Happily, unhappily, and everything in between... ever after
Please don't read the post below if you are trying to avoid spoilers for the movie Before Midnight (as well as its precursors - is that the right word? I don't know.)
It is fitting that fairy tales and fairy tale endings are brought up in this movie, because it had me thinking a lot about "happily ever after."
Before Midnight is the third movie in the trilogy (can you call it that?) of Jesse and Celine: Before Sunrise had 23-year-old Jesse and Celine meeting on a train to Vienna and having an incredibly beautiful moment in time together before parting ways in the morning, with a promise to meet up again in six months. As someone who has spent her entire life reading and watching fairy tales and believing in the idea of soulmates and true love that lasts forever, Before Sunrise presented quite a different type of love story to me. I wasn't old enough to have seen it (or understood it) when it first came out, and I didn't discover it until I was an adult myself - in fact, I was probably in my early to mid-twenties when I saw it for the first time, fresh out of college and bursting with idealism and eager to keep up my intellectual pursuits. This movie had two young people my age falling in love through their conversations with each other - if you've never seen this movie, you might think that watching two people walk around Vienna all night talking about everything under the sun might sound boring, but to me it was the type of love story that I wanted for myself. Instead of finding a Prince Charming who will notice me for my looks and sweep me off my feet, I found myself wanting a verbal sparring partner, someone I could match wits with and connect with on an intellectual and emotional level. Before Sunrise was like the opposite of a fairy tale for me, right down to the ending - we don't know if they ever see each other again at the end of the movie. We don't know if such an intense and deep connection could last longer than one magical night in a beautiful city. It's not a "happily ever after."
Before Sunset happens nine years later (in real time, no less) - they did not make that six-month meeting after all. Both have pretty much moved on in their lives, with Jesse getting married and having a son, and then writing a best-selling novel about his night in Vienna with Celine. She goes to see him when he stops in Paris for his book tour and they spend time catching up (by, of course, walking around Paris) before his flight home. This one ends much less ambiguously, with Celine famously telling him, "Baby, you are going to miss that plane," and Jesse replying, "I know." This one was less "fuzzy warm romantic feelings" and more "What has my life become?", but it gave us something closer to a happy ending. I remember watching this for the first time (not long after watching Before Sunrise) and thinking, "OMG HE STAYED WITH HER." Like, NOW we get our fairy tale ending - our lovers, whom we've been rooting for for nine years, FINALLY get to be together, for sure.
Another nine years have passed, and now we have Before Midnight. They fill us in on the details of the time that has passed, a little at a time throughout the course of the movie: Jesse had stayed behind at the end of Before Sunset, eventually divorcing his wife (who now hates him and Celine, and who is characterized as being a bitter, contentious b****) and becoming a full-time, best-selling writer. Celine moves to New York with him for a couple of years, during which time she becomes pregnant with twins (Ella and Nina - I think it's fairly obvious what the inspiration for those name choices were), and then they both move back to Paris due to the difficult pregnancy.
I appreciated that they never actually married. (This is something that is discussed in the movie.) I appreciated this because I too am in a committed-but-not-married relationship with children. (Er, just one.) You just don't see a lot of relationships like that in mainstream media - again, fairy tales have marriage as being the goal for every romantic pairing, and society constantly bombards us (through movies, tv shows, even music) with the idea that getting married is what you should do in life, and if you don't want to get married, then something is wrong with you. But here is a couple that I've always admired (though they are fictitious), having a life together without being married. (I am not anti-marriage, but I am anti- everyone telling me what I should want out of life.)
So, Jesse only gets to see his son Henry during major vacations (Christmas break and summer), when Henry flies to Europe to visit his father, and the rest of the year he lives in America with his mother. And this is where the movie starts - Jesse is dropping off his son at the airport, after having spent six weeks in Greece with the entire family with some of Jesse's friends.
There is a moment when Jesse is watching his son go through the security gates, and he is watching him with such a sense of sadness and guilt, and this was very real to me, because I have felt this way too. I feel this way dropping Jolie off at her grandparents' house for the evening - I can't imagine seeing her off to cross an entire ocean, not to return for a long time. That was very real to me.
This sadness and guilt are the catalyst for the major conflict of the movie, as Jesse, Celine, and their daughters head back to Jesse's friend's home.
If you want more cute moments of Jesse and Celine walking around a beautiful place and having interesting and thought-provoking conversations, we get some of that in this movie too. We even have some other characters (Jesse's friends) who contribute their own interesting and thought-provoking conversation. I loved the dinner scene - there were couples of different ages, in different stages of their lives, each with their own things to say about love and relationships.
One thing that really stuck out to me was when Patrick (Jesse's writer friend, the one who had invited them out) says of his relationship with his late wife, "She said she would take care of herself, and wanted me to do the same. And between the two of us, there was room to meet in the middle." (Paraphrased) They talk about the impracticality of believing in soulmates and of "being one with each other," and instead propose the idea of being two people, together. And that it's not romantic love that is the answer to all our problems, but friendships. This was something that resonated with me a lot.
So as Jesse and Celine leave to spend the evening alone together at a local hotel (a gift from their friends), Jesse's sadness and guilt over not being a more consistent presence his son's life leads to an epic fight between the two of them.
Well, I considered it an epic fight. Other people in the audience were laughing at some points in the fight, and yes, there were some humorous moments, but overall, it really just made me feel uneasy watching them fight. And I realized that the reason why I felt uneasy was because I suddenly wasn't sure if this movie would end with them staying together. (A breakup was hinted at/foreshadowed early on in the movie.)
The part of me that believes in fairy tales didn't want to consider that Jesse and Celine could break up, after nine years of longing for each other and then finally getting together and another nine years of having a family together. But the reason why I believed it could happen was because their relationship is not a fairy tale romance. It's much more realistic than that, and in real relationships, sometimes people don't stay together.
Their issues resonated with me as well. Celine is afraid Jesse will insist that they move back to the US together and she will have to give up her life and ambitions in Paris. She says that she has this fear that every man she is with is secretly trying to turn her into a submissive housewife. As someone who is learning how to walk that fine line between being selfish and being a strong woman with her own life and her own interests outside of her relationship and her role as a mother, I understood. As someone who is fiercely independent and feminist and finds her struggle against oppression conflicting (or, at least, contrasting starkly with) my privileged, comfortable upbringing and lifestyle (which is actually something Jesse brings up during their fighting), I understood. I get where Celine is coming from. Celine works a full-time job while Jesse works from home and takes care of the kids during the day. I too have a partner who is of a creative turn of mind and stays at home with our child.
They fight about who has had to do more to take care of the family and who has had to sacrifice more in doing so, and some of the phrases they sling at each other are ugly. To me, they were ugly. As I said, I felt uneasy watching them fight - some of the things they say to each other, if they had been said to me, would be really hurtful and would really, really upset me. It took me a while to come to the following realization: I was uncomfortable with their fighting because I was unfamiliar with them as a couple. Essentially, as an audience member, I've only seen short glimpses of them over the years, small snapshots of their evolving relationship before it actually became a relationship, so I myself don't know how they work and what their dynamic is, I realized. But them? They know each other so well. They've been together for the last nine years, and their lives have been "happening" in between the movies. If they can say these things to each other without flinching, it's because they are so attuned to each other that neither is afraid to call out the other on his or her BS. This is a reflection on the writing and the acting - it is through their fighting and their discussion of splitting up that I really realized how together they really are. And I thought this was remarkable. It's easy to believe and see how Jesse and Celine are meant to be based on the "falling in love" part of their story - it was more amazing (for me) to come to that same conclusion by seeing instead how much they drive each other crazy.
By the end, Celine tells Jesse, "I don't love you anymore" and walks out of their hotel room. And, reader, I was genuinely afraid that this would be it. I would have understood if they split up, but the fairy-tale part of me really didn't want that to happen.
Spoiler alert: they stay together. Maybe other people didn't doubt it, but I did.
I don't remember what he says exactly (so I'm paraphrasing), but Jesse at one point says something to the effect of, "You are crazy. But I love you, so I will take the crazy with the brilliant, because I love you and accept you as you are," and then he says, later, "I think you are still looking for a fairy tale. I tell you I love you unconditionally, that you're beautiful, that I love all of you. If you want true love, I am offering it, right here."
And that's the thing, right? Fairy tales traditionally end with the couple riding off into the sunset, both the prince and princess perfect and flawless, but also completely unremarkable. Why does the prince fall in love with Cinderella, aside from the fact that she's beautiful and and she was nice? Why does Cinderella love the Prince, aside from the fact that he is dreamy and a prince? How bland. How boring.
Jesse and Celine are not perfect and flawless, and as such, are one of my favorite movie couples ever. Over the course of their three movies, you see ALL sorts of flaws and conflict. They disagree a lot, but they talk it out. They make each other laugh. They're not even perfect-looking, either - unlike Disney characters, they have aged (and are still incredibly beautiful to me, by the way). They look like a couple who has weathered a lot in their lives individually as well as together, and that's simply because that's what they are.
This is what makes them my real-life fairy tale couple. Even after watching Before Midnight, with all their fighting and issues, I still wish for their romance over what the Disney princesses have; Before Midnight definitely didn't change that. In fact, it reinforced it even more, because I saw so much of myself and my own relationship in certain aspects of theirs. I'm not 41, but in many ways, I feel like I am where they are in my own life, and I connected with this chapter of their story more easily than with either of the two previous ones.
I'm looking forward to seeing this one again, either in theaters or when it finally comes out on dvd. Jesse and Celine: still my ideal romance.