A Trilogy of Melancholy: On the bittersweet in Before Sunrise, Before Sunset, and Before Midnight

In Hans Maes & Katrien Schaubroeck (eds.), Philosophers on Film: Before Sunrise, Before Sunset, Before Midnight. London: Routledge (forthcoming)
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Melancholy is a central expressive property of the Before films and key to understanding and appreciating the trilogy as a whole. That, in a nutshell, is the thesis I develop in this paper. In the first section, I present a philosophical account of melancholy in general and aesthetic melancholy in particular. Melancholy is understood here as the profound and bittersweet emotional experience that occurs when we vividly grasp a harsh truth about human existence in such a way that we come to appreciate certain aspects of life more deeply. The second section of the paper focuses on the many intense as well as more subtle moments of melancholy in the various encounters between Celine and Jesse. These moments, I argue, are partly prompted by the environment and the circumstances in which they find themselves. But both of them also actively seek out and create such moments by the stories they tell and the reflections they engage in. That seems part of who they are as individuals and, I contend, it may be part of what attracts them to each other. In the third section, I address ‘film expression’, as opposed to ‘character expression’, and argue that melancholy is not just present in the characters’ dialogue and in their facial and bodily expressions but is also expressed through various cinematic means. The final section centres on the audience and the reception of the Before trilogy. I introduce the distinction between expression and expressiveness and suggest that the films may have resonated deeply with some viewers because they are so expressive of melancholy.
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