Not to brag or anything, but I’m kind of a romance film specialist, I’m pretty sure I have that written down from the National Federation of Romance Films*. Probably. I got asked by a work colleague what my favourite romance was, the most epic and wonderful love story of our time. As you can well imagine, I became dewy eyed, chin resting in my hands as I pondered what was quite possibly the most important question I’ve been asked since “Would you like to order desert?” (The answer to that by the way is always yes.) Now I’ve seen Jack and Rose trying to haphazardly float on a wardrobe door, I’ve cried when Juliet wakes up a moment too late and sees Romeo’s beautiful dying body next to her and I’ve become far too excited when Ryan Gosling lifts Emma Stone into the Dirty Dancing lift. I’ve also groaned inwardly at such vomit-inducing classics where that dumb kid dies from excessive bee stings (really, though?) and the immortal line from Love Story “Love means never having to say you’re sorry.” (Who came up with that rule?)
After much deliberation through the good and really ugly, I fell upon what I happen to think is the greatest love story of our time, two of the most engaging characters in cinema history and possibly one of the best scripts ever written. Bold statement, I know, but sometimes you have to put yourself on the line for love. The films I’m talking about are Richard Linklater’s wonderful Before trilogy, comprised of Before Sunrise, Before Sunset and the perfect finale Before Midnight. The film’s star Julie Delpy and Ethan Hawke as Celine and Jesse, their love story begins – as so many often do – with a fleeting glance. Before Sunrise opens with the couple having never met, on a train through Europe; both wide-eyed, naïve and strangely old-souled in their disposition, what is so wonderful about this opening is that you literally see the spark ignite. The shy smile they share with one another forks their lives on a different path, as an audience we know as little as they do, but we collectively know nothing will ever be the same.
The first film moves through the sleepy, uber-hip streets of Vienna, Jesse and Celine follow the camera in a seamless shot – or so it seems – as they talk about everything. Their conversation drifts between philosophy, religion, love, death and of course, sex. There are beautiful moments captured, as if entirely spontaneously, where one is looking at the other without them knowing, a gesture to push a strand of hair from Celine’s face. It is in a word, perfection, in that obviously it’s not – both characters have flaws, but they are always recognised by the other and it seems to only make them more endearing. The first film ends on a cliff-hanger, a will they won’t they of Casablanca proportions, on the promise of meeting again in a year’s time at the exact point that they are about to bid farewell. Perhaps the most genius aspect to this trilogy is that Linklater, made the films years apart, Hawke and Delpy allowed to age, to mature as actors, also allowing their chemistry to intensify with time.
The moment when you cautiously slide in your Before Sunset DVD, you wonder, with baited breath – did they ever meet? Are they married yet, with children? Please God no, did one of them die; I will never watch another film again if one of them dies? Jesse is a writer now, in a beautiful Parisian bookshop on the final lap of his book tour, his book is about a pair of young lovers. You squeal with delight, your neighbours ask you to keep it down, but you don’t care one bit. Then she appears, ethereal like (can you tell I am totally a bit in love with Julie Delpy?) through the doorway of that bookshop, their eyes meet and they may have aged ten years, but it as if a moment has slipped by. Wonderfully, it follows a very similar vein to the Before Sunrise in dialogue, though of course these lovers are adults now and things are far more complicated and suddenly things seem in more definite peril for our reality crossed lovers. Celine is in a relationship with seemingly perfect political activist and Jesse is married with a son. Their movements and conversations are echoes of their younger counterparts through their catch up of lost time, tears are shed – mainly by me – and there comes my favourite moment of any film: They’re in Celine’s apartment. She is dancing, singing and impersonating Nina Simone. She pouts at Jesse, Baby, you are gonna miss that plane. He smiles, he nods knowingly, I know. End bloody credits.
So finally, we have the latest and final instalment Before Midnight. The moment we have all waited for, the sight of Jesse and Celine driving a car with two adorable daughters in the back seat; they finally made it! He stayed in Paris! They had lots of lovely sex and babies! We find the now husband and wife in Greece on an extended summer vacation, but all is not peaceful on the Western Front. Reality bites and love is replaced with a marriage and the complications that this brings to a relationship and perhaps you wonder if it is too good to be true. The film falls on the day of their anniversary and friends have treated them to an overnight stay in a hotel and it is their private conversations in which the cracks start to show. Jesse and Celine were never perfect, that is why their love story is so enchanting because it is real and it is achingly honest and truly passionate.
How does it end you ponder? The beauty of their story is that we will never truly know, nothing is tied neatly with a bow, all cutely sewn up in a perfect happy ending, but that is Jesse and Celine. Their story is that of intrigue and mystery, never is their individuality compromised by their relationship or the promise of their future together set in stone. And that is true, honest-to-God in the flesh (well, fictional flesh.) love.
*Sadly folks, not a real federation. Yet.