Another terrific contribution from Charlotte Hornsby, this time on the third installment of the Richard Linklater imperfect-love trilogy, Before Midnight.

before midnight holding hands

My mom has always had serious beef with rom-coms. In middle school she’d ask me how my sleepover went, only to listen as I gave a starry-eyed play-by-play not of my own cookie dough-fueled escapades, but of every foppish Hugh Grant attempt to woo the leading lady of that night’s Blockbuster rental. Mom would bite her lip, and it wasn’t until I was much older that I learned why. “I’m tired of movies about romance,” she said one day, scanning the Netflix cue. “They’re all about falling in love and never about staying in it.”

And now, at an age where my friends are starting to head to the altar, I’m noticing the lack of films that speak to this question. It’s also why as soon as I saw Richard Linklater’s Before Midnight, the surprise follow-up to Before Sunrise and Before Sunset, I had to call my mom.

Nearly every romantic comedy I’ve seen has one of two premises: 1) a guy and girl meet and their meeting is so electric and so fortuitous that we hope they will spend the rest of the movie exploring this electricity or 2) a guy and girl meet and one of them, or both of them are already married, but their meeting is so electric and fortuitous that we agree they must clearly be married to the wrong person, a person with whom the electricity has fizzled out long ago, and we wait with delicious patience for them to fall in love all over again with the right person. Before Sunrise follows premise #1 and even though its sequel stars the same couple, Before Sunset follows premise #2.

Whether it’s in camp 1 or 2, every rom-com begins with a “meet-cute”. A meet-cute is the scriptwriter’s shorthand for the cute scene in which the guy and girl first meet; it’s the catalyst for the romance that follows. (Billy Wilder once landed a screenwriting gig on the strength of the meet-cute he proposed: the guy wants to buy a pajama top but only the top because he sleeps without pants. The salesman refuses to sell top and bottom separately. A girl comes up to the counter to buy pajamas for her father, who as luck/providence would have it only sleeps in pants.) These meetings are always achingly cute and painfully providential. They are delightful to watch because they feel almost predestined, magic. Yet by that same token we recognize that they can only exist in a movie world where every coincidence is actually the hand of destiny. Applied to the real world, reading coincidence as destiny can be ruinous, especially in matters of the heart.

In my own dating experience the rule has generally been the cuter the meeting the more disastrous the follow-up date (taking a page from Notting Hill, I once talked a boy I’d just met into hopping a fence to kiss in the park only to be arrested on the spot by the NYPD). If films have the power and perspective to show us that we are not alone in our failures, that we are bound together by the gulf between what we want to happen to us and what does happen to us, then the rom-com formula is failing us.

Before Midnight 1

Enter Richard Linklater’s “Before” trilogy. At first blush the opening scene in Before Sunrise seems to present the most idealistic, coinkydink-turned-act-of-God meet-cute in the history of the genre. A cute guy sees a cute girl reading on a train, starts talking to her and when his stop comes convinces her to get off with him so they can keep talking. Here are all the elements of a movie-land meeting as if picked out from the impulse-purchase aisle of the rom-com cliché gift shop: A train skirting the Austrian countryside. A dog-eared philosophy book. A plump-lipped blue-eyed French girl on her way to Paris. Yet buried in this gift-shop meet-cute is the germ of a much more complex understanding of how people attract and repel each other, an understanding that doesn’t ripen fully until Before Midnight. “Think of it like this,” Jesse says to Celine, the minutes ticking ‘til the train pulls away, “Jump ahead ten, twenty years and you’re married, only your marriage doesn’t have that same energy that it used to have. You start to blame your husband, you start to think about all those guys you’ve met in your life and what might’ve happened if you’d picked up with one of them. Well I’m one of those guys.”

Fast-forward 20 years and, surprise surprise, Jesse isn’t one of those guys—he’s the guy. The pair are traveling through the European countryside again, only this time they’re in a rental car with their twin daughters asleep in the backseat. In a rambling conversation that constitutes the first act, writers Linklater, Hawke and Delpy try to catch the audience up to speed on what’s happened in the past nine years in as organic a manner as possible (Jesse left his wife and his son in Chicago, he and Celine had twins). But if all seems calm as the pair joke about being bad parents and driving past the Greek ruins while their kids are asleep, the groundwork is also being laid for the explosive third act, a 30 minute-long fight where every stored up hurt and sacrifice from the past nine years becomes ammunition.

This last act doesn’t look or sound like any romantic comedy I’ve ever seen. It looks and sounds like love as we live it. And if Before Sunrise and Before Sunset gave us an incomplete picture of life in love it’s because they were both before films.  They were movies about physical and spiritual magnetism, about two people drawing towards the promise of each other before committing to a life together, before giving anything up. Now in Before Midnight we see what it looks like to try to stay together, the unglamorous exhaustion of imperfect love. And as someone who doesn’t have kids, it looks terrifying.

And yet, as I watch Celine and Jesse argue I can’t help but feel kind of honored that a couple is letting me see them act like this. There are all the hyperbolic accusations we never hear ourselves make. “I always do x while you’re off doing y” or  “Did you ever even think I wanted to do y, but I had to give it up?” Daily sacrifices that have simmered for years reach a roaring heat of unfairness. Celine had to push the stroller through shifty neighborhoods late at night when Jesse was gone. Jesse has to pack the girls lunches every morning while Celine is at work. Its as if both parties have signed an unspoken contract that they will balance each other out with equal amounts of sacrifice and are now taking each other to court for not doing his/her share. And in the flame of this feeling of unfairness, of neglect, of misunderstanding we see what happens if we believe the lie at the end of every rom-com, that our search for belonging ends when we find our mate.

These movies that end with a kiss are only harmful when they reinforce the daydream that romantic love is the answer. The truth that Celine and Jesse underline––with slammed doors and lead-in questions––is that people will always let us down. Even Hugh Grant. This yearning in us to be understood, made whole, no longer alone, cannot be satisfied by another person. That guy or gal is not the destination. But as Celine thought as she looked out the train window, thank God he asked to sit with me for the ride.