Ladies and gents, it’s time for that occasionally recurring Stowaway feature — The Headley Surprise! Today we welcome Julie Delpy and her Before Sunrise character Celine to the canon, and I tell you, I was so pleased with her. In Richard Linklater’s Before Sunrise, French college student Celine (Julie Delpy) meets American post-grad Jesse (Ethan Hawke) on the train from Budapest, and soon they’re disembarking in Vienna and spending the whole night talking, kissing, and watching the morning arrive, before parting ways with promises to meet again in six months. This movie is 15 years old, so I knew the basic story before ever putting it in my Netflix queue, but the execution of that story was more beautiful than I’d expected.
Linklater’s favorite technique is to take a movie consisting entirely of long monologues and philosophical debates, shoot it in an interesting locale or format, and hope that the speeches are good enough to carry the plotless film. (This strategy even mostly worked in Waking Life.) In Before Sunrise, it works magnificently, due in no small part to the magnetic performance of Delpy, who is instantly likeable and entirely believable as a young woman trying to figure out how to move away from her loving parents into a life of her own.
Before Sunrise is often described as a romantic comedy, although it’s more of a straight romance. Either way, Celine defies genre convention. If this were a normal romantic comedy of the last thirty years, Celine would be desperate for a man, but too uptight to get one (in adult rom coms) OR she’d be too strange or superficially unattractive and in need of a makeover in order to realize she wants a man and can win one (in teen rom coms).
Some of it is a function of the age of the characters; in adult rom coms, it is all about MARRIAGE and BABIES and THAT BLAND POTTERY BARN FURNITURE SET THAT PROVES OUR ETERNAL LOVE,
and in teen rom coms, it is all about POPULARITY and DEFLOWERING and ADMITTING THAT NO MATTER HOW SMART YOU ARE, WHAT YOU REALLY WANT IS A HOT GUY TO LOOK AT YOU TWICE.
Celine is in her last year of university at the Sorbonne, so she’s in that particular place of in-betweenness and uncertainty, as you start to realize that you are not as worldly as you thought you were at age eighteen, and that actually the world is kind of terrifying if you have to navigate it totally on your own. She’s not in any popularity contests anymore, and people haven’t started asking when she’s going to settle down yet.
Ages 21-24 are pretty scary territory to navigate, but they’re also a time of great freedom in Western society, when it’s ok to not be just like everyone else. You were expected to toe the party line in high school, and you’d better start cultivating domesticity soon, but for right now, you can try other things, maybe even see who you are without all those expectations. So age is definitely a factor.
But Celine could still be desperate for Jesse to find her attractive and do whatever he liked to get that attention. She could find herself in a dangerous situation with this strange man and be told she asked for it by not being more careful. She could laugh at all his jokes and agree with whatever he said so as not to appear too smart or threatening. But she does none of these things (ok, she does laugh at his jokes, but fair enough, she seems quick to laugh in general). She has her own opinions and she states them. She is comfortable in her own skin and doesn’t seem at all concerned by wearing her rumpled traveling clothes while flirting with Jesse. Here’s the other factor – she’s no Manic Pixie Dream Girl (damn Nathan Rabin for coining a term I’ve been trying to define for years).
MPDGs are women with childlike interests and worldviews who spontaneously attach themselves to the mopey hero of the tale, who is in serious need of some life-altering sex and full-fledged adoration from a woman with no discernible personality other than “quirky helpmeet.” (See Garden State, Along Came Polly, half the cast of Love Actually.) MPDGs are usually assigned to comedies, but they can be found in dramas and romances, too, especially in death dramas like (Sweet November, Love Story, etc.). Jesse is clearly a mopey man in need of some life altering, but Celine doesn’t exist just for that purpose; you can see the story equally as that of an energetic woman in need of some conversation and life affirmation. (Hint: if you can switch the focus of the story fairly easily from one major character to another, you have two fully developed characters.)
Celine and Jesse do eventually have sex, but not until two important things are said: 1) Celine goes back and forth a bit on the issue, but not as a tease; she’s genuinely trying to figure out if this will ruin or perfect a lovely night. She expresses her concerns to Jesse, saying something along the lines of, “I think I wanted to sleep with you as soon as we got off the train, but now I don’t know.” She tells him she doesn’t want to sleep with him just so he can go home and brag to all his buddies about banging a French girl in Europe. 2) Jesse responds by saying that it’s not that important that they have sex, and even though he clearly really wants to, there’s no implication that he thinks she’s a frigid bitch for not doing it, and it’s clear that she is a person he cares about and so she wouldn’t just become bragging rights.
How often do we hear these kinds of conversations take place in the movies? These are real concerns in the real world, and they have a lot of dramatic potential, too, from an artistic perspective. They humanize the characters so much, and when they do start kissing and roll over into the dark to begin undressing, it is sexy and sweet at the same time, and not a boring inevitability or titillating display.
A palm reader appears at one point and tells Celine that she will grow into a great woman. She then gestures to Jesse and says “he’s learning,” which Jesse finds insulting, as if he doesn’t matter, but it’s true that his outlook is much less mature than Celine’s. We get no sense that Celine is settling, though, when she spends the night with him. She’s figuring out what she wants in life, and for this night, she wanted him. There’s no slut-shaming and she didn’t do what he wanted to do without regard for her own wishes. She really is growing into a great woman, and this lovely film captures one of the days on that journey.
Of course, there’s a sequel (Before Sunset), and I’m apprehensive about seeing it, but probably I will. I hope Linklater keeps Celine’s intelligence and independence, because these really made her a terrific Headley Surprise.
Another Richard Linklater film that really surprises me with its occasional tip of the hat to strong women characters is Dazed and Confused. In his best-known work, the Parker Posey character is the female version of the Ben Affleck character; both of them take gender roles at their crudest and harshest and make those their rules to live by, which, if not easy to watch, is interesting to see portrayed. And the movie has other teenage girls with their own personalities, thoughts, and dreams; maybe not as many as the boys, since they’re not the main focus, but they’re not all relegated to being just props, either. (Some are – the sophomore who spends the night with the freshman, among others.) Sure, the boys talk about them the ways teenage boys talk about girls, as sexual conquests to be made, T&A to check out, and girlfriends to be avoided. But we get to see the girls as themselves, by themselves, too, whether it’s having feminist lite conversations about the gender politics of Gilligan’s Island or worrying over whether other girls like them.
I find the movie as a whole too unpleasant to watch anymore, with its relentless focus on vicious “initiation” scenes that are cast in the same nostalgic glow as the pool hall or the Aerosmith concert, but the last time I watched it, I was struck by how many of the female characters were as fully realized as the male characters.