AESTHETICS FOR BIRDS

Aesthetics and Philosophy of Art for Everyone

“WE ARE EVERYTHING AND WE ARE NOTHING”: AN INTERVIEW WITH ACTOR AND FILMMAKER JULIE DEPLY

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What follows is a guest post by Hans Maes (University of Kent) and Katrien Schaubroeck (University of Antwerp).

As part of Routledge’s Philosophers on Film series, Hans Maes and Katrien Schaubroeck are editing a volume on the so-called Before trilogy directed by Richard Linklater. The trilogy chronicles the love of Jesse (Ethan Hawke) and Celine (Julie Delpy) who first meet up in Before Sunrise (1995), later reconnect in Before Sunset (2004) and finally experience a fall-out in Before Midnight (2013). Not only do the individual films present storylines and dilemmas that invite philosophical discussion, but philosophical conversation itself is at the very heart of the films.

Julie Delpy, who co-wrote the trilogy and was twice nominated for an Academy Award (best adapted screenplay) for Before Sunset and Before Midnight, agreed to be interviewed for the book because, as she explains, she has a soft spot for philosophy. What follows is an excerpt from that interview. The full text will be included in the volume that is scheduled to appear in 2021 and that will contain contributions from Christopher Cowley (University College Dublin), Diane Jeske (University of Iowa), James MacDowell (University of Warwick), Hans Maes (University of Kent), Kalle Puolakka (University of Helsinki), Anna Christina Ribeiro (Texas Tech University), Katrien Schaubroeck (University of Antwerp), Marya Schechtman (University of Illinois), Michael Smith (Princeton University), and Murray Smith (University of Kent).

How would you describe your relation to philosophy? Is it something you’re interested in or have been interested in?

The last year of school in France you study philosophy. For me it was finally something I was interested in. I was interested in literature as well, but philosophy was my favorite subject matter and actually I got my Baccalaureate only because of philosophy. Every other matter was a disaster because I didn’t go to school in that last year. I didn’t have time. I was shooting movies, you know. The only subject matter that was going to save me was philosophy, because I had read tons of philosophers and I knew the programme by heart. So I got 20 over 20. That was unusual, unheard of even. It was in the newspapers! And then I didn’t pursue it as a study just because I went into film and had to make a living. I had no time to study or go to school and didn’t have the money anyway. I needed to make a living because I wasn’t living with my parents anymore from the age of 17. But I kept on reading quite a lot.

I would say that philosophy, weirdly enough, is a state of mind. Some people are attuned to it and some people are not. Like I have a friend who’s very much into literature but not into philosophy. It’s a very different thing. I’m more interested in philosophy than literature. And within literature what I like is philosophy-driven literature. Philosophy studies human behavior but it’s a little more scientific than literature. And that is the part I loved about philosophy, basically.

Is there one philosophical question or one particular philosopher that you often return to in life?

No, not really. I remember reading a ton of different philosophers when I was in my teens and then in my early twenties. And you know what, it kind of became part of my thinking in a way. I read everything. From Plato to Marx to political philosophy to Alain. I just didn’t stop. I remember reading the entire encyclopedia of philosophy, which was like a 5000 pages. But I don’t remember being into one philosopher in particular. Though, at one point I was really into Cioran, a French philosopher who was very depressed. They’re not always happy, philosophers, you know… (laughs)

When Celine and Jesse first meet on the train in Before Sunrise they are both reading a book. Interestingly, your character is reading a book by a philosopher: Georges Bataille’s Histoire de l’oeil (Story of the Eye). Was that your choice?

Yes!

And why that book?

I don’t remember why exactly, but I think I was reading it at the time and I really enjoyed it. What is really interesting to me is that it is a book that translates poorly in English. Because sexual slang in French can be very poetic and it’s not super poetic in English. It’s like there is something very lovely in French with dirty words. You can have beautiful poetry in English, and everything. But within the sexual realm poets like Rimbaud and Baudelaire created a beauty that just doesn’t translate in English. French has a dirty language that is very poetic. It comes from the gutter, the streets of Paris.

Bataille connects love, sex, and death in several interesting ways. Eroticism, as he once put it, is assenting to life up to the point of death. Isn’t this idea – that one has to fully acknowledge death in order to live one’s life to the fullest extent – one of the key themes of Before Sunrise?

You know, even though we were not credited for it, Ethan and I wrote most of that first film. And I was obsessed with death. I am still obsessed with it. Death is all around us. In my life it has been a constant presence. I always make a joke that the first word I learned was ‘dead’/‘mort’, because I found a little cat in the garbage which my father had put to sleep without telling me. I spent my childhood exposed to really terrifying things, like kids dying, accidents, and stuff that’s really, really dark. So I was raised with this constant fear and anxiety about death. But there was nothing about death in the original screenplay that Richard sent me. Ethan and I added a lot about transience and mortality. So I would say it’s a little bit my fault that there’s so much about death in the first film, because that’s something I talk about quite constantly.

[…]

As one of the writers of the Before films, you have been crucial in ensuring that the films strike a balance between the male and female perspective. Has this been a smooth process, or was it sometimes a struggle to get the balance right?

They listen to me like I’m their boss. (laughs) Because they know I am the only woman in the room, right? They are really smart guys. They know they have to pay attention. I think Richard immediately understood the minute he met Ethan and me, even at the audition, that the part of the woman was going to be very important. If there was no balance, if it was a male fantasy about falling in love with a woman – I even talk about this in the film! – it was just going to be another boys film. Richard understood that what was going to make this film special was to listen to the female voice as well, such that it was balanced. So every time I’m in the room with them, and we have done it three times now, I can tell that they are listening to everything I have to say. Even if I say bullshit they listen. I know they will listen very carefully.

But do all three films succeed in giving equal weight to both perspectives? We’re asking because one of our contributors has argued that Before Midnight seems more closely aligned with Jesse than Celine. For instance, when they fight and Celine storms out of the hotel room the camera stays with Jesse, not Celine. So we don’t see Celine’s emotional turmoil. Instead, we are invited to take up Jesse’s perspective in a series of POV shots.

Well, maybe that’s because in the end there are two men in the room? After all, Richard is the director, so he decides who he keeps the camera on. The writing is the writing, and then the directing is the directing. Even though we contribute to the locations, the rehearsals, how we should do this and that… Richard has the decision-making power. He decided to make it a little more Jesse, you know. Which is fine, he is the director. He chose to tell how Jesse feels about her storming out and not about how she feels about it. You can only balance as much as you can as a writer and actor.

In light of this, we are wondering what your views on the so-called ‘auteur theory’ are. Would you say that the Before films are the product of an auteur, that is, someone whose individual style and control over all elements of production give the films their personal and unique stamp? Or are there rather multiple auteurs in this case?

Those films are really the creation of the three of us. Even Richard would say this. Because he makes different films when he is on his own, I make different films when I am on my own, Ethan does different things. But when we get together, it is like we are the Beatles. (laughs) There were the Beatles, and then Paul went his way, George his way, John, Ringo… It is a silly comparison but it is funny. My son’s obsessed with them that’s why I’m mentioning, not comparing talent of course!

When the Before films are discussed they are often compared to other Linklater films, but much less often to other films you have made, even though there are many interesting parallels between the Before films and, say, Two Days in Paris (2007) and Two Days in New York (2012). How do you see the relation between these different film projects of yours? To what extent were you inspired by the Before films and in what respect did you want to do something very different?

I didn’t want to do anything as romantic. Because I put all my romanticism in the Before films. In Two Days I wanted more the journey of a woman who cannot find love in a way, who cannot find peace, and who is not defined by one love. In the Before films you have a woman and a man who are defined by this one love. We see them in love at 20, reconnect at 30, and disconnect maybe at 40 (or at least, their relationship is challenged). In Two Days it is more about the journey of one person. And it’s quirkier and funnier and sillier, and there is family and friends involved. I didn’t want to make it about the same two people. And I wasn’t really inspired by the Before films, because they are very, very different.

Celine and Jesse do seem to be defined by this one love, although other types of love are acknowledged, especially in Before Midnight: love for one’s children, love of a profession, the friendship around the table when they are having dinner. Do you think that romance or romantic love is overrated?

Romance is a very small part of love. You have all sorts of love. My love for my son is as powerful as any love I’ve had for anyone, if not more powerful. But it’s not portrayed as often. People love to talk about romantic love. But the love for my son is a 1000 times more powerful than any love story I have experienced. No one talks about it. I would give my kidneys, my liver, my brain to him, you know if he needed it.

In a way, you did thematize this in your recent film Lolo, right?

Yes, but that is a comedy. It’s not a very serious film. My next film is more about the true madness that it is to feel love for a child. You are going through uncharted territory. To me that’s the tough love. I didn’t know that until I had a son.

Are you referring to the film My Zoë?

Yes. It took me forever (until I had my son at 39) to suddenly realize that being a mother might be as interesting as falling in love with a man. When I was young, I was extremely romantic. You know, Romeo and Juliet, impossible love, eternal love, blah blah blah. But the truth is, when you get older, you realize there are other kinds of love and, for me, the love for children tops everything… My husband knows this, he’s ok with it. (laughs)

You mention Romeo and Juliet and stories of eternal love. If you expect your life or your relationship to match such stories, you are asking for trouble. Most people know this. At the same time, we turn to stories because they help us to make sense of the world. That’s arguably why filmmakers like yourself make movies. That’s why the characters in the Before films constantly tell each other stories, in an attempt to come to grips with reality. So, in your view, are stories mainly helpful or deceitful? And what about the story that you’ve helped to create, that of Celine and Jesse? Is that a helpful tale or a deceitful fancy?

Well, we tried to make it real. We did not try to fool people. But it is a fantasy. It never happened to me, it never happened to Ethan. It sort of happened to Richard but it wasn’t like that, it wasn’t as romantic. Everybody has had one night stands, but they are not always super romantic. They can be very unromantic, too. That would be the 20-minute version of Before Sunrise: they fuck on the train, they are done, they leave. Boom. Get it over with.

Do stories damage? Of course, it’s a little bit like – this may sound mundane and boring – Instagram. You look at pictures of friends on holiday. You are in Greece, the most beautiful place of the world, and your friend is in Italy and you see her pictures and you think: What the fuck am I doing in Greece when I could be in Italy? You feel miserable. And then you go home and you see that friend and she says: where we were in Italy was the worst, the food was disgusting, it was a filthy place… And you go: What?! What do you mean? It looked like it was heaven? It is all in the representation of things. And it does make people feel bad. It is like news about famous people. It makes you feel bad about your life. Or it makes you feel good when you hear they have a miserable life. It’s always this idea of representing something which is not real. That is storytelling. Instagram is another version of storytelling that people do now. A terrible one, but it exists. It’s part of our world now.

What does story telling do to people? It is making them dream, it is making them suffer as well. But can we stop storytelling? I don’t think so. People are living on it. They like it. They like being told a fantasy. Little girls dream about prince charming, they still do. Then they end up with a fucking drunk or just a regular guy and they are miserable their whole life thinking they did not get the good guy. But the reality is very simple. It’s as good as it gets. Life is a very simple thing. There is nothing extraordinary usually in life. 99, 99% of people have a very normal life. That is the way it is. Maybe Before Midnight is the closest thing to what life is. The first and second film are completely romantic fantasies, right? Connecting and reconnecting. The third one, which I like in part the best for that reason, is about the difficulties of being together. It is not as rosy. Some people were like: ‘Oh shit, why did you break the romance?’ But the truth is: how do you sustain a perfect romantic relationship of ten years? It becomes a whole other thing, you know?

[…]

Celine and Jesse often reflect on the human condition in their conversations and in that respect the films address themes that are timeless. But in another respect they are also very much of their time. You mentioned Instagram just now: the internet and social media weren’t there when Before Sunrise was made. It was a different world. That you could lose track of someone for nine years, without any trace, might be hard to grasp for millennials with their smart phones and online profiles. Or do you think that the twentysomethings of today will be able to relate to the films in the way that we did?

Celine and Jess could have exchanged phone numbers, but they decided not to. If they had exchanged phone numbers they could have at least warned each other if they weren’t able to show up. But they decide not to do that out of some completely impossible romantic idea – a Romeo and Juliet type of thing, you know. Of course they didn’t meet up. This was a set-up for romantic ideas – impossible romantic ideas – which we picked up from the first film to put in the second film. It was a good set-up to add some kind of fuel to an impossible love story. The thing is, you could still do it today. You could still say, we don’t exchange Instagram etc. You could still set it up that way. But in a way, I don’t think it matters. You watch movies from the 80s and you’re still interested, even if the characters don’t have cell phones or internet and are not on Instagram. You still go for stories, you know? My son is 11 but he constantly watches films from the 80s, from the 70s, from the 60s. He loves older films, and he really doesn’t give a shit that there is not all this technology. He kind of likes it actually. He’d say ‘Mum, it was so cool back then’.

What about conversations? Celine and Jesse really master the art of conversation, but is that an art that will be lost now that everyone is on WhatsApp and Twitter?

No, not necessarily. You know what the problem is right now? I’m afraid we are getting dumber. Because we’re only reading the headlines. At least in America right now. I don’t know how it is in Europe, but here more and more people are just reading the headlines. We rarely read an article from beginning to end. And it becomes a problem because we do not have a deep knowledge of things. We have a lot of information, but it is superficial. If you have a superficial kind of knowledge how deep can your conversation be?

You should do a philosophical book on Idiocracy, you know, the Mike Judge movie? That’s the future of humanity. Even more so than 1984. Because I think we are getting dumber. I am not saying everyone, but I am talking about a good portion of the population. Lack of education is a real problem. And especially good free education for everyone. A lot of people in America think that Covid is a hoax, and that it is fake news. So, I think we need to be very, very careful, because if that number of people grows, we are finished. Humanity is done for. We are not going to make it because our stupidity will bring us to destroy the planet completely.

If you are not interested in the depth of things, you cannot have long conversations because you don’t have anything to say. You are like: oh let’s take a picture, let’s take a selfie. We can do the 2020 version of Before Sunrise: they meet on the train, they take a selfie, they fuck in the toilet. (laughs) Only, I don’t think people will like that version. Because young people are still hungry for romance. It’s a natural need. People want to be in love. People don’t want superficial stuff. But society is trying to drag us towards stupidity. Because it is easier to control stupid people than it is to control intelligent people who can think for themselves. I think it’s going to change because the younger generation – not the ‘inbetweeners’ who kind of got lost in the middle – but the youngest generation: they want social justice, they want to be heard. But people have to go deep into subject matters.

They have to read philosophy, basically.

Can we put this on the cover of our book?

Sure! The truth is: education is everything, right? The fact that in France, in the last year of school, you have philosophy, that makes all the difference. If you are poor and go to a public school, you have philosophy. I was raised with no money, I did not go to a private school, I went to the most basic public school you can imagine, but I had philosophy. I believe that if you have one year of philosophy in your teens, it will change you forever. It will change you into another person. Just that. It is funny, you know, because I agreed to do this interview because I am actually very adamant that philosophy should be mandatory in schools. Because it makes you think for yourself for the rest of your life. And America needs it more than any other country in the world. Every American should be exposed to philosophy, so they can think for themselves. The people that have the money to go to school, yes, they can study philosophy here. But it should be mandatory. When you are 15 you should study philosophy before you end school.

They are trying to destroy that in France, too, you know? It is one of the most tragic things. They are trying to remove philosophy, whereas I think it’s what defines French people. When I go to France I feel that I am in a country with people who are thinking for themselves. That really is because most had to go through that one year of philosophy, whether you like it or not.

You mentioned social justice and that brings us to another question we wanted to ask. What would you say to those who want to dismiss the Before trilogy as films for privileged straight white people?

Jesse and Celine are privileged, straight, and white, yes. But you can’t deny that such people exist, right? That would be ridiculous. And truly, I know a lot of people that are not straight, not white, not privileged who love the films. Really, I think it is media bullshit. Because the media, who are 90% white and privileged and straight, are trying to put into people’s heads that it is a war between white and black. You know what, the streets have the true voice. And when you were on the streets during the demonstrations a few weeks ago, it was white, black, Asian, gay, straight, trans, young and old. No age, no colour, no nothing. The reality of people. People are people you know. And leaders and the media is something else.

Making a film about two people falling in love who happen to be white and straight … that’s our story. If someone wants to tell their story, they should tell their story, you know, and be given the chance to tell their story, obviously. Things are changing now. And I am happy to see a film of two non-white, non-straight, non-privileged people falling in love. And I have seen some. But why shouldn’t we talk about what’s personal. For me, it’s easier to talk about a white woman falling in love.

We want to end with a more existential question: What, for you, constitutes a meaningful life? Is it easy for you to experience life as meaningful, or does it often appear absurd and meaningless to you?

We are everything and we are nothing. It is just the big paradox of being alive. We’re tiny details, yet we are details. Each life, you know? In the realm of the universe, we are absolutely nothing. Yet we are so meaningful to some people. It’s a paradox. Sometimes, yes, it seems absurd.

What is the most absurd to me is consciousness: the consciousness of being alive, the possibility of thinking, the complexity of thought. And all this is gone the minute you die – unless you live in Philip K Dick’s UBIK, where you can still talk to the dead a little bit because they are only semi-dead, never completely dead. But that is not the case. When you are done, you die, and your consciousness is gone. And the only thing that is left, is basically your children and whatever trace you left. And, anyway, that trace then becomes someone else’s story because people will change what you said. People will make it their own. I was about to adapt the story of Janis Joplin – it’s not going happen because the rights are blocked, but it was so interesting to figure out. There are different versions of her death. No one knows what happened exactly. Some people said she OD’d, but others say that she didn’t OD, that she was sick. I heard many stories. What really happened? She was madly in love with a guy in Brazil, but some other people say that is bullshit and that she was in love with her drug dealer. So you have all these different stories. And in the end she is dead. She cannot tell us what her story is. So when you die, you are done, and you are done with telling your story. Even if you’re not a public figure, a family member may change the story of who you were. It’s kind of a second death, to me. Not only are you dead, but now people are telling your story from their point of view and it’s completely biased.

There is something very absurd about all this. But that is the way it is, you know. And the best thing you can do is raise your children well and do some gardening. And that’s about it.

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