters may be lost in time, but Jesse and Celine are lost in perception.
Jesse and Celine visit a chapel to the patron saint of blindness. Jesse, at one point, tells Celine he wants to save her “from being blinded by all the little bullshit of life.”
“If you want true love, then this is it,” he says. “And if you can’t see it, then you’re blind.”
Toward the end of Before Sunrise, Celine says, with her head in Jesse’s lap, “I think I can really fall in love when I know everything about someone.”
This is, she discovers, not precisely true. It is also possible to really fall out of love when you know everything about someone. But Before Midnight is the first movie where the final shot is not of Celine alone, but both of them. With all the cracks in their love, it seemed like a good sign.
At a dinner table, Celine talks about their meeting in Paris nine years after their one night in Vienna. She talks about Jesse’s son from his marriage, his divorce, and she calls the aftermath of the Parisian reunification “a disaster.”
“It wasn’t a disaster,” Jesse says. “It was inevitable.”
He is probably wrong. But I wish he were right.