If there is a time of the year where it makes sense to watch romantic movie after romantic movie, it would be February. The scent of boxed chocolate or red balloons adorning restaurants puts us in a mood for something lovely. Hollywood knows this, which is why this February movie screens across the country will be showing The Space Between Us, Fifty Shades Darker, A United Kingdom, and Everybody Loves Somebody, just to name a few movies which glorify love.
But perhaps there is no need to fork over 50 bucks for a movie date night this February. 22 years ago #RichardLinklater followed two strangers strolling across Vienna during one magical evening, oblivious to the fact that 18 years later his decision to continue following this couple would end up becoming one of cinema’s most inspired. This #ValentinesDay, we recommend that the best way to celebrate the holiday is by watching (or re-watching) Hollywood’s most achingly romantic films, the Before trilogy.
'Before Sunrise,' Or Love As A Platform For The Endless
As a standalone film, #BeforeSunrise does not differ that drastically from other boy-meets-girl fare. The idea of strangers meeting in a foreign place and falling in love has been explored on screen countless times before, although perhaps not in such a dialogue-driven way as this one. What elevates Sunrise above the rest are its sequels, and the way they retroactively make it sweeter and more painful. It becomes sweeter because it shows how burning with desire both Jesse (#EthanHawke) and Celine (#JulieDelpy) were once upon a time.
Jesse, ever the romantic, asks for the first kiss on top a Ferris wheel as the sun goes down; Celine phones her best friend and gushes about having just met the most wonderful guy in the world; they listen to music inside a record store, stealing glances from each other but not acknowledging them, both conspirators in the silent act of tenderness.
Because the trilogy follows the natural progression of falling in love, Sunrise leaves the bitter out of its proceedings. Love becomes a platform for the endless when Jesse and Celine share their dreams for a better tomorrow and confess their fears borne out of a painful past. It is love that can set them free and on a path towards the peaceful and successful life they so desire. In each other’s arms, there is nothing Jesse and Celine cannot do, and the world is as bright as the summer sun that greets them at the park where they had the night of their lives.
It is for this same reason that it becomes more painful at the start of Sunset. When asked whether the couple at the heart of his novel ever got back together, Jesse replies that it all depends on whether the reader is a cynic or a romantic. But even a romantic now knows that the couple was never reunited, which makes all of the events that happened before feel melancholic. This flies in the face of Hollywood’s standards, which would leave the couple in Vienna forever. But love is more complicated than that, and we deserve a film that not only displays the rainbows and butterflies, but the mistakes and regrets as well.
'Before Sunset,' Or Love As A Reminder For Regret
One of the most achingly honest exchanges of dialogue in romantic movie history occurs during the final 20 minutes of #BeforeSunset, as Jesse and Celine sit in the back of a moving van. Their conversations, which up until that point have remained in the realm of the civil, suddenly turn impassioned and unrestrained. While both have voiced their disappointment in missing their date nine years prior, they provide no clues as to the effect that had on them. Peppered throughout the slim, 80-minute running time are remarks that some of their aspirations never came true, but they both make it seem as if it has to do more with life being life, than with the product of shattered illusions due to a broken heart.
“I was fine until I read your fucking book," Celine says, the word “fucking” stressed in such a way as to pierce the veil of politeness that had until that point surrounded them. The viewer understands why the next thing Celine does is ask the driver to stop the van and let her out. She is not running away from Jesse; she is running away from what he represents.
Jesse is a reminder of who she was and what she aspired to be; he is a reminder of the dreams she held and the ideals she upheld; he is a reminder that once upon a time she believed with all her heart that she could make the world a better place, and that love would do the rest. What influenced and changed their perceptions on everything if not heartbreak? What soured them and made them settle for starting a family with “someone they used to date” if not the disenchantment of an impossible love?
Hollywood’s portrayal of a heart that bleeds is erroneous because it shows suffering as something noble, when it reality is more akin to the pathetic. Notice how pitiful it looks when Jesse confesses how he wakes up in tears next to the woman he has a child with, dreaming about someone else. Because love never ends in magical nights in Vienna, it is necessary for the audience to engage with films that portray love, as most other things in this world, as disappointing.
'Before Midnight,' Or Love As Unending Compromise
When was the last time you went to the movies with your date, and came out with enlightening topics of conversation for the maturity and growth of your relationship? Or better yet, when was the last time you watched a romantic comedy that was romantic not because of the one-liners and kisses, but due to the resolute, cool-header manner in which a boy tries to win back the girl? And funny not because of hilarious set pieces, but thanks to parents admitting they’re shitty, in order to not wake up their twin daughters?
As inevitable as the sun going down every afternoon, romance will eventually lose its luster. When this happens in typical Hollywood fare, usually occurring to characters in their middle age that crawl back to their partners by pictures end, the ideas that are scrutinized are well known, i.e. love is sacrifice, no bigger dream than being with the one you love, et al. #BeforeMidnight agrees that, just as the sun going down every afternoon, romance will inevitably wither, but it disagrees in how it displays its characters dealing with it.
What is the most important thing in a relationship? If it's children, a character admits how trapped she feels after the birth of her kids, yet in a hypothetical separation from her partner, she would like for them to live with her. Is faithfulness the most important thing? Both Jesse and Celine have cheated, and they know the other has cheated as well, but that makes no difference in how much they love each other. Is it sacrificing your dreams? Jesse moved to a country and a job he hated for love, while Celine is not willing to do the same. But then Celine mentions all the tiny sacrifices she makes each day that amount to, if not surpass, the giant one Jesse made. Is it having a healthy sex life? Celine tells Jesse he has become boring in bed, yet she misses the days in which they could wake up and immediately sleep together. By asking pointed questions and providing no absolute answers, Midnight follows the logical progression that couples everywhere must, and have, undoubtedly faced.
In a month that praises love, and in a culture that has the word under scrutiny for what it really stands for and whether it’s worth it or not, the Before trilogy seems to affirm that nobody has all the answers for the most powerful of human emotions. However, that is OK, because in a maddening world, the frustration of love might be the only thing that makes sense.
Which of the three movies is your favorite?