Rousseau Before Sunrise, Sunset, and Midnight

before sunrise 1

The “Before Trilogy” is a must see. You ought to. I write assuming the reader has a basic familiarity with all three. Ethan Hawke and Julie Delpy act so well that they make me want to repent of everything I’ve ever done. But it’s more than acting. Ethan and Julie helped to write the story. There’s such a deep unity among the acting, the dialogue, and the seeing that directs the camera. My wife thinks the phrase “the seeing that directs the camera” makes no sense and she’s probably right. I’m open for suggestions, but I am trying to capture this sense that the cinematographer is seeing their relationship clearly and truly, and the way that the camera moves seems to be in step with what’s happening between Ethan and Julie.

What follows are the connections I see between Rousseau’s last written work and these wonderful films. But you, as reader, must be willing to drudge through a little bit of drudgery as I summarize 100 pages of Rousseau in about 6 paragraphs.

Celine and Jesse walk together for three films. In Before Sunrise they walk throughout Vienna; in Before Sunset they walk throughout Paris; and Before Midnight they drive and walk through Messini, Greece. Only in Before Midnight is there a long, long pause in movement. But even then the movement of their ever-present dialogue escalates, rising on their desperate attempt at understanding themselves together.

Jean Jacques Rousseau also walked quite a bit. He walked St. Peter’s Island once in exile, and he walked Paris every day as a publicly rejected, dying old man. To his (seeming) great surprise, walking allowed for a unique way of engaging with the world. Walking with no destination in mind allowed his mind to wander in ways he’d rarely experienced while he was an important public figure.

When a public figure, his thoughts and steps were mostly governed by others, by duties, by maintaining social rapport. Though his departure from public life was traumatic and painfully extended, he discovered a priceless treasure in his newfound solitude – reverie. How the concept of reverie connects to the Before Trilogy is topic of this essay.

Reverie as a Philosophic Endeavor


For Rousseau, reverie was a real way of learning about himself, a philosophic endeavor. Athanasius wrote out his inner thoughts; Socrates engaged in the dialectic; Rousseau walked in solitude. In doing so he kept a kind of watch on his soul, to him, no less observant than a rigorous science, though much more delightful. It was like a farmer walking his fields to discover what has grown there.  No longer would he be thinking to answer society’s questions or defend his Catholic moral commitments. Whatever arose in his soul while strolling would be more truly his interests, and as such, he could learn about himself in a new way. He had found a new understanding of his own mind in its natural state.

“I consecrate my last days to studying myself and to preparing in advance the account I will give of myself for too long. Let me give myself up entirely to the sweetness of conversing with my soul. . . the leisurely moments of my daily walks have often been filled with charming periods of contemplation which I regret having forgotten. I will set down in writing those which still come to me and each time I reread them I will enjoy them anew. I will forget my misfortunes, my persecutors, my disgrace, while dreaming of the prize my heart deserved” (6). 

“Moreover, all the foreign ideas which pass through my head while I am walking will also find their place in them. I will say what I thought just as it came to me and with as little connection as the ideas of the day before ordinarily have with those of the following day. But a new understanding of my natural temperament and disposition will come from that all the same by means of a new understanding of the feelings and thoughts which constitute the daily fodder of my mind” (6).

Reverie as Innocent and Trusting


Reverie was a return to childhood, to trust, and to innocence. A child at play follows only his fancy and trusts wholly in where his pleasures lead him. For example, yesterday my child spent an hour in the laundry hamper. Rousseau became captivated by plants. Walking and conversing freely requires trusting one’s own inclinations and trusting the world as a place hospitable to you. This concept is intimately connected to solitude for Rousseau. Removing oneself from over-association with the corrupt world allows for this innocent, trustful, and playful endeavor occur.

“They will not prevent me from enjoying my innocence and from finishing my days in peace in spite of them” (8).  “I have only innocent inclinations” (89). 

“I saw no simpler and surer way to carry out this enterprise than to keep a faithful record of my solitary walks and of the reveries which fill them when I leave my head entirely free and let my ideas follow their bent without resistance or constraint. These hours of solitude and meditation are the only ones in the day during which I am fully myself and for myself, without diversion, without obstacle, and during which I can truly claim to be what nature willed” (12).

Therefore, an innocent soul is a condition of true reverie. In short, I think he means a soul that has no perverse instrumental thinking (e.g. how can I use people or the world to my advantage; how can I gain more than what has been given me). And for Rousseau, you cannot possibly keep yourself from instrumental thinking unless you carve out a healthy distance from the world, a.k.a solitude. [If you want to know more, read the book!]

Reverie as a Succession of Loves


In reverie there is no hypothesis or control group, no thesis and supporting evidence. There is only a succession of loves.

“The collection of my long dreams is scarcely begun . . . I give myself up to it with an infatuation which partakes of extravagance and which makes even me laugh when I think about it; but I give myself up to it nonetheless, because in  my present situation, I no longer have any rule of conduct than in everything to follow my propensity without restraint” (89).

Therefore, the following of one’s innocent loves is so deeply rich and pleasurable, he calls it extravagant.

Lastly, reverie has no utilitarian or instrumental thinking (as noted above). It meditates on things as they are, not how they can be used to our profit. It finds pleasure in being with, in passing through. The lack of instrumental thinking allows for meditation upon the whole of things.

“But enlivened by nature and arrayed in its nuptial dress amidst brooks and the song of birds, the earth, in the harmony of the three realms, offers man a spectacle filled with life, interest, and charm – the only spectacle in the world of which his eyes and his heart never weary. The more sensitive a soul a contemplator has, the more he gives himself up to the ecstasies this harmony arouses in him. A sweet and deep reverie takes possession of his senses then, and through a delicious intoxication he loses himself in the immensity of this beautiful system with which he feels himself one. Then, all particular objects elude him; he sees and feels nothing except in the whole” (92).

In sum, reverie refers to a free, love-driven wandering in-and-at the world that is extravagantly pleasurable, philosophic, and non-instrumental. Its conditions are solitude, innocence, and walking.

The Before Trilogy, intentionally or not, tests whether a kind of reverie is possible between lovers in dialogue. Can lovers attain a kind of innocence insofar as they truly love each other? Do they form their own solitude in the world? Can they truly be “what nature willed” and stay  together? Can an erotic relationship be a philosophic endeavor? I believe some essential features of reverie are embodied in the relationship Jesse has with Celine, and this provides some insight into the nature of their romantic love, as well as helps us to understand why Celine and Jesse’s relationship looks and feels the way that it does.

before sunset 2

Jesse and Celine form their own solitude when they fall in love. Walking and dialogueing happen by themselves and for themselves. The world is moved to the periphery even as they begin to move through it together. This solitude is felt in how the world appears to the couple, in a kind of remove their relationship has from all the places they pass through. In all three films, we pass through places of historical, philosophical, and artistic significance: Vienna, Paris, and Messini. But it’s an odd passage. Notre Dame appears and disappears so quickly– its meaning and significance obscured behind the unfolding relationship. Jesse does acknowledge the building, and even makes a statement about how the one Nazi in charge of blowing it up could not do so because of its beauty. But it’s gone before you know it. One almost wants to yell at them to stop talking about Notre Dame and start talking about what is of utmost importance to them (and us) – their relationship! Finally Jesse breaks past the veil of propriety and asks her why she never showed up 6 months after they originally met, like they had planned. This sets the stage for  the outpouring of truth from Celine about how miserable she has been without Jesse, of how angry she is that Jesse showed up in Paris having written a book about their relationship, having married and had a child, for being happy without her. Jesse responds by confessing his own unhappiness. Life apart from their love seemed like a sin against it. The gulf of time and space – 9 years on separate continents- did not break the solitude formed the night they met. It’s as if the world retains meaning insofar as it contributes to or inhibits their being together. Sex with many other men? Meh. Marriage? Meh. Being a famous author? Meh. Having a career as an enlightened, strong, feminist woman? Meh. What they have together is a meaning and experience only they have access to, and this creates a profound solitude they co-inhabit together. Their connection forms a conduit through which everything passes: places, memories, their thoughts and feelings. Countless meanings unfold around them as they walk and walk and walk. They rarely notice. Like reverie, they have no object except being together and knowing that being together. They wander about the world just as Rousseau wandered about Paris. What ends up passing between them is entirely a surprise, and whatever appears from the world feels like an epiphany from another realm.

Their constant movement, by foot, but which includes trains, cars, boats, and trams, allows for a freedom and fluidity of conversation nearly identical to what Rousseau describes in the Reveries. Of utmost importance is the lack of destination, which would amount to a minor level of instrumental thinking. “Moreover, all the foreign ideas which pass through my head while I am walking will also find their place in them. I will say what I thought just as it came to me and with as little connection as the ideas of the day before ordinarily have with those of the following day.” Jesse and Celine perfectly embody this careless passing of thoughts between them. Whatever bubbles up from within comes out, with as little regard for what came before as for what will come next. Externally, it seems like they jump from topic to topic, from childhood memories to politics, from Buddhism to non-profits. As a viewer we feel something deeper that connects these fragmentary ejaculations. And I’d like to posit that what is unifying is a coherent succession of loves.

Whatever they desire to say is said. Whatever they desire in the world is what directs their steps. What moves their dialogue and their strolling forward is their chief desire to be with the other. In this way the desire to be with the other is a centripetal force drawing all of their other desires into relation with another. Example: Jesse sees a boat and becomes excited at the opportunity to get on it. The boat is merely an occasion for being with the person he sees as utterly enchanting. Explanation: The boat is desirable insofar as it is conducive to their desire to be together. I think Jesse and Celine [and Rousseau] feel so free in the world precisely because they are so responsive to their own loves. I think of people who have spent so much of their life denying themselves something they want; what excitement and felt-freedom comes when they finally pursue it! Rousseau’s reverie and Celine and Jesse’s love feel so similar because both are constantly walking and submitting to a succession of loves. Their minds are free to co-wander in-and-at the world reflected between them, and in reflecting on it they can learn about themselves.

Rousseau wrote down the reveries he had while walking so that one day he could read them and re-experience anew the glorious delight he had once had in the world. This is not merely recalling a detailed visual of the past. [I think] Rousseau thought he could actually re-enter a past experience “through” his soul such that he could re-live and re-experience whatever goodness was present there. In that way, goodness and happiness could multiply within him like bread and fish once did for the hungry. We can visit happy memories again and again, and drink of their goodness again and again! When Jesse returns to America [in between the first and second film], he writes a book about his one night with Celine. With no hope of contacting Celine again, Jesse tries to capture his reverie in a book. When the book becomes the spark by which Jesse finds Celine, he admits that that, in part, was why he wrote it. The written word became the means by which he really did relive his reverie. The world of external laws barred the way. But the way of the heart called forth the seemingly impossible. The main point here is that yet another dimension of the Reveries is paralleled in the Before Trilogy – capturing a reverie in writing allowed for the rebirth of that reverie later on.

For our purposes there is only one thing that threatens reverie: The world of men. Let’s call it the false world. A sickly symbiotic relationship exists between this world and our false selves. Our false selves feed off of and are fed to this corrupt world; a dog eating its own vomit. Only through suffering can we become pure and return to the innocence of reverie. Rousseau speaks as if the corrupt world with its corrupt people try to break in upon reverie, ruin its resigned solitude, and call forth itself in us. Take anxiety, for example. Rousseau, traumatized by serial rejection and public humiliation, feels the weight of that sickness well up within him. It’s not just what they did, it’s what they did passing through Rousseau, powerfully calling upon him to react, to respond, to engage. But he can only do so at the cost of his resignation! He keeps walking instead. He listens for the birds, he holds onto his connection with himself and with the good world his Creator made.

I think it’s fairly obvious that the theological framework of the Before Trilogy is not the Christian one of Rousseau. There’s not a developed concept of a false self or a sinful world or creation as inherently good. However, there still is the world out there, the one that’s distinct from the solitude of their love, that does threaten their reverie because it demands their attention and service.

The last film is where their reverie is nearly lost for good. As much as their reverie seemed untouched by the world in the first two films, the third is where it goes through the ringer. We see how Jesse’s son from his first marriage pulls on Jesse’s heart. He wants to be with him and teach him all he knows, and Celine, though she won’t admit it, is really threatened by that. We see how the children in their own marriage demand the attention of Celine in consequential ways. We see at dinner how Celine resents men’s drive for sex along with their low self-esteem. Her comments are mostly directed at Jesse. We see how Celine’s own social justice work pulls her away from considering their love first. It is significant that the only time in the whole film (aside from the last shot) where they begin to resemble the innocent reverie they once enjoyed was when they walk together from the house to a hotel. During their walk their minds and hearts open up to each other. They laugh, they reminisce, they see themselves and the world with eyes of understanding. When they stop moving, the reverie stops. The pent up resentment towards each other erupts in a beautifully acted fight scene at the hotel. The relationship is only restored when Jesse and Celine are both willing to drop their resentment and their focus on the world outside of themselves, and return to a kind of playful, innocent, reverie together.

The Before Trilogy could be re-labelled The Reveries of Two Solitary Walkers. The look and feel of Jesse and Celine’s romance parallels the look and feel of Rousseau’s Reveries of the Solitary Walker because both have dialogue in solitude, walking, and movement in the world motivated by innocent love. The wondering at the world and themselves is unfettered because there is no particular destination, nor particular time, nor particular worldly goal they must submit to.

Whether or not this kind of reverie is sustainable between two lovers is an open question. Whether or not erotic love conforms to reality or truth is an open question as well. Their love obscures many things in the world as they pass by, like the ruins of ancient Greece they drive by in the last film, silently reminding the viewer of the death that comes to all. Is their love a fleeting lie in the face of it?

Like great art, this trilogy makes us really ask the question(s). Anyone who’s made it all to the way to the end of this post has an unending invitation to come over, watch these films, and go and walk with me as we discuss it.


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Jacob Carr