Before Midnight, London and a Reason to Believe

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Before Sunrise and Before Sunset are films about many things: love; identity; being; self-discovery. One of the fundamental aspects of their emotional appeal, however, rests on the theme of possibility.  In the first film the characters are 23 years old and much of their impulsive behaviour can be attributed to the vagrancies of youth; certainly the initial dialogue is the most self-conscious of the series, suggesting two people trying on identities for an evening (and of course trying to impress a potential romantic partner).  The will they/won’t they finale works in a relatively straightforward way but the dangling question of whether they will meet again is particularly evocative because (with hindsight) you are aware of how much can change in a year. When you’re young it’s especially the case that you can change radically in a year. Indeed, the film illustrates how much can change in one night – you feel that Jessie and Celine are better people when they are together, fuelling and feeding off each other. They positively fizzle with possibility, both as individuals and as a couple.

Before Sunset reunites the two 9 years on. They are now in their early 30s – changed, grown, even accomplished (Jessie is a successful novelist). Nonetheless, the same spark is quickly present and its flame illuminates what is lacking in their lives (and in themselves).  Their time together is even more constrained on this occasion as Jessie has to catch a plane. Possibilities seem limited by circumstance. The end of the film, however, is far less ambiguous than that of the first. It’s clear that Jessie has made a decision – the kind of decision which you can still afford to make when you are 32. In one afternoon two dissatisfied lives have been, in a sense, revived.

Before Midnight again leaps 9 years forward and without wishing to give much away, it’s fascinating and powerful in how it deals with ageing and the limiting of possibilities which that seems to bring. Life brings responsibilities and reason – it also brings cowardice and weariness. How do you deal with dissatisfaction when you are beginning to feel like your time has passed, that it’s too late to do anything dramatic to address it? In this film possibility is not the romantic notion of previous – rather it’s almost taunting and oppressive. It speaks of chances squandered, paths not taken. How we make our peace with that and, more importantly, how we modify our notions of possibility and the fulfilment it brings, are key questions which the film looks at. It’s a wonderful, beautiful experience – perhaps the best in the trilogy. The dialogue remains improbably eloquent yet somehow perfectly captures the anxieties, difficulties and rewards of ageing and ageing together.

I left the cinema feeling revitalised. Alert to possibility. Inspired by the rich complexities of relationships (not just romantic ones) and the didactic power of conversation. At one point in the film Jessie and Celine speak about how the important thing in life is to ‘stay hungry’ – to keep questioning, keep trying to grow, keep aspiring to be and do better. The genius of it is that it doesn’t shy away from how this notion can become a stick with which we beat ourselves up; we can become so fixated on particular interpretations of ‘growth’ and ‘possibility’ that we can end up trapped by them. Life is infinitely complex and sometimes that’s enough.

It helped that I exited into a gorgeous London evening.  Heavy in the air was the kind of languorous haze that focuses the mind on your immediate surroundings. Beauty shifts to the quotidian and it’s almost impossible not to relax into the night, let your soul drink its fill and feel that maybe this is it. This is life and it’s not half-bad. It’s a feeling which I often have when I wander around London. Given the importance of wandering around European cities to the Before… films, there’s a thesis to be had in exploring their relationship to the dérive. The physical manifestation of the poetry and politics of possibility and throwing off of the shackles of time, the derive nurtures the soul and profoundly lends itself to the themes of the films.

With quite splendid timing a sense of the cacophonous possibilities of London was re-awakened in me by Julian Temple’s magnificent documentary London – The Modern Babylon only this past weekend. A riotous musical and visual collage, the film presents London almost as a living organism – one which sheds its skin, fractures and bends yet maintains its quickening pulse throughout history.  It’s certainly no hagiography and we’re left in no doubt as to London’s violent dissonance. It’s a place of conflict, of confusion, of endless noise which never quite comes together. Yet it’s impossible not to feel humbled at the place, not to feel that its ancient, tattered mosaic is at once unrecognisable from one generation to the next yet eternal in its awe-inspiring wonder. If you are lucky enough to tap into London’s veins you may find an original Source, something from the dawn of time which speaks to the very nature of who and what we are. Wander its streets and you may be forever changed.

On one of the recent Bank Holiday Sundays I found myself stood outside a John Smith’s pub in Soho, enjoying a typical night with a couple of friends. One of them asked a young guy in a hoodie for a light and we ended up chatting to him. It turned out he was from France, studying in Ireland and was only in London for one evening as he waited for his bus to leave from Victoria at 4am. We ended up spending the evening with him, taking him around various Soho bars before I finally saw him onto a bus to Victoria at 3am. There was something about that experience which underlines, magnifies, captures everything I’ve spoken about here. There was something about only knowing someone’s first name, knowing you will almost certainly never see them again and knowing that this was one story amongst thousands playing out in London that evening. I went home that evening very drunk and very content. I’d allowed myself to forget that London – that life – can throw these wonderful curve balls if you only allow yourself to catch them. In possibility we find nourishment and transformation. In possibility we find a reason to believe.

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