Coming of Age Over the Course of Three Movies

(Spoilers for the Before Sunrise trilogy throughout. Also, spoilers about Santa.)

When I was 7 or 8, I started, on occasion, asking my parents if Santa was real. Or the Easter Bunny. Or the Tooth Fairy. Both of my parents, without exception, always answered with a question of their own: “Do you really want to know?” And I would hesitate a moment, and then, without exception, I would always reply: “No.”

Looking back now, I can’t really remember what was going through my mind when I would ask the question, and then refuse the answer. My parents’ motivations, for some reason, are a little clearer to me. I can easily imagine what was going through their minds – they wanted, if possible, to preserve my innocence a little longer. That return question, having worked once to delay the inevitable, became the standard response. If I had ever once answered that yes, I did really want to know, I have no doubt that they would have answered honestly. I can actually imagine, with perfect clarity, how those conversations would have gone – their sympathetic eyes and gentle, chagrined voices telling me that they were the ones who really put the presents under the tree (or the dollar under my pillow, or the hard boiled eggs in random hiding places around the house), but it was the spirit of it that mattered. My mom would probably have cried a little. My dad, in the right mood, might have even teared up.

Surely, though, I must have realized on some level that if Santa were actually real, they would have just said yes. And in fact I wouldn’t have asked at all if I hadn’t already realized that the logic didn’t wash. That magic couldn’t explain everything.

But I still wasn’t ready to let the magic go. And so I said no, I didn’t really want to know, until one day at school when I was 9 years old, several of my classmates had a matter-of-fact, grown-up discussion about when they used believe in Santa, and I knew it was time to face the reality I’d already known deep down for some time. I told my mom when I got home that afternoon that I knew “the truth about Santa” (as if it were an after-school special or something). She did choke up a bit, and so did I. I couldn’t have put it into words that day, but I knew I was leaving something behind; something I could never get back.

The past few years of my life, I think, have been the adult version of that loss, best summarized by a trilogy of movies that spanned over a couple decades.

Before Sunrise came out when I was still in high school. I knew I wanted to see it based solely on the adorableness of Ethan Hawke in the trailers. My best friend and I, at the time, had a weekend habit of going to the local Blockbuster on Friday or Saturday evenings and then stocking up on candy and soda at the Walgreens next door before holing up in one of our houses to watch the movie we’d picked, and that was how I was first introduced to Jesse and Celine.

I was immediately caught up in the magic of it. I fell in love with these characters, with Vienna, with the promise held in that movie. It was a fairytale for a teenage girl who scoffed at Cinderella’s inherent sexism but still wanted to believe in happily ever after – the same way I’d still wanted to believe in Santa ten years earlier. Despite the obvious handicap of not being French, I wanted to be Celine – a worldly, confident woman who was unafraid to voice her opinions and show her intelligence, even at the risk of putting off men who might be threatened by her strength and intellect (still admirable in my book), but also willing to be vulnerable about her desire for love.

And as for Jesse? He became (undeniably to my detriment) the embodiment of my ideal man – a scruffy, adorable, unironically pretentious Salinger wannabe. I was completely taken in by his boyish charm and reflective, if at times pseudo-intellectual, musings on life. He was my idea of perfection, and no actual man I ever met measured up to the magic of Jesse.

It took me literal decades to learn that such a man did not exist in reality, because even the character did not actually exist as I perceived him.

That the movie ended ambiguously was not a problem for me – it simply allowed me to imagine the ending I wanted. Of course Celine and Jesse met up at the train station six months later. And then they got married and had babies and every night they had spirited, fascinating conversations about topics small and large for the rest of their happily-ever-after lives.

So imagine my resentment, then, in my 20s, when Before Sunset was released.

I actually watched the movie shortly before traveling to Vienna myself (my choice of destination inspired in no small part by Before Sunrise – the fact that I was riding the Prater and strolling through Viennese streets with my grandmother instead of my own version of Ethan Hawke was only a minor disappointment, compared to my love for the city).

It was not just finding out that Celine and Jesse had not met up at the train station that deflated me. There probably wouldn’t have been much of a movie if they had. Nor was it even that Jesse had married and had a child with someone else.

The real problem I had with the movie was how it cracked the surface of my image of Jesse. Here he was, married with a child, and blowing off his flight to have an affair. And my image of Celine, too – even putting aside any concern for the wife, what kind of feminist allows herself to be the woman on the side? Have some pride, woman!

Where Before Sunrise was a teenage fairytale for me, all about the promise of youth and love, Before Sunset brought in unwanted glimpses of the realities of adulthood. And I rejected it. I was still young enough to reject it. I hated that movie. To this day, I’ve never watched it again. Where the movie asked, “Do you really want to know?” I didn’t even have to hesitate before responding with a completely unambiguous “No.”

Then my 30s happened.

I am still in the midst of them, creeping inexorably closer to the end. I resisted turning 30 for a couple years, claiming to be 29 for the second or third time. Maybe there was some subconscious intuition of what havoc this decade was going to bring. Or maybe not. Regardless, it was only after I accepted my age for what it was that everything I’d spent my adulthood to that point building up crumbled into ruins around me.

I won’t go into details about it. I’ve hashed that all out already and have no desire to revisit it. Suffice it to say that when the destruction was complete and I was left with no choice but to try my best to pick up the pieces and reassemble what I could, the question of whether I really wanted to know was no longer relevant. I had no choice but to know.

No more fairytales for me.

But maybe just a glimpse of something better.

Because in the midst of rebuilding came the gift that was Before Midnight.

It was the only one of the three that I actually saw in the theater. I walked in with my popcorn (and, in a rare moment of symmetry, with the best friend who had watched Before Sunrise with me on the floor of my living room almost 20 years earlier) thinking that this installment would give me the magic back. I knew from the trailers that Jesse and Celine were still together, and had twin daughters. That, in my mind, was promising.

And the first part of the movie seemed live up to the promise: an idyllic family vacation in Greece, the child from a previous relationship leaving after an extended visit – not perfect, but workable – and witty, interesting conversation over a meal while beautiful children played happily in the yard in the background. Celine was as beautiful as she’d been in the first movie, and Jesse was aged and grizzled in a way that, unfairly, only made him more attractive.

But that wasn’t the gift.

No, the gift was when Jesse and Celine were sent off to a romantic hotel room alone, and the image of them didn’t just crack, it shattered into irreparable bits.

Through foreplay and conversations and arguments, in various states of dress, the history of Celine and Jesse’s relationship slowly comes out. And it isn’t pretty. Turns out, as Celine has suspected, Jesse had affairs on his book tour while she was stuck at home alone with their baby daughters. (Should she have been surprised? He had an affair with her while he was still married – and on a book tour, no less – after all.) Turns out, even though she loves her children, Celine sometimes resents being tied down to a family and would prefer to focus on her career. Turns out, they may not love each other anymore.

(How is this a gift, you wonder? I hear you. I’m getting there.)

The ending is, again, ambiguous, but hopeful. Celine actually says that their messy reality could never live up to their fantasies. Still, in what is, to me, Jesse’s shining moment of redemption, he persists in trying to reaffirm their relationship, insisting that when they’re old they’ll remember this night as one of the happiest of their lives. And she gives in, as do I, once again to his charm. But the lingering knowledge of reality is still hanging there, undeniable. There’s hope, there’s charm, and there’s love, and it’s messy and sometimes unrelentingly awful and far, far away from perfect.

And it’s enough.

I’m not going to lie, I still wish for the fairytale. I still watch Before Sunrise and want the alternate ending I imagined 20 years ago. I still feel a little sad that I fall asleep easily on Christmas Eve, not kept excitedly awake with feverish fantasies of what Santa might bring. I still feel a lot sad that my life has not followed the path I imagined it would back when I rewound the scene where Celine pulled Jesse’s hand over her head so his arm wrapped around her shoulders to watch that moment again and again. I try not to imagine my own alternate ending, because it hurts too much to think about what I lost.

But I know I will never get it back now.

And the gift of Jesse and Celine’s story is that reality under the facade of that first part of the movie. And the facade isn’t fake. It’s just as real as the rest of it – the Greek countryside, the beautiful children, the good food, the endless flow of conversation and laughter. It’s just that it’s not the whole story. Where there is hope in this is that neither is the ugliness under the facade the whole story.

I’ve learned that I can’t have one without the other. And that’s okay. I’d rather have the whole story, than none at all.