I should have been writing this on a boat to Alaska. My husband’s parents had just celebrated their golden wedding anniversary this past May, and as an informal extension of their big, Chinese banquet celebration in Oakland’s Chinatown, they had invited us to go with them on a cruise to Alaska. I had visions of blue-white glaciers, humpback whales, and zip-lining high above Sarah Palin’s wilderness frontier—instead, I’m getting on a late-night flight to Manila to be with my own parents who are going through serious health problems.
Fifty years is a lifetime. My parents-in-law are young enough to dance the night away to a live band performing Chinese Latin Ballroom (no, not a contradiction in terms) because my mother-in-law was 19 when she got married.
While I was helping welcome guests at the party, a couple of passersby came up to admire my in-laws’ black and white wedding photos displayed next to current day portraits. They asked me to congratulate the lucky celebrants for them. I sensed admiration, curiosity, doubt. As they glanced at the line dancing that started almost as soon as the band set up, these strangers must have been wondering what it took to make it to 50 years.
Earlier in the spring, I was on a flight to Paris. My third inflight movie was Michael Haneke’s Amour. Two things: first, if you haven’t already seen it, what is wrong with you? Second, if you don’t want to be caught openly crying in a plane full of strangers, choose something else as your third inflight movie.
A couple in their 80s deal with the aftermath of a debilitating stroke which leaves the wife half-paralyzed and wheelchair-bound. Confined to the blue-grey solitude of their sprawling apartment, they both face the devastating limits of mind and body. In an especially poignant scene the man helps his wife off the toilet, and the struggle to keep her upright results in a labored embrace of two bodies engaged in what is unmistakably their final waltz.
A few weeks later, Before Midnight opened. I rushed to see it, thinking it would be light and airy. How could it be anything but? They’re finally together. Well. Let’s just say I felt downright ambushed in that little Berkeley theater with the loungey couches. Fooled by Céline and Jesse (and their cute twin daughters) into thinking that the third installment of their love story, beginning when they were 23 and culminating two decades later on a Greek island paradise, would be a feel-good movie.
Theirs is now a much older love permeated by the upper case Real which can’t seem to leave anything alone, least of all perfection. Vibrating in the invisible crevices of satisfied coupledom and fulfilled parenthood is—what else—dissatisfaction and unfulfillment. I am suddenly reminded of that mysterious hint of bitter I get at the back of my tongue when I’ve had too much sweet (this is why I don’t do ice cream).
The third act of this third film is a knock-down, drag-out brawl. Their romantic hotel room becomes a cage, and Céline and Jesse ultimate fighters in a bruising verbal showdown. Difficult to watch and impossible to take sides. In the end I cling to a bit of hope that at least this dance is far from being over, and that perhaps another decade down the line they’ll still have something to teach us about keeping love and giving it away.
Dance, Rumi says. “Dance, when you’re broken open. Dance, if you’ve torn the bandage off. Dance in the middle of the fighting. Dance in your blood. Dance when you’re perfectly free.”
Image credit 2015: Luigi Torreggiani