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Occidental, CA, USA



Therapeutic Movie Review Column

By Birgit Wolz, Ph.D., MFT

Before Sunset

Director: Richard Linklater
Producers: Richard Linkater, Anne Walkerk-McBay
Screenwriters: Richard Linklater, Julie Delpy, Ethan Hawke
Cast: Ethan Hawke, Julie Delpy, Vernon Dobtcheff
MPAA Rating: R
Year of Release: 2004


Before Sunset is the sequel to Linklater's 1995 Before Sunrise, the tale of two strangers, a traveling Texan, Jesse, and a Parisian graduate student, Celine, who meet in Vienna on a train and spent an intoxicating evening together, walking, talking, and making love, before parting at sunrise. They didn't know each other's last names or addresses they staked everything on that promise to meet again in six months.

Now, nine years later, Jesse is enjoying the success of his first book, a romantic novel based on their short romance. Celine shows up at his book signing in Paris. They begin to talk, initially modestly and awkwardly, as they walk through the city, before he must catch his flight back to his wife and young son in New York. A long dialogue, played in real time, follows.

A lot of the subject matter in their dialog deals with the bitterness and frustration that comes with failed relationships. Jesse confesses that, while he was on the way to his wedding, all he could think about was Celine. I feel like I'm running a small nursery with someone I used to date, is how he matter-of-factly sums up the condition of his marriage. Celine relates better to men when they have careers that take them on the road, like her present beau, a photographer.

Jesse is a New York intellectual: insightful, self-absorbed, and still wowed by art, literature, and culture. Celine is a passionate pessimist when it comes to world ecology, despairing about whether she makes a difference in her work for an environmental group.

Finally they admit that they should have taken each other's address and telephone numbers after their enchanted night in Vienna and discuss the reunion they had promised to have. It turns out that Celine's beloved grandmother died, and she was unable to be there. Jesse did show up and was heartbroken when she did not appear. Reaching a new low in his life, he explored Buddhism.

This first step allows them to slowly open up and reveal how rare it is to meet someone they feel an instinctive connection with. What they are really discussing, between the many words, is the possibility that they missed a life they would have wanted to spend together. Jesse eventually confesses that he wrote his book and came to Paris for a book signing because that was the only way he could think of to find her again. A little later, in a subtle moment of body language, she reaches out to touch him and then pulls back her hand before he sees it.

Celine's gesture is symbolic for their interactions throughout the main part of the movie. As soon as one of them makes a tiny step toward emotional vulnerability, he or she gets scared and very soon retreats defensively again or becomes sarcastic. This wounds the other one, who closes down in response too. Their fear of emotional intimacy makes obvious why Jesse and Celine had been afraid to exchange numbers or addresses when they first met.

But the two recognize that in this second meeting stakes are higher: life's opportunities may now be fewer, or may have been missed altogether. A tug of suspense comes not only from his waiting plane to the US but also from the need to grab at chance and from the comparatively larger deadline of age. Jesse and Celine are finally able to stop playing protective games, reveal their deeper truths and plunge into the bottomless depth of their souls.

Before Sunset recognizes the obstacles that can be involved with love while showing two characters slowly realizing its preciousness and sanctity.

Cinema Alchemy:

Before Sunset is an excellent movie to support the work with clients who fear vulnerability and intimacy.

My client, Cindy, felt confused and worried when she recently came to her session. The previous night she had become very angry with her boyfriend, John, and yelled at him. This led to a big fight. Now she felt bad because she understood that the small mistake he had made when they cooked dinner together did not justify her acting out that way. As we explored her reaction Cindy learned that the real reason for her response was her emotional hurt about his plans to leave the next morning for a two-week fishing trip with friends. This made her feel excluded and abandoned.

Toward the end of her session Cindy contemplated whether it would help to apologize, but she was afraid this would make her look stupid, needy, and weak. She believed that John might take advantage of her vulnerability, criticize her, or push her away. Then she would feel even worse.

I suggested to my client to watch Before Sunset and gave her the guidelines, which are mentioned below. I also explained that how we respond to different movie characters can show us who we are. We learn most from characters who touched us with their charisma, attitude, looks, demeanor, or actions. If we admire a certain capacity in a character, we usually carry a seed of this ability inside us. Nurturing this seed will help it grow.

When Cindy came back, a week later, she especially remembered the scenes in the movie where Celine and Jesse look like they put themselves emotionally out on a limb. My client commented that they appear emotionally vulnerable but not weak at all. In fact, they looked weak to her when they played their defensive games, and seemed courageous and strong when they were emotionally open and authentic.

The longer we talked about her viewing experience, the more Cindy felt inspired. She identified with Celine, especially with her glib, sarcastic, guarded, and distant attitude with which the character protects herself from being seen with her hurt feelings. Cindy admired Celine when she opens her heart and becomes genuine toward the end of the movie. My client stated What Celine demonstrates, I can do too.

Cindys perception of her boyfriend changed as well. Remembering how the two movie characters affect each other, she realizes that John and she will have an opportunity to experience more emotional closeness as soon as she tells him the truth about the hurt she had felt beneath her anger and apologizes for her yelling.

Guidelines for clients who struggle with fear of emotional intimacy:

Keep the following questions in mind while you watch:

• What parts of the movie touch you most?

• What character do you most identify with and when?

• What enables Celine and Jesse to express their emotional truth eventually?

Questions after the movie:

• What makes you afraid of emotional intimacy (explore history)?

• What can you learn from Celine and Jesse?

• Can you imagine yourself with the courage to express the truth about your hurt and/or your love although you feel scared?

Birgit Wolz wrote the following continuing education online courses;

Cinema Therapy - Using the Power of Movies In the Therapeutic Process, which guides the reader through the basic principles of Cinema Therapy.

Cinema Therapy with Children and Adolescents - This course teaches Cinema Therapy with young clients. It includes numerous movie suggestions, which are categorized according to age and issues. It serves therapists, teachers, and parents.

Positive Psychology and the Movies: Transformational Effects of Movies through Positive Cinema Therapy - This course teaches how to develop clinical interventions by using films effectively in combination with positive psychotherapy. It serves for mental health practitioners and anybody who is interested in personal growth and emotional healing.

Therapeutic Ethics in the Movies - What Films Can Teach Psychotherapists About Ethics and Boundaries in Therapy, which covers: confidentiality, self-disclosure, touch, dual relationships and out-of-office experiences (i.e., home visits, in-vivo exposures, attending a wedding, incidental encounters, etc.)

Boundaries and the Movies - Learning about Therapeutic Boundaries through the Movies, which covers informed consent, gifts, home office, clothing, language, humor and silence, proximity and distance between therapist and client, and, finally, sexual relations between therapist and client.

DSM: Diagnoses Seen in Movies - Using Movies to Understand Common DSM Diagnoses.

Psychodynamic Diagnostic Manual (PDM) - A New Approach to Diagnosis in Psychotherapy