It’s fascinating when people critique a movie as “too real.” From the very beginning, movies have existed on the edge of reality and fantasy, the Lumiere brothers’ slice of life documents one end of the spectrum, and early German expressionistic films on the other. Today we see the Dardenne brothers documentary-style realism saturated narratives on the one hand, comic-book fantasy adventures on the other. There are elements of realism and fantasy in all of these, just in different measures. If the fantasy goes too far in one direction, it could start to feel irrelevant to our own experience. If the reality hits too hard, we might wonder why we’re watching a narrative film at all when we could just read a newspaper.
Back in 2001, Hollywood’s response to 9/11 was to delay or cancel many films’ releases that hit too close to the horrible reality our country experienced, and people debated whether images of the twin towers should all-together be removed from movie images. And yet, today, many action movies are cashing in on and exploiting exactly those kinds of total-destruction images for unearned emotional payoff. [Manohla Dargis’ review of Iron Man 3 addresses this.]
In the Richard Linklater trilogy comprised of Before Sunrise, Before Sunset, and Before Midnight, we get both the fantasy and the reality, and having seen all three films, now I see that that play of fantasy and reality is exactly what these films are all about.
In Before Sunrise, two young people meet each other, spend the day talking and flirting, and then say goodbye, maybe forever. This is a fantasy many people entertain, and is plausible enough that we think it might actually happen to us, especially when we are young and life’s potential is saturating all of our experiences. This relationship, like the start of any romance, is all romantic potential. Anything could happen, and that is exciting.
Before Sunset revisits these two characters, Jesse and Celine, ten years later. Jesse has written a book about his encounter, and runs into Celine at one of his book signings. By this time, both characters are in relationships and dealing with the decisions they have made since their last meeting. Again, the potential of romance is intoxicating. They can only compare their current reality with how they imagine things could be. The decision to be together is harder this time because of intervening ten years and decisions made in that time, but the question of what could be, the fantasy, is hard to refuse.
In Before Midnight, we see the reality of what happens when they decide to be together. Some aspects are wonderful, they have a real rapport, and two beautiful children together. Their life together seems happy. But like in all relationships in the real world, there are hardships. Jesse’s son, from his previous relationship, lives in Chicago, and they live in Paris. Jesse regrets missing so much of his son’s childhood and Celine feels guilty for that, but cannot accept the alternative of moving to the US. Their argument about this dredges up many other topics of dissent. The situation feels awful, and we see how much of the potential of their relationship has been run dry by the constant low-level attrition of life.
This film reminds me of a number of recent films that explore long-term relationships, including Certified Copy (when I saw this one, I immediately thought of Before Sunset), Take this Waltz, and Blue Valentine.
Take this Waltz and Blue Valentine both star Michelle Williams, and both also explore the fantasy vs reality of relationship. In Take this Waltz, a happily married woman meets a man while on vacation and they have amazing chemistry, and engage in mild flirtation. Only after sharing a cab from the airport do they realize they actually live across the street from each other. Uh oh. For much of the movie she grows increasingly weary of the “same old” with her husband (“Tastes like Chicken!”), while having ambiguous and thrilling interactions with the guy across the street.
She finally decides to leave her husband, and there is a montage of exciting sex, which is where films tend to end. But the story continues, and shows that no matter how many threesomes you have, things can still get dull. What starts as fantasy because the reality we thought we were escaping. Long term relationships are about getting to know another person in minute detail, and inevitably that will involve some not so great parts, and even boredom. That’s the reality of life, but it’s pretty awesome to see that in a movie. Relationships are not fairy tales, nor are they necessarily high drama, sometimes its just boredom.
Blue Valentine tells the story of the rise and fall of one relationship, and the perspective is evenly distributed between the two people in the couple. There are children involved, and the relationship seems more doomed, which makes the end result sadder. What sticks with me from Blue Valentine, is how Ryan Gosling character remains for the most part the same. The same qualities that attract Michelle Williams’s character are the same qualities that she comes to hate later. That’s a hard pill to swallow.
Anyway, back to Before Midnight. This film really zeroes in on a day in this couple’s life, and presents a completely plausible genesis for the argument that almost ends their relationship. Jesse laments that his son lives so far away, and things slowly build into an argument about their entire life together. The fantasy this time is how things could be if they were no longer together, and the reality is the hard work of being together, with all the good and bad woven inextricably together.
It is thrilling to see this story told so realistically, seemingly pulled from real life, with excellent performances to make it absorbing. Sure, its fun to indulge in the fantasy of happily ever after presented in so many films, but its wonderful to see the complexity of being in a real relationship acknowledged and honored as it is in Before Midnight. This film not only builds on the previous two films, but also builds on our own experiences, and it feels especially emotionally satisfying as a result.