Monday, July 29, 2013

"Before Midnight" and Relationship Dynamics

I’ve just come back from seeing “Before Midnight”.  I haven’t seen Linklater’s two earlier movies that make up the trilogy.  I found this one a bit heavy and it reminded me a lot of Ingmar Bergman’s  “Scenes from a Marriage." Both are portraits of marital stress with intense dialogues and close ups that verge on being claustrophobic. I often wanted the camera to pan out to give Jesse and Celine and me more space. Mainly, I wanted Celine and Jesse to stop talking.  These were tired old arguments.  While I respect Linklater’s attempt to dissect the tensions in this couple, it felt too didactic, and sometimes contrived.  He did, though, cover a slew of relevant issues: gender stereotypes, work-career issues, cultural differences, parenting obligations, blended families, marital fidelity, attraction, sex and aging.  

Ethan Hawke Before Midnight

Perhaps because I see couples in distress, I desperately wanted to slow this couple down and ask them to talk less and listen more.  As someone interested in emotions, I wanted them to notice the feelings behind the words.  When we get so caught up in the content of what we’re saying we don’t listen for the feelings beneath the words.   We especially don’t slow ourselves down enough to hold our opinions in check and really hear what the other person is trying to communicate. 

 I was particularly struck with how this movie-long argument began and how it might have been avoided.  In couples, I don’t think any one person is to blame.   I see couples as part of a system, yet just looking at the movie’s beginning scene, I suspect if Celine had simply been able to empathize with Jesse’s sense of sadness things would have gone differently.  Jesse was separating from his son, Hank, who only visits in the summer, and he was feeling the loss.  

Separation is hard for everyone and Hank is someone Jesse cares about deeply.  Sometimes, as it is in this case, the disconnection is especially difficult.   Jesse not only feels the sadness, but it’s accompanied by the sense that he hasn’t spent enough time with his son.    He worries that as Hank gets older he might be needed more, and that he won’t be around to do the things dad’s are supposed to do with their sons.   

I wish Celine could have reacted differently to Jesse’s sense of distress.  I just wanted her to let him have his sadness and regret without her being triggered to say or do anything.  Sometimes we’re called upon to just listen and be empathetic.   All of us know times when we wish we had been available to someone whom we love, and weren’t.  We don’t want to let down people we love.  It’s what Jesse was feeling and trying to express when he came up with the option of moving to America to be close to Hank. 
That obviously elicited fear in Celine.  If I had been sitting with them, I would have asked Celine to hold her concerns for a moment and just let Jesse talk about this idea.  I know this would have been hard for her.   It is hard to be quiet when you feel something so strongly, like how this suggested move might change her whole life.   But if Celine could have been less reactive she might not have gone to the extreme of predicting the end of the relationship.   She has some past history to guide her.   She’s seen Jesse in this emotional space before.   She, in fact, comments on it.    At one level she knows he is still processing his feelings of loss and powerlessness.    We don’t know where things might have gotten if Jesse could have fully discussed everything he was feeling.   Maybe he would have needed to talk more of possible solutions or maybe if he had felt permission to just be sad for a while, the feelings would have  dissipated on their own.   Then maybe Celine might have been able to take a turn and talk about her relationship with Hank, and how it was hard at first and how that’s changed:  how they’ve become closer and it’s a loss for her as well.  She and Jesse could have shared this feeling.   And then she could have shared how threatening the idea of moving felt for her and how it jeopardized their original agreement to live in Paris.   A calmer more productive discussion could have occurred.  Unfortunately, everything got derailed as soon as Celine’s fear took hold and she was no longer able to see how Jesse was caught in his feelings.   She saw it briefly, but as soon as she lost sight of this and her own fear took hold we’re in an endless loop of argument- counter argument; threat-counter threat--in other words, we’re lost.  

It is Jesse and Celine’s inherent caring and commitment to one another, as well as their wonderful playfulness, that save the day.  Being able to have fun, to be goofy and use humor to defuse tense situations allow them to come back together.    Even through their argument are sometimes mean-spirited and harsh, they are still able to repair and recover.   As much as I would have loved them to have avoided arguing, it’s important to note their desire to move back toward one another and to remember that in relationships the ability to repair ruptures is an important skill to cultivate and use.

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