Jesse and Celine Promo

[Warning: The essay below contains spoilers for the Richard Linklater films

Before Sunrise, Before Sunset, and Before Midnight.]

Increasingly, members of my and succeeding generations have come to understand that marriage might not be the sacrosanct institution we once believed. It's not unusual, of course, for an individual to decide that their plans for their future—for their own self-development emotionally, professionally, and spiritually—are not conducive to the sorts of sacrifices a marriage calls for. But recent generations seem to have put enough thought into this possibility that, for the first time, the very institution of marriage is in doubt. We know from history, experience, and the Richard Linklater film Before Midnight that the ambitions of women can be particularly imperiled by marriage, because our culture still considers the lion's share of marital sacrifices to be feminine. One not only hopes but expects this circumstance to end in the near future; until it does, it will be the responsibility of each man and woman considering marriage to ask of themselves this question: Have I developed in my youth and young adulthood the inner resources to war with myself over the competing demands of self-realization and marital compromise without permitting this war to permanently scar myself, my mate, our prospective children, and other bystanders? This is not the same as treating marriage as a series of silent sacrifices: couples can, do, and should communicate to whatever degree is necessary to navigate shared and separate hopes and ambitions. But when dialogue invariably escalates into irreparable verbal aggression, as happens in the denouement of Linklater's Before Midnighta documentation of several hours of small, unanswered provocations that predictably explode into a relationship-threatening tilt—the question becomes not whether a marriage can survive, but whether it should survive.

To this moviegoer, it seemed that Jesse and Celine could, at the conclusion of Before Midnight, continue in their common-law marriage only if they developed complex and abiding strategies to turn frustrated self-realization into productive dialogue. I know from hard experience that arguments punctuated by "I don't love you" can happen only a few times in a relationship—perhaps not more than once—before cataclysmic damage has been done to the relationship jointly and to both parties individually. There's no evidence either of the partners depicted in Before Midnight has developed an appropriate strategy for coping with noxious feelings of entrapment, unless we're to count the implied infidelity of each partner as a solution, which of course it isn't. It's hard to conclude, then, from the evidence of the final scenes of Before Midnight, that Jesse and Celine's marriage will continue. One expects, though, that in nine years of Hollywood and actual time we will discover (in a film called Before Dying or some such) that in fact either the well-being of their children, inertia, couples' counseling, or a deus ex machina has saved Jesse and Celine from the dissolution of their union.

Jesse Celine Happy Moment

The harder question to ask, of course, is whether a relationship such as the one we witness in the Linklater trilogy should continue. For his part, Jesse makes clear in Before Midnight that he decided, years earlier, that his happiness lay with Celine, for better or worse, in bad times and good. Celine appears to have drawn no such conclusion. If nine years of common-law marriage, two children, and countless shared sacrifices and joys have not convinced her to either a) choose what happiness she can find with Jesse, or b) take whatever steps might make such a feeling possible on her part (be it individual and/or couples' counseling, substantially more generative dialogues with her partner, or some adjustment of her own or Jesse's ambitions), there is no particular reason to think her relationship with Jesse can, will, or should sustain many more direct hits to its bow. These hits are equally damaging to Celine and to Jesse, and each year that passes in which Celine believes her marriage the terminus of all her ambitions is another year those ambitions are not being realized and she and her mate are suffering the calamity of being slowly but violently pulled apart.

Relevant to this discussion is a 2012 article in The Guardian, which featured the reminiscences of a hospice nurse regarding the five most common regrets of her dying charges. The most curious entry to the list—in the nurse's view, and perhaps in the minds of many of her readers—was the fact that many of those whose deaths had been witnessed and memorialized had not realized before dying that happiness is a choice. The words themselves ("happiness is a choice") sound trite, but in fact if there is a significant cinematic achievement to be found in Before Midnight, and there is, it is that the movie exhibits better than any before it that happiness is indeed something we either learn to choose during our lifetimes or do not. 

Of course, "choosing happiness" is no guarantee of actual happiness, nor does it prevent isolation, depression, or self-destruction. What it is, however, is an attitudinal alignment that says each choice one makes will be made, to the best of one's ability, with sufficient self-knowledge to make happiness a marginally more likely outcome than would have been the case were the decision made blindly. In other words, to choose happiness, we must first work diligently at self-knowledge, as those who cannot or will not know themselves (the good, the bad, the ugly, all of it) are those who cannot intelligently determine their future likelihood to produce happiness in themselves or in others. Such individuals only harm themselves and others in their meanderings, and while we do well to care deeply about such individuals and to help them on their way, we also do well to give them wide berth when the time comes to choose a lifelong partner--at least until they find themselves differently situated. This is not because such people can't be vigorously happy, as they can be; or because they cannot bring joy to others, as depending upon their circumstances they often will; or because they're ill-intentioned, as far more often than not they're not; but rather because, of all the institutions human civilization has devised, marriage most requires as an antecedent the inner resources to wage productively rather than destructively the war we all, to some degree or another, perpetually wage within ourselves over when and how to sacrifice for those we love. It is no crime to know oneself an ill match for the institution of marriage; it is no crime to not know oneself well enough to protect oneself and another from an ill-made and ill-fated match; it is, however, a tragedy to so conjoin and to be so conjoined, and an even worse tragedy to remain so past the point a change is still possible. And it's a tragedy that's avoidable from the start.

Like many of my generation, I have both dated individuals facing the same tough questions as Celine and Jesse and also wondered about my own suitability for a lifelong commitment. And like many of my generation, I have suffered at the hands of those who believed themselves prepared for the sort of long-term union that was not, in the event, what they really wanted. It will be a poor result of the remarkable act of filmmaking that is Before Midnight if the consequent conversations between partners who've seen the movie hinge primarily on whether one or another of the two central characters could have done this or that or avoided doing this or that to make all well between the film's two leads. It will be a poor result because the sort of conflict depicted in the movie, at least in the lines of dialogue we hear onscreen, is not navigable, and believing it so only brings more pain and suffering to its participants. 

Jesse Celine fight car Before Midnight

The conflict between Jesse and Celine is, indeed, impassable, as it was seeded in the identities of both partners when they first met eighteen years ago (in Before Sunrise) and then reunited nine years later (in Before Sunset). Both parties made a decision, on those dates, to continue a liaison with someone whose ambitions and temperament and self-identity were not compatible with their own; Jesse and Celine, in short, confused lively conversation with a future. But abiding relationships delve much deeper into the psyche than mere repartee does, a fact Linklater's first two films displayed little enough awareness of to be disconcerting.  

No blame for any of the above lies at the feet of either Jesse or Celine, though we could certainly wish that, as a couple, the two had either seen their initial meetings for what they were—something glorious but fleeting—or else, in deciding otherwise, developed more resources to work through what (by the time of the events of Before Midnight) has clearly become a hardened disconnect. Anyone who can watch the hotel scene in Before Midnight and not see a relationship in which this sort of aggression has played out many times before has never been in a relationship in which this sort of war of words occurs in the first instance. The accusations and insults hurled in anger—I hate making love to you; I ruined my life for you; you're mentally disturbed; your selfishness makes my happiness a perpetual impossibility; I cheated on you; I also cheated on you; I don't love you anymore—are harrowing and more often than not relationship-ending. Those who say the movie depicts a couple who've just "grown a bit weary," or are merely "a little bitter" were clearly watching the movie they'd hoped to see, not the movie they were given by the film's writers and director.

The central conflict of Before Midnight—the film we actually see, not the film we might wish to see—is one for which an earnestly romanticist sensibility (as opposed to one of gloomy pragmatism) can offer only one solution: separation of the parties. It will hurt their children, likely irreparably, but as Before Midnight takes great pains to establish with respect to Jesse's son Henry, such a wound is survivable. It is, moreover, preferable to a childhood spent listening to one's parents arguing (or brooding silently) over acts of verbal aggression, infidelities, or even (at the extreme terminus of such a destructive downward spiral) physical aggression waged by one or both of the parties against the person or property of the other. It is no gift to seal two characters moviegoers love so much into a coffin of shared fate neither truly wishes for themselves. It is, in fact, our own selfishness in wishing for life to be different in the movies than it is in our own bedrooms and backyards. 

And so, with the foregoing in mind, I ask—even beseech—Richard Linklater to divorce these two characters and let each live the life they were meant to be living. If you want to make a movie that reflects the times we live in, Mr. Linklater, make a movie in which marriage is not, in fact, for everyone, and in which no one is forced to spend a lifetime with someone they see as an obstacle or an albatross rather than a partner. One wonderful day in Vienna, and another wonderful day in Paris, do not a lifetime make. Like many my age, I have had such days, I have even been lucky enough to have many months of such days, and I know as well as you do, Mr. Linklater, that they simply aren't enough. The day Celine chooses happiness is the day she leaves Jesse, and the day Jesse chooses happiness is the day he accepts it and moves on. I don't want it to be so, but I know it to be so. I recognize the bind you're in—your commitment to cinema verite is at odds with your own (and Ethan Hawke's and Julie Delpy's) abiding attachment to Jesse and Celine—but the obligation you owe to love, life, and art takes precedent over the obligations you owe to the box office, the media, and even your audience.

Seth Abramson is the author of three collections of poetry, most recently Thievery (University of Akron Press, 2013). He has published work in numerous magazines and anthologies, including Best New Poets, American Poetry Review, Boston Review, New American Writing, Colorado Review, Denver Quarterly, and The Southern Review. A graduate of Dartmouth College, Harvard Law School, and the Iowa Writers’ Workshop, he was a public defender from 2001 to 2007 and is presently a doctoral candidate in English Literature at University of Wisconsin-Madison. He runs a contemporary poetry review series for The Huffington Post and has covered graduate creative writing programs for Poets & Writers magazine since 2008.