Modern Love: The Complicated Romances of “Her” and “Before Midnight”


by Jenni Wright

I started watching the Before Sunrise trilogy by Richard Linklater when the first of the series came out in 1995.  I was 13.  It was an impressionable age to be exposed to the movies’ characters of Celine and Jesse, two college students who meet cute on a train to Europe.  Jesse is greasy haired and handsome in the best 1990s way and Celine is French and doe-eyed.  That they can sustain a deeply confessional and witty conversation over a 24 hour period while walking around Europe has had a profound effect on me.  It’s not so much that their love story is cute (and it is) but I was drawn to the idea of two people deciding to be as vulnerable an open as humanly possible on a first date.  It’s the kind of intimacy that one equal parts searches for and avoids your entire life.

Fast forward to 2013 when Spike Jonze’s Her entered the indie movie scene to shed light on our increasingly digital dating space.   Is our society right around the corner from an artificially intelligent Siri with the voice of Scarlett Johansson?  I think so.    In Her we meet detached and lonely Theodore Twombly, played by Joaquin Phoenix and an awesome pair of high waist trousers.  He falls in love in the absence of a meet cute – he installs a perfectly customized operating system named Samantha to attend to his every need.  That she is curious about everything he has to say intrigues him.  She has the wonder and excitement of a new born baby when he invites her into his world.  An easy feat for someone who technically doesn’t exist.  But nevertheless Theodore confides in Samantha and shares with her the parts of himself that he keeps hidden from the world. 

before midnight

It is this very struggle for intimacy and honesty that we encounter when we meet back up with Celine and Jesse in Before Midnight.  The two lovers who previously drank in each other’s thoughts are now a couple that has long passed their honeymoon stage.  Compared to both Before Sunrise and follow-up movie Before Sunset, the reality of middle aged Celine and Jesse is jarring.  Now both successful in their chosen fields, Celine and Jesse must deal with the real world consequences of an international romance.  Jesse misses his son who lives with his ex wife in the United States.  Celine resents the ex wife and can’t fathom a career outside of Europe.  She’s worried that the sacrifices she has made as a mother and wife have been at the cost of becoming the woman she always wanted to be.  Family and career collide where love and optimism used to reside.  Before Midnight makes it clear up front that this movie is no longer a “will they/won’t they” but about the struggle to sustain love amidst the business of living your life.

The relationship between Theodore and Samantha in Her begins to unravel at the point where Samantha begins to grow as an (artificial) being and Theodore remains the same.  Where initially it seemed that Theodore could escape all of the issues that plagued him in his relationship with his very real and alive ex wife through his relationship with Samantha, it becomes apparent that he cannot keep up with a woman whose existence is not bound by time and space.

That is to say that both of these movies tackle the subject of love but they do not end there.  Wrapped up in the blanket of love are the emotions of jealousy, regret, fear and self-deception.  I found both Her and Before Midnight to resemble the qualities of our greatest love affairs – challenging, provocative, insightful and funny mixed with moments of pain and loneliness.

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