"Love may not lead where we think or hope, but regardless of outcome it should be a call to seriousness and truth. If it is not that - if it is not moral in its effect - than love is no more than an exaggerated form of pleasure." - Julian Barnes
I wrote a piece around this time last year reflecting on notions of romanticism and capitalism and how, as the contemporary philosopher and writer, Alain De Botton points out: “the two dominant ideas of our time [guide] the way we think and feel.”
In the piece, I reflected on the ways many people have exclaimed mine and my partner’s own early relationship beginnings to be akin to the first of Richard Linklater’s trilogy - Before Sunrise. For those who haven’t seen Richard Linklater’s triumph of a romantic movie, Before Sunrise details the serendipitous meeting of Jesse and Céline on a train. They end up spending one day (and night) together in Vienna, knowing this is quite likely the only time they will have. It’s the first instalment of a trilogy that spans the couples subsequent relationship and years of marriage (plot spoiler, soz).
In the early days, I lapped this acclaim up. Why wouldn’t I? Before Sunrise is the epitome of sparkling youthful love and romanticism. The magic, the connection, the honesty, the thrill of a new city. Who wouldn’t want that association with their own tale? And it isn’t wildly inaccurate from the day and night my partner and I spent together the first time we met. Roaming all over London, only parting in the early hours of the morning when he had to catch a flight for the next part of his travels. Reminding myself of that meeting always gives me heady butterflies.
But over the years (my partner and I are celebrating half a decade together this year), I've come to find the notion niggles me a little. I've been called to reflect what it is specifically that irritates me about the comparison. No matter how wonderful and head-over-heels magical our first meeting was, we are not those same people. The various episodes of life have pulled us into their wicked ways and caused us, at times, to draw our battle lines in the sand.
In reflecting on this, I remembered the opening scene of Before Sunrise, and the incident that sparks the initial conversation between our two star-crossed lovers. An older couple sitting in the same train-carriage are having an argument. And not just any argument, it's the kind of fight that seeps outward, invading the emotional space of everyone around them. You know the type of argument I'm talking about. If you've ever been in love you'll have had at least one yourself, and you've likely witnessed one at some point either at home growing up or between strangers in public. (One time in San Francisco, we were awkwardly privy to the apparent dissolution of a marriage. The couple were out celebrating their anniversary. Things escalated so horrendously that the woman stormed out and our hostess confided she was contemplating calling the police.)
In the third instalment of the trilogy, Before Midnight, things have progressed for Jesse and Céline. They are no longer the idealistic lovers but the succumbed married couple who are all too aware of one another's flaws and idiosyncrasies. In a cinematic nod some might miss, the film begins to draw its close with an explosive argument between the pair, with old hurts, doubts, and personal convictions whipping around them in a volatile whirlwind before Céline storms out.
An argument akin to the very same one that prompted them to first connect.
Jesse sets out to find Céline and discovers her nursing a glass of wine and a sour expression. He takes a seat next to her and coaxes her from her ruminating, though we are not privy to the words he draws her back to him with. Instead of what we might expect — a furthering of the argument, a tearful request for divorce — she laughs and the camera fades.
The allure of new love is remarkable. It's one of the most unifying experiences I believe we can go through. That moment when the sparks tentatively meet each other, creating their own roaring flame. We've all fallen victim to the giddy naivety that, those couples who argue? Those ones who go for the jugular? We will not be like them. Our love is different.
The truth is, it is only the couples who have felt love most deeply that are capable of going for the emotional jugular, because we know where it lies. It is only those who we have opened up to the most, in the rawest possible ways, that know exactly how to tear us apart. The people we truly give our hearts to have the potential to cause us the most pain, and we sometimes seek to inflict the pain unto the other before they do unto us.
The depiction and inclusion of this aspect of love in the Linklater trilogy is perhaps the most important aspect of the movies, above and beyond ideas of romanticism. It is one that is all too often missed out of other highly idealistic depictions of what it truly takes to make a relationship work. This depiction of what a relationship really becomes is much more in tune with how I think our expectations of love should be measured. It shows what it really takes to keep returning to love, in the face of real-life, children, work, family, boredom, unanswerable questions, personal doubts, failed pathways, complex choices, and all the things we relinquish along the course of long term love.
De Botton once more:
“It’s simply that representations of love in culture have frequently been profoundly misleading at the psychological level. That we are quite so bad at loving — and the statistics on relationship breakdowns suggest we really are — is a problem that can at least in part be laid at the door of culture.”
While I understand the comparisons, and perhaps even the need, to compare my own love story and Before Sunrise, the comparison does my experience a great disservice. It ignores the journey I went on as an individual prior to our meeting to place myself in a position where I could be capable of acknowledging (and welcoming) the potential of the relationship at that first spark. It also ignores the subsequent work that was - and still is - required from both of us to make that potential spark into something more and purposefully create what we have now. To create something we both joyfully return to. That process of returning is one of the most wonderful and rewarding aspects of love.
To say my partner and I never argue would be a whopper of lie. Aside from the vastness of complex life experiences we've gone through since first meeting, our cultural and social upbringings and early life were wildly different. These experiences inform our individual lens in ways that often creep up on us. But above all that is the lens that we have worked to build as individuals in our adults lives. These are the perspectives, values, joys, hopes, dreams and ideas that we have purposefully cultivated. It's under this lens that our lives collide in the best and most lovingly possible ways. It's under this lens that we always find each other, no matter the chaos we may have to navigate.
In my previous endeavours of the heart, returning was always a challenge, something I dragged my heels over and questioned during many aching, sleepless nights. When I returned, it never felt right.
With my partner, returning is the part we slowly swim towards, ready to embrace and figure out what comes next. Together.
It is the closest to feeling home I've yet to discover.
Being in love is a heady addiction, it's easy to see why this part of love consumes so much of our thinking and why it is incredibly easy to depict. We lap it up with aplomb. But being in love is not love, per se. Each of the trilogy titles begins with the word 'before' but what Linklater successfully manages to pull our attention to is the 'after' of love. I suspect it is because of this that the movies have such an adoration of fans.
Because the 'after' of love is where we know if we've found the person we're prepared to keep returning to.
That's the only reality of love truly worth pursuing.
"Love itself is what is left over when being in love has burned away, and this is both an art and a fortunate accident." - Louis de Bernieres