Thursday, December 19, 2013

What the Before Sunrise Trilogy Taught Me About Relationships

Jesse and Celine in Their 40's -- Before Midnight
Anyone who knows me well already knows how I am these days in regards to the way romantic relationships are depicted in movies. I'm going to be 38 years old on my next birthday. At this point in my life, I've been in several relationships, some of them OK and some of them not so OK. I've already been married and divorced. Eventually, I'll wind up married again, this time to my dear partner of going on nine years. Suffice it to say that the idealistic little girl that could actually watch a Disney movie or a romantic comedy and totally believe that she was looking at a realistic depiction of actual love is long dead and buried thanks to cold, hard reality.

I suppose that's why I've always felt unusually invested in Jesse and Celine, the two characters from the Before Sunrise trilogy. They felt and still do feel real in a way other movie couples just don't. I finally got a chance to see the latest installment (Before Midnight) last night thanks to the magic that is Netflix. As a result, I find myself realizing that these two have probably taught me more about the reality of not only relationships, but also goal-chasing, personal development, and the process of growing older than anyone I know in my actual life. (We creative types can be pretty solitary, yo. We need to take our learnin' where we can get it.)

I wasn't stupid in my 20's. I was just young.

Like a lot of people that are fans of the series, I've actually been growing older right along with Jesse and Celine. When they met on the train in Before Sunrise, I was just a little younger than they were at the time. I still saw the world the way they did. I was idealistic and optimistic. I pretty much took it for granted that my life would eventually fall into place more or less perfectly and that any professional life I might ever have would find me doing something fantastic and unforgettable. I definitely still assumed I'd wind up part of some perfect couple that looked nothing like the middle aged German couple Jesse and Celine see arguing on the train. In other words, I had a lot to learn. 

Jesse and Celine in Their 20's - Before Sunrise
Looking back on how I thought back then, I usually tend to feel embarrassed. I will even admit that stupid is definitely a word I've used to describe my younger self in recent years. However, when I rewatch Before Sunrise as someone older and (I hope) wiser, I'm not sure that's still how I feel. It's actually a little bit of a pleasure to remember how it felt to be someone who believes in true love and who thinks that everything is guaranteed to work out OK in the end if you stay authentic and hopeful. I can still recall having those kinds of deep, fulfilling, rambling conversations with people I connected with and it reminds me of how beautiful being young and being able to imagine the best for myself really was. 

Sunrise also simply does a great job of portraying what it was really like to be about that age in the 90's. That's how my friends and I really dressed, and acted, and talked, and approached life. It's certainly how we hoped and thought when the subject of the future came up. We were young and it was really quite beautiful.

It's never too late to start over.

The follow-up to the original movie actually came out at a weird time in my life. I was approaching 30 at the time and struggling with a lot of the same things Jesse and Celine do struggle with in Before Sunset. Like Jesse, I was -- by then -- married to someone I really didn't even like and had kind of given up on the idea of ever having anything in my life that resembled a real love connection. Like Celine, I was still having trouble figuring out how and where to put down my roots and make commitments, especially career wise. Like both of them, I think I felt like I'd made a lot of mistakes and I definitely was still playing the woulda-coulda-shoulda game with myself.

It was pretty interesting to actually see this same couple I knew and liked so much from Sunrise dealing with a lot of the same things I was dealing with at the time. Before seeing this, I have to say that I felt like I was the only 30-year-old that didn't have all of my shit together yet despite being gainfully employed, married, and all that jazz. I also definitely think I believed 30-something was too old to start over if things weren't working for me. After all, all of my same-age friends said so, so it must have been true! A lot of them weren't happy with their lives either, but they had all just decided to suck it up and stick it out. I heard a lot of "life/marriage/work isn't supposed to be fun" talk around then... but I couldn't help but feel that if it wasn't supposed to be fun (or at least enjoyable), then what was it supposed to be... and what would be the point of living?

Jesse and Celine in Their 30's - Before Sunset
Actually seeing Jesse and Celine make a different decision for themselves gave me a lot of hope at the time and it definitely helped me realize it was OK to want something different -- a life my heart told me was right for me. I didn't do it because of them or anything, but I did eventually decide to end my unhappy marriage to my ex. I'd met someone else by then and unlike my ex, this was someone I actually "saw myself" with. I didn't think the new relationship would be perfect or anything, but suffice it to say that it actually seemed worth working on and that was good enough for me.  

Even people that love each other hit rough patches and argue.

Getting to see Before Midnight after nine more years have passed was a really interesting experience. At this point in my life, I am preparing to turn 40 within the next couple of years. I am still with the man I started a relationship with after I left my husband nine years ago. We really love each other and we're supportive of each other when it comes to the things we want to accomplish in life. We have the same kind of easy connection that Jesse and Celine have in the Sunrise series... but we're not perfect by any means.

A lot of the kinks have been ironed out of our relationship by now and we actually get along really well. But we fight every so often and have fought over the years. We've even had some really nasty arguments like the ones in Midnight -- the kind that make you literally cringe because of the kinds of nasty things that are said. I don't know that we've seriously considered breaking up or anything, but that's certainly something that's been thrown around when we're seriously angry and wanting to hurt each other the way couples sometimes get. Truth be told, that was the source of a lot of shame for me, because I tend to feel like fights and arguments are a sign that you're failing at something -- particularly being a good partner to the person you've chosen to spend your life with.

However, as always seems to be the case with me, I also felt like I must be the only one who ever gets frustrated with my life and makes the mistake of taking it out on my partner. We don't have kids together like Jesse and Celine did in the movie, but we certainly have our challenges in life still and they've -- of course -- shaped our relationship and tested it over the years. Seth has kids from another relationship and an ex that strongly dislikes both of us. Also, people have had their judgments about me and about us because we got together while I was still married to somebody else. Running off into the sunset together because you feel like you're meant to be sounds romantic, but it also creates a lot of loose ends that may always be issues in one way or another just as they were for Jesse and Celine.

We have career challenges and family dynamics that have affected things as well. We're different in certain ways. I'm sure we annoy each other sometimes. Getting older has been challenging for both of us and sometimes it shows. But none of that means that we don't love each other and it's because we love each other that we're what our friends see (and claim to envy) when they look at us... not because we don't fight or because we've never been through any rough patches.

We really don't change. We just evolve.

There was a scene in either Sunrise or Sunset where Celine talks about how she went back through her old childhood diaries as an adult once and was surprised to see that her way of thinking and the core of who she was had remained constant over the years. I can very much relate to that, as I've kept diaries and journals since I was a child and have thought something similar when I went back and read any of the older ones. At this point in my life, I consider myself to be pretty authentic as far as living in a way that is true to myself and it's strange how much the "evolved" adult me has in common with the person I was in early childhood, right down to the details. In a way, becoming who I was supposed to be has turned out to be more about returning to who I originally was than anything else.

When you backtrack and watch all three movies together, you can also totally see from the beginning exactly what issues Celine and Jesse will have as a couple one day. You see that Celine will probably always be rather stubborn and that her extreme idealism about how the world and people should be may always be something that gets in the way of cultivating a reality she can be content with. Jesse is always going to have that dismissive, cynical side to himself that found him making fun of Celine for enjoying her experience with the fortune teller. Neither changes in this way either... and it's doubtful that they ever will change. 

In a way they're not really each other's biggest problem in Before Midnight the way they obviously think they are. They're their own problems and always have been. You can see that in Before Sunset when they meet again for the first time in a decade and start talking about how "life" has been going for them. If you've seen Midnight, you realize that their own shortcomings had as much to do with their previous relationship failures as did the fact that they probably actually were with people that weren't right for them. 

You even get this confirmed for you in a way. Toward the beginning, you actually see Jesse interacting with his son, Jesse's main concern throughout the entire movie. Hank seems very well adjusted and at ease with the whole situation with his parents... but you see Jesse keep insisting throughout the rest of the film that he's not. It's really clear that Jesse is the one that actually isn't coping well and that he needs his son a lot more than his son needs him. The same thing can be seen going on with Celine's concerns about her career. The government job she is considering taking on and that you know she doesn't really want and won't be happy with because she said so in Sunset suddenly becomes her "dream job" once she and Jesse start arguing about where they're going to live. 

I can see that reflected in my own life as well. Seth and I are a much better fit than I was with any of my ex-whatevers. However, I can also be honest with myself enough to say that getting into a good relationship with someone I love and am actually happy with has shown me that a lot of problems I thought were about being with the wrong person were actually about me. Like Celine, I have a whole lot of feels about a lot of things and sometimes I can't really contain them. I get stuck sometimes on how I feel things "should be" instead of simply making the most of them as they are. I'm working on having better control over my feelings (as opposed to blaming them on other people because it's easier), but I'm also learning to accept that I'll always be this way to some extent and to become OK with that.

In a way, the fortune teller from Sunrise really kind of said it all when she told Celine all about the kind of woman she was growing into. However, if you'll recall, she also told her that she would need to find peace within herself before she could find true connection with others. You can see that this is and will continue to be Celine's personal challenge probably for the rest of her life... but I like to think that Jesse has been and will continue to be a part of that growth process for her and vice versa. Remember what the fortune teller had to say to Celine in regards to Jesse when she took a gander at his palm? "You will be all right. He is learning!"

Life isn't perfect for anyone and no one has it all figured out.

Like most people who really enjoyed these movies, I appreciated the way everything about Jesse and Celine seems authentic. The series doesn't pull any punches when it comes to showing you how relationships really develop over time, even down to the wear and tear a lot of people really don't want to know about. It does show you that two people having a great connection is just that, not a guarantee that they won't have any more problems or challenges, either as a couple or as individuals. A connection is a tool that you can use to build something wonderful, but that's it. There's no happily ever after. There's just "what comes next" and what's next is always another challenge, just like in real life.