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Before the Early Bird Special

I remember seeing Before Sunrise when I was in high school and not being quite able to buy into the movie as a romance. I enjoyed watching two people meeting randomly and having one long, engaging conversation—and the dialogue itself was great—but the concept of sleeping with a veritable stranger in a random city in Europe was very, very far away from the teenage life that I led so it felt unrealistic and overly idealized to me. I like hotels and clean laundry too much to have ever romanticized the idea of backpacking through Europe and sleeping with whatever random person I met along the way.

Fast-forward almost ten years, and Jesse and Celine had grown and so had I.

I was not the sheltered (and let’s call a spade a spade here, judgmental) girl I once had been. I’d been to college and graduate school, read some good books, lived alone, traveled—including to Europe!—and experienced a measure of a romantic life. Before Sunrise still felt a bit far-fetched and rooted in fantasy rather than reality, but that didn’t stop me from lining up to see the sequel, Before Sunset, when it came out. I had to know what happened to Jesse and Celine.

The long and the short of it? They didn’t meet up six months later as planned (he went, she didn’t). He got disillusioned, wrote a book about it and got married. She lived a thoroughly interesting life in France and probably didn’t regret going to her grandmother’s funeral (the reason she stood him up). OK, maybe she did a little. Enough that she seeks him out at a book signing in Paris. Another long conversation ensues about life, relationships and what it all means. And you know what? It was even better than the first time. Maybe because in the second iteration, Jesse and Celine have lived through things that are relatable and real, and were not just two random Hollywood-beautiful people falling in love and having consequence free Hollywood sex. There is a depth to Before Sunset that stems from looking past the romantic ideal of the first movie and wondering—really wondering—what if? What comes after?

But strolling through the streets of Paris at twilight and getting a second chance with the one that got away, I suppose you could argue, is merely an extension of that idealized first encounter. So these two people found themselves again and connected again. But it’s still not real. There’s a spouse and a child involved. There’s a plane to catch. Listening to Nina Simone is nice and all, but what comes after this?

So another not quite ten years later, we get to Before Midnight. Jesse and Celine are together. Jesse got a divorce, an unplanned pregnancy led to twin girls and for reasons that don’t really matter, this one summer, they went to Greece. What came after, in this case, is married life and the exhaustion of parenthood and step-parenthood and the painful politics of blended families and sometimes—when you have thoughtful friends who offer to babysit—sex. I am also married now. I am also a parent. And as a child in a blended family, I can tell you that they are both political and painful. Now, the idealized romance of Before Sunrise and the careful artifice of the second meeting in Before Sunset has become arguing over “the fairies” who was the dishes and pack the suitcases. And the movie, the story, is so much more beautiful for it. Jesse and Celine’s relationship is now painfully real, and by the end of the little glimpse that we get into their lives, the realism of it brought tears to my eyes.

Celine and Jesse are no longer young bohemians to whom I can’t relate, but old friends who (save the whole summer in Greece thing) live where I live.

I have no sense of how long Ethan Hawke, Julie Delphy and Richard Linklater will want to keep doing this, but I hope it’s a long time. Because I will never tire of asking, “What came after?”

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