This is an article I’ve been wanting to write for a while and I’ve finally gotten around to it. These are, undeniably, two of the best love stories put on film of all time, however they could not be more different. Although the whole ‘Before’ trilogy is magnificent, and every one is worth seeing for sure, I just want to look at the first one, “Before Sunrise”. In Richard Linklater’s 1995 masterpiece, we meet Jesse and Celine, who are on a train. They begin talking, and Jesse convinces her to get off the train with him in Vienna where they have one night talking and connecting before going their separate ways the next morning. It’s a minimalistic plot to say the least, but it’s a lesson in dialogue. In Ang Lee’s “Brokeback Mountain”, Ennis and Jack are assigned to be sheep herders up on a mountain one winter. They fall in love and form a bond that, whilst by no means easy or even happy for either of them, endures through a number of years and “fishing trips” together. They stay in love until the day Jack dies.
The most obvious difference is quite clearly that one is a heterosexual relationship, whilst the other is homosexual. It bears quite little relevance to the comparison, but it’s worth mentioning so no one thinks I didn’t notice. Although the story of both of these films is effectively the same: two people fall in love and meet their soulmate, the main difference is obviously the time frame. In “Before Sunrise”, Jesse and Celine are basically in love by the time they get off the train. They form an instant connection and by the end of the night it feels, to them and us, like they’ve known each other for years and years. Indeed, Jesse even says:
“Listen, if somebody gave me the choice right now, of to never see you again or to marry you, alright, I would marry you, alright. And maybe that’s a lot of romantic bullshit, but people have gotten married for a lot less.”
I mean, it seems ridiculous that someone could even think about marriage, after knowing someone for a day, it’s crazy. It’s crazy really that two people could even fall in love in a day. To be honest, it’s crazy, and inadvisable, that a woman got off the train with a random American man in a city neither of them live in. The whole premise is a bit far fetched on the surface. But what the film does beautifully is take one night and turn it into a deep, believable love story. By having one night, there’s no real difficulties they ever encounter, there’s nothing stopping them from believing that the other is their soulmate. By having one idyllic night together, their relationship is perfect. On the contrary, “Brokeback Mountain” takes us through years and years of problems, respective marriages, affairs, arguments and is probably a more “real” interpretation of soulmates. The idea of a soulmate in “Before Sunrise” is a person you meet and fall in love with instantly and want to be with them. In “Brokeback Mountain” it’s a person that, no matter how hard you try, you can’t keep yourself from. Over years and years you can’t separate yourself from that person. I mean, just look at the meetings between the two couples. Both Jesse and Celine were recently out of relationships and looking for love, and they luckily met the right person. Ennis and Jack were, by no means, looking for love at all, it just happened. Over time and after a lot of coldness, they gradually fall in love, and that forms a painful bond that they never break. Before they met, Ennis would never have been with a man. Heath Ledger even said that “I don’t think Ennis could be labeled as gay. Without Jack Twist, I don’t know that he ever would have come out”. The love they feel for each other is involuntary and I think that’s what makes it so powerful. Even after they sleep together, they fight, and although Jack is definitely at least bisexual, I actually don’t think Ennis was gay at all. Although he does show discomfort in his consequent heterosexual relationships, which some have suggested means he is gay, I just think that is because he’s in love with another person, rather than he doesn’t like women. There’s a level of intimacy he never achieves with women, not because of their gender, but because they’re just not Jack.
And if we’re talking about issues, my God do Jesse and Celine have it easier. They get the luxury of being young, in love and heterosexual. Ennis and Jack develop a relationship that was socially unacceptable to say the least. Ennis tells us the story about the gay man that was killed in his home town which always haunts him. Not to mention the marriages they have, with women I believe they both did love, just not anywhere near as much as they loved each other. The happiest they are in their marriages is before they meet for the second time, because it had been long enough that they’d almost forgotten about how much they loved each other. After they reunite, their marriages and other relationships are never the same, because they regularly meet and can’t stop thinking about each other. As Jack famously says, “I wish I knew how to quit you.”.
Time is definitely what separates these two films, “Before Sunrise” is like the most optimistic view of love. You meet someone on a train, immediately fall in love, talk about deep, philosophical, (pretentious) things and connect on a spiritual level. I guess that’s what lots of people want. Alternatively “Brokeback” is more what you get than what you want. It’s pessimistic and gives the message that love just happens, whether you want it or not. It’s a deeply human connection that the two share, as Heath Ledger said: “I think the whole point was that it was two souls that fell in love with each other”. “Brokeback” actually reminded me of a quote from “How I Met Your Mother”, where Ted says:
“But love doesn’t make sense! I mean, you can’t logic your way in or out of it. Love is totally non-sensical. But we have to keep doing it, or else we’re lost, and love is dead, and humanity should just pack it in. Because love is the best thing we do. Look, I know that sounds cheesy, but it’s just true. You love Barney, and he loves you. And that doesn’t have to make sense… to make sense.”
Jack and Ennis’ love doesn’t make sense. They can’t logic their way out of it, even though they want to, despite how painful it gets they just stay in love. However, “Before Sunrise” is basically the opposite. They do magic their way into love, and their love is definitely sensical. I’m not saying that “Before Sunrise” is the worst film, I’m just saying it goes against the random quote I pulled from a beloved American sitcom. I don’t know how much weight that carries as a criticism…
Fundamentally, the films are about the same thing, which is two people falling in love. Both relationships are believable, and the acting from Hawke, Delpy, Gyllenhaal and Ledger is all as good as you can hope to see, but I think the key difference comes from the way the two couples think about leaving each other. When Celine gets on her train, the two share an emotional kiss and arrange to meet each other again. They are so in love that they cannot bear to not be together. It’s really beautiful. However, in “Brokeback”, the two are so in love and scared of it. Jack wants to be with Ennis, but Ennis is too afraid, which pushes Jack away before he delivers his most famous quote: ‘I wish I knew how to quit you.” Ennis goes on to apportion blame to Jack for how in love he is with him. It’s not happy at all, it’s painful and confusing and Ennis wishes he’d never met Jack, because he can never live his life the same way with him in it. (The acting by both actors in that scene is some of the best of all time. Just saying.)
This has been pretty rambling, because I have so much to say, but I’ll try and sum up the difference in one sentence. “Before Sunrise” shows us a love that is so happy that you wish you’d had it all your life, and you hope to have it for the rest of your life. “Brokeback Mountain” shows a love that you cannot ever break, a connection so strong and so life-changing that you’re scared of it, and leads you to wish you had never met that person. They’re both incredible films and if you’ve seen one, watch the other, if you’ve seen neither, watch both.