Our feelings, beliefs, reactions to situations, and essentially everything we experience originate internally, which lends itself to feelings of isolation. In order to lessen such feelings, we have to somehow externalize the internal experience. This is where language comes in, and this is why language is so wonderful—it helps alleviate our isolation. However, accurately expressing the internal experience can often be arduous, simply because our feelings precede language. We have them, and then have to figure out how to translate them. And then there’s the possibility that we won’t translate them accurately, and people won’t understand what we mean anyway.
For me, trying to connect to other human beings has long felt like an arduous task. First, meeting someone I feel connected to has been a rare occurrence. Second, when I do have moments of genuine connection, they’re often fleeting—I’ll have a good night with someone here or there, but that bond doesn’t seem to carry across time. Basically, I have a hell of a time establishing a rapport, an ongoing connection. What do I mean by connection? Feeling at ease with someone; feeling like you can be completely open; not having to struggle for topics of conversation and/or not having to rely on tired topics of conversation; feeling that the other person is completely open and engaged with what you are saying, and vice versa; feelings of mutual understanding.
Richard Linklater’s beautiful Before trilogy (Before Sunrise, Before Sunset, and the recently released Before Midnight) revolve around our attempts to connect to other people, and thereby dissolve latent feelings of alienation.
In Before Sunrise, Celine (Julie Delpy) and Jesse (Ethan Hawk) are a couple of twenty-three year olds who meet on a train in Europe. How do they meet? They’re both irritated by an old married couple publically airing their grievances toward one another. The two bond over their mutual irritation. Immediately attracted and drawn to one another, they let spontaneity and romanticism seize them and decide to spend the day together in Vienna. Over the course of that day, they talk about everything from their past relationships, to their families, to their personal philosophies on life, even their individual existential crises—Celine often feels like she is an old woman merely looking back on her life. By the end of a dialog-driven day, they feel connected to one another, which makes it difficult to say goodbye. But the fact remains that they are virtual strangers from different countries, and each needs to return home; Celine to France, Jesse to the U.S.
Sometimes, it’s easier to connect with someone when you don’t know them and don’t expect anything from them. Indeed, fervently expecting or hoping for a connection will often thwart it. So when you meet someone new, someone you don’t even expect to talk to, as with Jesse and Celine, it can be easier to connect. Finding common ground with someone is easy enough. When you can continuously build on that common ground, going deeper and deeper into one other’s interests, lives, and values—that’s when you start to feel at home. Kind of forget where you are and the situation you’re in, because the discussion with this other person envelops all else.
But as I mentioned, this kind of connection can dissolve easily. It may be because the next time you meet this person, you expect a similar transcendental experience to occur. You have now set the bar too high, out of your reach. Or, it may be because the first time, one or both of you was drunk or in some other way intoxicated. Without the social lubricant, it’s harder to be so open. Or worse, you can’t even recall the situation clearly, that you even had established a bond. So what happens? Both people are awkward, or perhaps, one is open, the other is awkward, blocking the way to another moment of connection.
So what’s amazing about the next film, Before Sunset, is that Jesse and Celine have not seen or spoken to one another in nine years, yet, their connection has remained intact. They find it just as easy to talk and relate to one another as before; are just as amused and enthralled by one another. It’s as though merely a few weeks have passed.
The premise of the film, the reason Jesse and Celine meet again, is that Jesse writes a fictionalized account of their day together in Vienna. Celine reads the book and when she discovers Jesse’s book tour will bring him to Paris, she heads to one of his readings/signings. Obviously, the fact that Jesse wrote about his experience with Celine highlights how much he values genuine human connection. This point is emphasized further when he explains to Celine his motivation to write the novel:
“I thought that if I could write a book that could capture what it’s like to really meet somebody . . . one the most exciting things that’s ever happened to me is to really meet somebody, to make that connection. And if I could make that valuable—you know to capture that—that would be the attempt.”
Perhaps one of the most meaningful, exciting things that can happen to us is in fact to really know and understand somebody, and to be known and understood in return. To feel we can truly relate to another individual. Such an experience may even be divine, because connecting to another human being helps us realize we are not actually isolated. Rather, we are connected to not only this one other person, but to all people, all things living and non-, and the universe at large. For some of us, this is difficult to remember when finding people to relate to is difficult. It’s not because there are so few people we can actually relate to, it’s just that really getting down to that point of mutual understanding is tricky for some of us.
Perhaps that’s why Jesse decides to stay in Paris with Celine (of course, we don’t know that he makes this decision for sure until yet another nine years later, when the third film comes out). If he can still speak so openly with this other person and forge mutual understanding after all this time, he realizes that it’s not something to be underestimated.
In Before Midnight, we learn that these kind of connections can’t be taken for granted—they can come and go, and no matter how deeply you connect with someone at one point in time, you will inevitably clash the more time you spend with one another. As many reviews have mentioned (including the podcasts Filmspotting and Slate’s Culture Gabfest), Jesse and Celine have ironically morphed into that old married couple on the train they so abhorred when they first met.
Jesse and Celine engage in an ugly argument in which hurtful accusations are thrown around. The battle culminates in the brutal words, “I don’t love you anymore.” It’s an unproductive fight, in that neither truly listens or is receptive to what the other is saying. They just keep butting up against one another, screaming monologues back and forth. The fight begins somewhat calmly, with Jesse missing his son Hank (who lives with Jesse’s ex-wife in Chicago), and getting mildly upset with Celine for telling Hank, “Good luck with your mom.” This minor disagreement devolves into a full-blown fight about every insecurity they harbor—for example, Celine accuses Jesse of wanting to uproot their family and domesticate her, and each one accuses the other of infidelity. The way the argument tirelessly spins in circles, it’s like each person is unsure of what they are truly upset about. The fight is an attempt to figure it out at one another’s expense. In the end, I think the real issue is feeling once again isolated. Not knowing what’s truly bothering them, they feel isolated from themselves, and thus, isolated from one another.
This fight, then, represents a collapse of Celine and Jesse’s connection. There’s too much “I,” too much ego, too much insecurity for them to connect in this moment. But our director, Linklater, is hopeful. By the end of the film, they manage to reconcile. We cannot always be in sync with the people we’re closest with, because understanding and translating our feelings can be damn near impossible at times. But Celine and Jesse’s reconciliation illustrates that we are always capable of connecting with other people. Or better yet, it illustrates that we are already connected to other people. The task at hand is to remember that we are.
For more on Before Midnight, check out the A.V. Club’s thoughtful review.