Movie Review: Before Midnight (2013)
September 4, 2012
First, it was great meeting you and your family in Greece this summer. I was only there a week but I had a blast. Your boy Henry is very sweet and the twins are adorable.
Second, it’s a little intimidating writing a letter to a famous novelist such as yourself. I know, I know, there’s Gore Vidal’s line: “To speak today of a famous novelist is like speaking of a famous cabinetmaker or speedboat designer. Adjective is inappropriate to noun.” Even so, it’s intimidating. I never read your books (sorry!) but I did see the movies based upon them (sorry again!). “Before Sunrise” and “Before Sunset,” right? With Ethan Hawke as you and Julie Delpy as Celine? Don’t remember much about them, unfortunately. I remember conversations on a train and walking about in Paris and a reading at ... was it Shakespeare & Co.? Those movies were mostly dialogue about everyday matters. Maybe that’s why I don’t remember them. The everyday goes away.
Anyway, apologies about all that, and apologies for this massive presumption, but it’s the reason for this letter. I wish I’d told you this earlier but now this will have to do. Here it is.
Your wife is crazy.
I didn’t think so at first. I thought, “Ah, another couple dealing with the doodads and crises of parenting in the early 21st century.” I even had a little trouble with you at first. I thought you were too delicate around your son. Like you were seeking his approval when it should be the other way around. Then I remembered you were divorced and he lived with his mother, and it made sense. You’re trying to make up for lost time. In this manner, divorce makes children of parents and parents of children.
It was at dinner that I began to see the pattern. Those dinners were a little odd, weren’t they? A little too Woody Allen during his stilted, pretentious period. I liked the kids enough. And I loved Patrick and Natalia. Her line about how we’re just passing through? And you raised a toast “to passing through”? That was nice. Sure, Stefano couldn’t get away from the topic of sex while Ariadni played her usual game of self-satisfied gender politics, but at least you felt the rules in their relationship. No one ever went out of bounds.
Your wife, Celine, kept going out of bounds.
Someone would say how the meeting story of you and Celine was romantic and you agreed and Celine immediately disagreed. Someone would say how your girls were beautiful and you thanked them and Celine immediately disagreed. Remember when Henry was out and about on the island and he called Celine’s phone and she wouldn’t put you on? I’d never seen that before. Another time she asked you some theoretical question—if you’d met on the train today, would you still talk to her?—and dissed your answer. She said, “I wanted you to say something romantic and you blew it.” But whenever you did say something romantic she dismissed it, so I didn’t see how you could win.
She kept cutting into you with these little cuts, about little things: the amount of housework you did, the attention you paid, how self-obsessed you were. Then she’d take out the cleaver and try to lop off your head. Sorry, but it was brutal to watch.
There was such hate in her eyes. That’s the thing. I couldn’t see the love there. Nowhere. You kept trying to make it work and she would come back at you with hate.
She kept reading two or three steps ahead into everything you said. Does she always do this? And is she right? I’m curious. Because you’d say something and she’d make this assumption about what it really meant, and she’d wind up objecting to something that wasn’t even there. Like after Henry left. You were talking about missing him, and missing his years growing up, and how he threw a baseball like a girl because you weren’t around to teach him—which he totally does—but how there was no solution. Henry wouldn’t be allowed to live with you in Paris and you couldn’t move to Chicago to be with him every other weekend because it would disrupt the lives of Celine and the girls. But that’s what she assumed you meant. And the daggers came out.
Have you talked to her about this? This tendency to read three steps ahead? To assume this much? Because it’s not even a good strategy. To attack someone where they aren’t? Every battle that does that, loses. Or does she do this to prevent you from getting there? She attacks where you aren’t to prevent you from going to that place?
Remember that conversation we had about how men always compare themselves to other famous men? Fitzgerald did this by age X and Balzac by age Y and why aren’t I doing that? That felt true. But then she said something like, “Women don't think that way as much.” WTF? That’s the main neuroses, isn’t it? I’m fat, I’m ugly, my hair is too straight. Or too curly. I’m not wearing the right shoes. I’m not Beyoncé or Angelina or Kate. But she probably meant, you know, women outside of show business, because then she said something like, “The women who achieve anything in life, you first hear about them in their 50s, because they were raising kids before then.” So obviously not Beyoncé. She’s talking about someone like Ruth Bader Ginsberg ... who was arguing cases before the U.S. Supreme Court in her thirties. Or Flannery O’Connor ... who wrote “Wise Blood” in her twenties.
No, I know. She was talking about herself. Because that’s what she does. She was laying out the hope that her achievement in life is not being wife to you, or mother to two girls, but something else. Now to me—and I tried to tell her this—but to me the most important thing men and women can do in this life is raise children, and raise them well, but I’m still a fan of maintaining hope for other achievements, too. It keeps us going. In a way, you and Celine regret opposites: You, who have published three novels, regret not parenting enough, and she, mother of two girls, regrets not “achieving” enough. So there’s conflict. That’s inevitable. But you seem to blame you for not parenting more while she seems to blame you for why she hasn’t achieved more. And she blames you without mercy.
I haven’t even told you the worst part yet.
Celine and Patricia and I went on a hike one day. Celine, again, wouldn’t shut up, just went on and on about herself. At some point she talked about some quote someone put on the refrigerator at work with those poet/magnet thingees. Something like, “Women explore for eternity in the vast garden of sacrifice.” Crap, right? She thought it was meaningful. More, she thought it related to her. Not just her mother or grandmother, or any of the women who lived hundreds or thousands of years ago—but her: a pretty French girl born in Paris in 1970. She thinks she’s spent her pampered life in “a vast garden of sacrifice.” She sees herself, despite all evidence to the contrary, as a symbol of oppressed women everywhere. And she sees you—and this was the really weird part—as a symbol of tyrannical men everywhere. She compared you to Dick Cheney and George W. Bush! She said you were a proponent of “rational thinking” but then so were the Nazis during the Final Solution. I mean, holy fuck. I had to walk away at that point.
I probably shouldn’t even have written this letter. I probably won’t send it. I just had to let it out. In the past, you’ve written about your relationship with Celine, and I wouldn’t be surprised if you write about this summer: How you and Celine were in this beautiful place but stuck in this awful situation, which she kept trying to destroy and you kept trying to repair. Maybe they’ll make another movie about it. “Before Dinner”? “Before Dusk”? “Before the Final Solution”?
Anyway, I hope to see you again. Maybe in another nine years? If so, I hope—and this is a bad thing to hope—but I hope you’re on your own. I hope you’re finally free of Celine and that awful, awful decision you made to talk with her on the train to Paris in 1994. Because no man deserves the amount of grief you’re putting up with. To be honest, it’s a little embarrassing.