Our Lives Might Have Been So Much Different

illustration by Brianna Ashby

Unrequited love—especially the kind that is somehow incomplete, or unsatisfied—is the most romantic kind of passion there is, probably by very virtue of its repression. Although they sit beside each other on a bench overlooking the Queensboro Bridge in the first hesitant flickering of dawn, Alvy Singer and Annie Hall part ways in Woody Allen’s classic conclusion; through a New York diner window, framed by ketchup dispensers, we watch them walk off in different directions, with a promise to remain friends. Ennis Delmar and Jack Twist are split apart by fear and sexual prejudice in the Western wilds of Brokeback Mountain; but somehow their story is all the more affecting because of the sheer impossibility of their love. We want these gentle cowboys to be together, almost as badly as they want it themselves—and yet it cannot be. Joel and Clementine erase each other from their respective memories in Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, then begin dating a second time without realizing it’s a repeat affair. Realizing they will most likely break up, as their relationship is rife with the same old problems, they still choose to fall in love all over again. It doesn’t matter that it won’t work out—it’s worth it, anyway. Best of all, they get to keep the memories, joyous and painful and everything in between. Casablanca, of course, wouldn’t be the same if Rick and Ilsa ran away together in the end. These two are brave for realizing there are greater forces at work than their own fancies—duty, loyalty, and logic, those persistent enemies of romance.

Most of these couples split not because they want to, or don’t love each other: they simply don’t work well together. It’s too bad, yet when a thing remains unfinished, there’s still hope; anything could happen. This freedom is the best part about being alive, despite the crippling responsibility it forces us to shoulder. Perhaps these films are better because the couples break up. It’s just as interesting to think about the future lives of these characters apart. Will they ever fall in love again? Will they bump into one another thirty years from now, when they’re married to other people? What will that accomplish?

It’s rare that silver screen characters get a second chance with each other after parting ways, but in Before Sunset—Richard Linklater’s dazzlingly clever and sentimental follow-up to Before Sunrise—lovers Jesse and Celine get another shot. It’s apparent how gravely the director’s mind has matured in the nine-year interlude between the two films. Naturally, his actors aged with their scripts; Julie Delpy and Ethan Hawke aren’t quite as good-looking this time around. Both are skinnier and more angular, considerably less sensual and fresh-faced. But growing older has its perks: they’re both a lot more interesting to watch in the trilogy’s intermediate installment. “I used to be healthier, but I was wracked with insecurity,” Hawke’s character explains. “Now my problems are deeper, but I’m more equipped to handle them.”

Before Sunrise tails a pair of strangers who meet on a train and spend an unforgettable day and night together in Vienna. Though they haphazardly arrange to meet up for a second time six months later, circumstances intervene and it never happens. Before Sunset opens a full nine years later (art imitating life), when Jesse and Celine finally meet again in Paris, amidst the cozy confines of the city’s finest bookshop, Shakespeare and Company. It’s Jesse’s last stop on a whirlwind European book tour (for the book he wrote about their Viennese night together). The old friends stroll through the city for an hour or two before Jesse has to catch a flight back home.

Paris may be the city of light and love, but here it’s merely the city of unrequited affections. We aren’t privy to clichéd landmarks like the Eiffel Tower or Arc de Triomphe; instead, we glimpse tucked-away snatches of Paris past the lovers’ heads or through the crook of their arms. Aside from a few establishing shots, the camera meanders the city streets with our heroes nailed reliably in the frame. When someone speaks French, there are no subtitles. Like Jesse, we are tourists, discovering Paris as we go. To condescending Celine’s chagrin, when Jesse makes her jump on a corny boat tour down the Seine, it becomes evident that spending time with a tourist can remind you how beautiful your city really is.

The last time we saw these characters, Jesse was a greasy-haired cynic who didn’t believe in magic or psychics, and Celine was the believer and Botticelli-haired romantic. Nine years later, Celine has become distrustful and bitter, suspecting the world is going to shit—while Jesse is newly idealistic, convinced the world is getting better. Finding nothing but emptiness along the way, Jesse has put all his eager hopes and dreams into this reencounter with Celine. This isn’t surprising, as men are the obvious romantics of our species, while women are mostly far more practical. It’s probably because we’ve had to be. Men have an easier time fooling around, breaking hearts and getting away with it; while across the ages, women are often rendered powerless, having to figure out how to survive with children to feed. This didn’t always involve following our hearts, but rather our business instincts.

Both Jesse and Celine are secretly regretful they weren’t able to extend their connection past a one-night stand. They represent for one another something we all can understand: the possibility of what might have been. Before Sunset reeks of that nagging potential for something better. Their connection can be classified as “unrequited,” not in the sense that it’s unreciprocated—though neither of them know how much the other cares—but in the sense that it’s unfinished.

The monster of Jaws is most frightening out of sight, below the water, before we ever see his empty eyes or gnashing teeth. Our imaginations conjure worse spectacle than any special effects or animatronics could muster. Similarly, the repressed tenderness between these two seems endlessly ideal, because their fantasies of one another are more rampant with possibility than any reality is kind enough to allow for. What the characters realize, in a self-reflective twist that saves Before Sunset from humdrum rom-com territory, is that the appeal they see in one another might be illusory. If their coupling were to become concrete, they fear, it could quickly lose its charm. Should they really get to know each other, spend more than a brief period of time walking around a foreign city, the mystery would likely be lost. They’d grow sick of one another’s habits and failings.

Before Sunrise spoke of hopeful 20’s philosophies, in which the characters were young and believed there would be many people they’d connect with in their lifetimes. Before Sunset reveals the sobering knowledge of our 30’s: that special connections happen only a handful of times. And we can screw those up pretty badly. What makes the film’s conclusion bittersweet is Jesse’s son; Celine could easily dump her Parisian boyfriend and Jesse could ditch his wife—but he doesn’t want to leave his kid. The older we get, the more difficult it becomes to abandon obligation to follow reckless urges. If Celine and Jesse were to finally give in to their niggling instincts and be together, the romance of Sunset would go up in smoke. Unrequited love is the most romantic—not the most fulfilling, mind you—but the most romantic. When love is satisfied, there’s scant room for any dreadful, exquisite yearning. Infinite options dwindle and fade, as one particular path stretches out before your paired-up feet. Celine and Jesse agree they never feel more alive than when they are desiring something more than basic survival needs, whether it be a new pair of shoes or intimacy with another person. Much of the fun of being in love is the anticipation, the never-quite-getting-enough. If we’re satiated… then what? Well, we get the quiet desperation of the trilogy’s brilliant and brutal final installment Before Midnight, in which the couple has chosen to be together, the magic is gone, and the inevitable flood of resentment and jealousy has leaked in through the cracks. They love each other, and they despise each other.

“Our lives might’ve been so much different,” Jesse tells Celine in Sunset, referring to what might have been if they’d met up six months later in Vienna as originally agreed upon. Celine is doubtful that their pairing would have lasted, but how often do you find someone who really listens to you, as Jesse does with Celine? Someone who excites you not only physically—but intellectually, psychologically, soulfully? It may only happen once.

There’s a reason most people have “the one who got away”—and why that memory is usually pleasant, rather than painful, though it’s perhaps best left undisturbed. Maybe we don’t wantto fulfill romantic fantasies, ultimately—we would rather settle for responsible companionship, with far less risk involved. Jesse and Celine aren’t quite willing to settle, though. In “Bird on a Wire,” Leonard Cohen sings: “I saw a beggar leaning on his wooden crutch/ He said to me, ‘You must not ask for so much’/ And a pretty woman leaning in her darkened door/ She cried to me, ‘Hey, why not ask for more?’” Who is right? Are we greedy, in wanting to scoop up as much happiness as our grubby little hands can carry? Or are we selling ourselves short, in our humble attempts to make the best of what little we have?