Attack of the 40-Something Feminist!

Image Credit: Andreas Rentz/Getty Images
Image Credit: Andreas Rentz/Getty Images

As a dedicated Before fangirl, I walked into the Before Midnight screening as excited as a LOTR fan viewing The Return of the King in hobbit feet. While aging along with Jesse and Celine (because time … it’s the worst), my relationship with the films has evolved. Watching Before Sunrise is now akin to reading the marginalia I made as an undergraduate: I cringe, yet part of me still thinks the flowers in Mrs Dalloway DO symbolize the emptiness of the phallocentric gift economy. And Before Sunset is now porn. That’s right, just porn. Because there are humanities majors who would much rather walk around a European city discussing art and relationships than actually having sex with, say, Channing Tatum. Spoiler alert: I am one of those people. But the only reason I can watch these films and not want to perpetually punch Ethan Hawke—and his alter ego Jesse—in the face is Julie Delpy. Although Delpy’s Celine is equally pretentious and neurotic, she’s also intelligent, funny, kind, and sexy as hell. She’s basically Wonder Woman for feminist cinephiles. So when Celine becomes just as annoying as Jesse, there’s a problem.

The single quote that best sums up this series is Celine’s revelation in Before Sunset: “I guess when you’re young, you just believe there’ll be many people with whom you’ll connect with. Later in life, you realize it only happens a few times.” Before Midnight shows that Jesse and Celine still do connect in this singular fashion. But now that youthful idealism has given way to the responsibilities of middle age, we’re also given a peak at the flipside of this connection: when you know someone SO well, you also really know how to hurt them. If this walking-and-talking battle were equal, I would be totally fine with it. In fact, I would be championing the film’s acknowledgment that good relationships require intense arguments. But it’s not equal. Jesse always pulls his punches while Celine is hitting everything in sight. So the delightful Celine of the first two films has been replaced by a bitter, irrational feminist stereotype—one who manages to connect her oppression as an upper-middle class white woman to the final solution. Despite Delpy’s excellent delivery, her explicitly feminist claims end up sounding like the ravings of a crazy bitch. Delpy wrote many of these lines herself, so I can only hope they sound a lot better in French.

Although Jesse is not depicted as an ideal partner (e.g., he has cheated on Celine, is passive aggressive, and sits around celebrating his own genius while the women cook), he nevertheless remains the voice of reason throughout the film. Even when Celine is making a point that should be valid (i.e., how many men seem to believe that “little fairies” exist who put sunscreen on children and pick up socks), she speaks so cruelly and with such complete disregard for Jesse’s feelings that I find myself wondering why he isn’t the one leaving the hotel room.

The most cutting of Celine’s insults involves Henry Miller. Now, Henry Miller is the epitome of authorial misogyny: he described women as though they were nothing more than fleshy objects with which he could masturbate, and he routinely abused the women he dated. So why does Celine—the film’s resident feminist—tell Jesse “you are no Henry Miller” as though it were the worst of all possible insults? Because she is attempting to insult his skills as a lover and a writer, which is both needlessly cruel and also completely nonsensical. Which is exactly the problem. In the ten years since that solo dance to Nina Simone, Celine has become a tired cliché one would expect in a Woody Allen film circa 1978. When she’s joking with Jesse, she’s a fun, albeit quirky, human being. But when they begin arguing, she becomes nasty. And the film ties much of this nastiness to her feminism. As a feminist, I feel as though I should be angry about this, but, apparently, as a feminist, I’m too busy castrating men and combing my underarm hair, so I hardly noticed.

Despite the unfortunate assassination of Celine’s character, Before Midnight is still an intelligent film with a few remarkable long takes that capture the brilliance of the earlier films (i.e., the opening car ride and the walk to the hotel). With the  exception of the excruciatingly long lunch scene featuring one gender cliché after another, much of the dialogue remains crisp and funny. I just wish the film’s darker tone weren’t achieved by throwing Celine under the bus. If there is another Before film exploring what the 50s have in store for Jesse and Celine, I hope they’ll let Celine calm down a bit and once again be the intelligent, funny feminist we know and love. Maybe then she can relinquish her title as “the fucking mayor of crazy town.”

One Reply to “Attack of the 40-Something Feminist!”

  1. Hi Anna,

    An interesting take, and you make a strong case. But (there’s always a ‘but’) I’ve got to disagree. 🙂

    Celine came across particularly badly simply because we saw her being spiteful and vicious on camera over the course of an hour or so. However, the point is that what Jesse did “off camera” in the nine years since the previous movie was as bad, and arguably worse. We are only given a short snapshot of their lives, but Celine is reacting violently to nine years of passivity from Jesse. Celine is bound to come off looking worse, but only because we haven’t witnessed the nine previous years! However, that doesn’t make her reaction unjustified or disproportionate.

    In a way (and even if it’s only for a moment), she feels like Jesse has ruined her life. He has turned her into everything she hates, and exactly what she swore she would never become (a “submissive woman”). While she was having a nervous breakdown trying to bring up twin girls, he was jetting all over the world having affairs. She already feels like she has sacrificed her creativity for his, and now he also wants her to sacrifice her professional career as well. That’s why she reacts so aggressively to his implied suggestion that they move to Chicago, though it at first seems disproportionate before you’re given the context later in the movie.

    It’s also why she gets so angry at him for positioning himself as the “rational” one, and probably why she makes the reference to the “final solution” – she’s furious at how passive he is, and she’s trying to provoke a reaction. All the way through the movie, she is the angry, passionate one and he is the passive, rational one. But that doesn’t make him right and her wrong.

    She is needling him and growing more and more vicious, whilst he just absorbs it all passively and makes jokes. Yet he expressly tells her that he refuses to change his behaviour, which only makes her more and more angry.

    When she finally tells him she no longer loves him, he admits that he just assumed she doesn’t really mean it. It’s only in the final scene of the movie, after he has AGAIN tried to rescue things with a stupid joke, that it finally sinks in that he should take her seriously.

    And that is enough to offer her hope, because she does still love him. And so she joins him in his joke, and hopefully we get another ‘Before’ film in 2022. ;-D

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