Do you love it or loathe it when art imitates life? I love, love, love it and can’t get enough of it. Which is perhaps why I have been so drawn to the story of Jesse (Ethan Hawke) and Celine (Julie Delpy) on their great adventure of coupledom in the three Before movies, directed by Richard Linklater. I’m not going to call them a trilogy, because I hope there will be more.
When Jesse and Celine met for the first time on the train in Before Sunrise in 1995, I was at an age when I was eagerly welcoming chance into my own life. I was 21, had dutifully finished school and university and was old enough to have discovered the hard way that you can only control so much of life and it doesn’t always go to plan. The upside being that I was also learning to recognise and appreciate that it is the random, unplanned events that can have the most lasting impact on life’s path. Every meeting or new person or unfamiliar occurrence was ripe and dripping with possibility. Every fresh day felt like my real life as a grown up was almost about to start. Every week was an intoxicating mix of adventure and misadventure. I had the luxury of saying yes to everything, trying choices on for size, racking up consequences and rationalising mistakes.
I had travelled and loved and dreamed massive dreams. I was unknowingly about to meet my own love of my life. At this time, Jesse and Celine’s rambling musings about life and promise reflected my own thoughts and conversations. We were old enough to sense that life could be enormous, but still too young to make giant decisions that might start narrowing the funnel of ‘what ifs?’. It was definitely still too soon to start answering life’s big questions.
I watched Before Sunset (2004) almost a decade later once huge long term decisions had been made and – like Jesse – I was married with a son. For Jesse, Celine and I, enough time had passed that real grown up experience had either lived up to its promise or not. The scourge of maturity is a growing sense of dissatisfaction – cognitive dissonance of choices made and a sense of confusion that this life you are left with might be as good as it is going to get. Jesse and Celine chose to change course – to re-open a door they once thought was closed. They left their lives behind and chose to be together. This is where our stories differed – but I understood their doubt and admired their willingness to risk it all just when society expected us to be settling down.
And now in 2013 as I watched Before Midnight I was reminded of our shared experiences to date and eager to use their most recent chapter as a barometer for my own life at this time. Jesse and Celine, now parents to twins as well as to Jesse’s son from his previous marriage, take a precious moment to stop and reflect while on a holiday in Greece. But as many of us know, reflection can be dangerous as inevitably both the good and the bad of life are considered. We watch this couple debate their choices and question their sense of satisfaction. How did they get where they are and is it enough?
I now also have three kids and a burgeoning bank of experience about relationships and life. My husband and I have survived and thrived against a series of unstoppable, joyous, challenging and weird instances and incidents each day, week and year that we never could have imagined happening – not even in the movies.
In Before Midnight I felt relieved to see Jesse and Celine having discussions just like I have had with my husband over the past decade. These are the honest and very real discussions between two characters in the midst of very real life situations.
When they are given a kid-free evening, Celine struggles with leaving her children even just for one night, perhaps intuitively sensing that when there is space to challenge the status quo, there are no guarantees of a happy ending for anyone involved.
They wrestle with balancing what is right for their kids without losing a sense of themselves – even with full knowledge that they have frequently made choices that put themselves and their needs ahead of their offspring’s. I have found it is often very easy to rationalise a case either way to justify such decisions and assuage any surrounding guilt. ‘If I am happy my children will also be happy’, sounds very similar to ‘If my children are happy then I am also happy’ but the two ideals are very different indeed, particularly once you try to put them into practice.
Had I been in Greece with Jesse and Celine and joined their lengthy discussion of our place in life at this age and stage, I would hope to have articulated my view that the biggest issue for the middle class masses is having too many choices rather than too few. Should I work full time or stay home to raise the children? Should we stay living where we are or move across the world to be closer to family? Red wine or white? Eat in or out? Such first world problems seem so important in the course of our day to day lives – and worse – each option sounds so tempting that when you choose one over the other, it feels like you are making such a huge sacrifice in forgoing the unchosen one. It is so easy to focus on that thing you could have had but didn’t, instead of being grateful for the thing you did have that became part of your story.
You see we are really so lucky to have such wonderful options in the first place. The world is smaller and more connected so the avenues for getting what you want are endless. But just don’t hope for enough – because nothing will ever be enough. Just as you are reaching a point of satisfaction, another better option will fill the void and your longing for enough will continue and compound. Enough money, enough time, enough kids, enough things – we need to be comfortable with the fact that maybe there will never be enough. Or perhaps we already have it?
In the end, despite all the emotion and doubt circling the responsibilities of life, sometimes you just need to stop and to forget all the drama and choices and to live for a moment. To take respite and breathe for a little while to steady yourself before you dive back into your everyday world and continue the next chapter of your story. There are no right answers to legitimise your life. You’ve just got to get in and live it.
In Greece, just before midnight, Jesse and Celine have the chance to do just this and – just like in real life – their story will continue.
I hope Linklater, Hawke and Delpy get busy soon on the next instalment from Jesse and Celine as I look forward to seeing how our paths converge and take the chance to hold a mirror up to my own experience – to remind myself of the power of chance, that it is never too late to change course and that enough needs to be enough. All of this adds up to a memorable and meaningful life story.
Have you seen any of these films? What did you think? Did they help you reflect on your own life?