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Tell, Don't Show Romance

In his "Before" trilogy, Richard Linklater reveals how conversation between a couple can define and redefine romance, hopes, and dreams.
Rafaela Bassili
Before Sunrise (1995).
The maxim, in literature as in cinema, goes show don't tell, but I think the formula is too simplistic: They're not mutually exclusive. Jesse (Ethan Hawke) and Celine (Julie Delpy) talk throughout Richard Linklater's Before Trilogy (1995-2013), seemingly telling each other everything, and showing relatively little. Linklater gives us few landscape shots and not much of a set-up. Who these characters are before they meet on the train in the first film, Before Sunrise, is of less immediate importance than who they reveal themselves to be together. We rarely—hardly ever—see one of them in scene without the other. This, too, means they're showing us everything. 
I have often been impatient with the romantic genre and the necessity of the set-up. As a viewer, I'm interested in the transformative power of romance, how a particular experience might change our perception of what came before and the possibilities of what might come after. Everyone wants love, it's true, but knowing why and how is generally what makes me care. Thrown around vulgarly, devoid of particularity and singularity, love—a word that garners so much force on its own—can become an empty concept. Before Sunset, the second film of the trilogy, opens with Jesse doing a reading in Paris, launching a book he wrote about his night with Celine nine years before in Vienna. A reader asks him whether or not he thinks the couple ever did meet on the train platform six months later, like they had planned. He replies, "It's a good test, if you're a romantic or a cynic." But even that misses the point. 
The Before films are usually read as romantic; they strike a natural balance, mastered by Linklater in his output as a filmmaker, between the sentimental and the disillusioned. Sunrise in particular fits the bill, from the meet-cute in Vienna to Hawke and Delpy's chemistry to the way it takes the couple not long to abandon their cynicism about the impossibility of their connection. Taking a realistic approach to the challenges of making a long distance relationship work in pre-Internet days, Jesse, an American, and Celine, from Paris, choose not to exchange phone numbers and instead reunite six months from then; and we all know what happens next.  They're proud of their decision to not be "delusional," to act as "rational adults." They had spent an entire night going back and forth between fatalistic ideas of love and commitment—the inevitability of resentment and "fizzling out"—and falling in love with each other despite themselves. What finally turns them rational is the sudden blind trust they put into love's power to last: The idea they wouldn't ever see each other again was the delusional one. 
The films capture, poignantly, the feeling of falling in love—a transient feeling—but the reason they last is because they're just as much about what happens after, long past the thrill of the ephemeral. Sunrise is seen as a romantic film in part because at the end, we get the feeling that Jesse and Celine will reunite; Sunset's ending operates on a similar belief. Jesse misses his plane in Paris, thank God, and we forget about what may well follow; which is to say, the resentment Jesse and Celine already knew was inevitable. But it's not that Before Midnight, the third film, works to dismantle the hopefulness of the first two as much as it chooses to tackle the outcome head on. "If you want true love," Jesse tells Celine, after they have been fighting for an hour and a half, "this is it. It's not perfect but it's real." There's romanticism, however crooked, in that, too. It's the romanticism of suffering, of giving yourself over to someone else—the consequences of which, Celine reminds us, have been familiar to women for too long. It doesn't make it any less true, though, because as any person who has a heart knows, contentment and suffering are not mutually exclusive. The films, all three of them, are tinged in melancholy hues; Midnight is just more saturated than the others. 
The genius of the films' method—more than the use of a narrative told in real time, Linklater's eye for naturalism, or even the choice of dialogue over action to propel the story—is that they trade the usual set-up for simmering feelings of anger and love alike. In romantic comedies, the formula will usually go something like this: we meet character A in their "status quo," then character B arrives to disturb it. They meet, they banter, there's a montage, and before we know it they're saying things to each other like "I'm just a girl in front of a boy" and other such nonsense. The montages have always bothered me because the good stuff is always compressed in there. The good, important stuff is walking around, talking, fighting, using memories as windows or weapons, recreating out of the past a narrative that is one person's impossible way of showing themselves to another. It's in the telling that we begin to understand each other; the things we choose to say and the things we don't. The Before films—funny and romantic, but in no way romantic comedies—give us the good stuff: The development of a feeling and an acknowledgment of its elusiveness. Jesse and Celine are always in transit, never at home. They're often in cars, trains, boats, trams, and very rarely sitting down. Mostly, they walk. 
Time and patience, both qualities observed compulsively by Linklater as a filmmaker, affect the way Jesse and Celine talk and think about love and themselves, but more importantly, they allow us to enter their understanding. We don't know anything about Jesse and Celine that they don't know about each other; and this holds for Sunrise, when they're just meeting, as it does for Midnight, when they have known each other for nearly twenty years. Because of this, what Celine and Jesse share is irreducibly specific, particular. If rom-com characters are often interchangeable, presenting many of the same characteristics (the guy is charming but a little messed-up, the girl is clumsy and a little awkward, so it goes until love dies), Celine and Jesse's contours are so well-defined that we know why and how this love, at this particular moment, changes everything. This is the reason we fall in love with them, too. Their acknowledgement of love's transiency, and their embodiment of it, is what makes us a little sad. Being so aware of and preoccupied by finality, they give themselves to what they have in front of them instead of resigning themselves to the end. This is the romanticism at the heart of the trilogy: "It's called accepting you for being you," as Jesse puts it, mid-fight, in Midnight. Indeed, as he says eighteen years earlier in Sunrise, people have gotten married for a lot less. 
I watched all three films back to back, stuck inside on a snowy couple of days in New York. I have seen them so many times, and it's a testament to how completely they can evoke a feeling that every time I'm put in the same trance. It struck me how much repetition goes around in Jesse and Celine's conversations, how often they return to the same themes: Death, eternity, childhood, first loves. They test how far they can stretch the illusion that because they have talked so much, they know everything about each other. The work of trying to understand someone is a Sisyphean task, to keep with the theme of Greek tragedy that underlies Midnight: it's a doomed effort. It's bittersweet, because the frustration that mounts when we realize we don't know much about the person we love hits just as hard as the magic that remains in the mystery. 
At love's best, we feel keyed into that mystery. In Sunrise, smitten, Celine tells Jesse that "if there's any kind of magic in this world, it must be in the attempt of understanding someone sharing something… It's almost impossible to succeed, but who cares, really? The answer must be in the attempt." At its worst, the illusion of the shared understanding breaks, and we're left to contend with the shattered pieces. Fighting in their Greek hotel room in Midnight, alternately holding on to their relationship and looking toward its inevitable end, Jesse and Celine can't understand each other: Their fight loops around. They do not once say they're sorry. 
In their cycles, Jesse and Celine chase the mystery of unknowability, the attempt that Celine deems the magic of this world. They like to play at being other people. In Midnight, sometimes wittily and sometimes spitefully, Celine play-acts the bimbo to Jesse's ego-inflated macho author. In Sunset, they talk through new versions of each other, people impacted by the romanticism of that night in Vienna. In Sunrise, they pretend to be each other's friends on the telephone, telling stories about their encounter. It's here, I think, that a real form of love rears its head: They always react as if they're hearing it all for the first time. 


Richard Linklater
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