Joyce, film and allusion

Julie Delpy and Ethan Hawke in Before Sunrise
Julie Delpy and Ethan Hawke in Before Sunrise

I recently watched the Richard Linklater trilogy, Before Sunrise, Before Sunset and Before Midnight, which trace the romance over nineteen years between Céline (played by Julie Delpy) and Jesse (played by Ethan Hawke). They are much loved films and have been much discussed. All I need to say about what I thought of them in general is that the first was very good, the second looked a bit rushed, and the third was better than the second.

But one aspect of the trilogy intrigued me, and that was the connection to the works of James Joyce. The first film, Before Sunrise (1994), takes place on June 16th (the date is specifically referenced in the film), which is the day on which Joyce’s novel Ulysses is set (‘Bloomsday’). Before Sunrise takes place on a single day and involves the traversing of a city, substituting Vienna for Dublin. Joyce chose the date 16 June 1904 as the setting for Ulysses as it was the first day that he stepped out with his future wife, Nora Barnacle, and the accidental meeting of Céline and Jesse (who tells her that his real name is James), and the romance that then follows, consciously echoes this. And, just to add to the associations, while at university James Joyce translated a play by the German writer Gerhart Hauptmann – its title, Vor Sonnenaufgang, or Before Sunrise.

It does look like Linklater read James Joyce’s biography around the time that he first conceived of the film: the young man touring Europe on his way to becoming an author, with the guiding point of his imaginative and personal life being that crucial day when he met up with Céline/Nora. The film, as with the novel, is about a life in a day. And this idea continues with its successors.

Ethan Hawke answering questions in Shakespeare and Company bookshop, in Before Sunset
Ethan Hawke answering questions in Shakespeare and Company bookshop, in Before Sunset

Before Sunset (2004), the sequel which takes place nine years later, opens with Jesse giving a presentation on a novel he has written (based on his meeting with Céline, who comes to the reading, thus triggering the romance once again). It’s at Shakespeare & Company, a celebrated bookshop on the Left Bank in Paris. The original Shakespeare and Company, which was run by Sylvia Beach in the 1920s, was located at the 6th arrondissement; the present shop is in the 5th arrondissement, and was named in honour of Beach’s shop. James Joyce visited the original shop regularly, and it was Shakespeare and Company that published Ulysses in 1922.

So the Joycean connection is continued, but it is the third film, Before Midnight (2013), that is the most intriguingly if obscurely Joycean in theme. Jesse and Céline are now a couple with two children, and are holidaying in Greece. Greece is the home of the Homeric myths, of course, but the specific Joycean reference occurs when Céline recalls a black-and-white film from her teenage years which had a powerful impact on her, particularly a scene in which a couple visit Pompeii and see the bodies mummified by the volcanic explosion. She doesn’t name the film, but it is Viaggio in Italia (1954), or Voyage to Italy, Roberto Rossellini’s film about a couple’s sterile marriage, the couple being played by Ingrid Bergman and George Sanders.

Céline and Jesse are similarly becalmed, and that might be all there is to the subtle referencing of Rossellini’s film. But Voyage to Italy is also loosely based on James Joyce’s short story, ‘The Dead’, the tale of a seemingly happy marriage troubled by lingering thoughts about the past. It’s not a scene-for-scene remake; rather it is a loose homage, with a specific echo when Bergman’s character recalls a boy who may have died for love of her, just as Gretta Conroy does in Joyce’s story. It is a reference point for those who want to think more deeply about the film, though just in case you have missed the point there are the names of Sanders and Bergman’s characters: Mr and Mrs Joyce.

Before Midnight, at the point where Julie Delpy's character recalls seeing Voyage to Italy
Before Midnight, at the point where Julie Delpy’s character recalls seeing Voyage to Italy

How much further can we play this game? Jean-Luc Godard’s Le Mépris (1963), aka Contempt, is partly an homage to Voyage to Italy, being as it is the story of an estranged husband and wife (Michel Piccoli and Bridget Bardot) in Italy. Much of the drama concerns the production of a film of Homer’s Odyssey aka Ulysses.

Literary films are too often produced, and subsequently critiqued, as facsimiles of what appears on the printed page, the plain conversion of a narrative from book to screen, with all of your favourite scenes and characters intact, or so you hope. This is a very narrow way of looking at literary adaptation. What is far more interesting is the oblique reference, the quoting of particular scenes, the echoing of themes, the suggestion of a connection to enrich appreciation. I have had a lot to do with Shakespeare on film in my time, and one thing I’ve been keen to promote is how a Shakespeare film can be just as much one with sly references to the plays as the plain transference of stage text to screen. It is just the case with other writers.

Back in 1995 I co-programmed a season of James Joyce films at the National Film Theatre with Phil Crossley. We put our programme together in Joycean spirit. We included obvious titles like Joseph Strick’s Ulysses, Mary Ellen Bute’s Passages from Finnegans Wake, John Huston’s The Dead, and television plays based on Joyce’s work, including the little-known BBC play, Bloomsday (1964), based on Ulysses. We had a special programme of films known to have been shown at the Volta cinema in Dublin, which Joyce briefly managed at the end of 1909. But we also showed Voyage to Italy and Le Mépris, and then had much fun including Groundhog Day, whose theme of a man caught in an eternal daily round might be seen to have Joycean echoes, but chiefly we chose it because Groundhog Day is February 2nd, which was Joyce’s birthday.

I wish we had been bolder. I wanted us to include The Producers (1968), simply because Gene Wilder’s character is called Leo Bloom, the same as Joyce’s hero. That didn’t seem to be connection enough, but later someone pointed out to me that Wilder’s co-star, Zero Mostel had achieved great success in 1957 playing Leopold Bloom in the play Ulysses in Nighttown. We really should have included it in the programme.

Others have played at this game. In the collection edited by John McCourt, Roll Away the Reel World: James Joyce and Cinema (2010), to which I made a contribution or two on the Volta cinema, American writer Jesse Myers argues for the Joycean-ness of The Producers, American Beauty and The Departed, as well as pointing out metaphorical references to Joyce in The Third Man, The Manchurian Candidate, Annie Hall and several more.

Metaphor and allusion matter more than adaptation. The film that tries to reproduce a novel merely creates a surface impression, and a body of critical work unpicking differences between screen and source text which is, if not futile, then certainly wildly overdone. It is the signposting of references to literary works in films (and vice versa) that delights the imagination that much more, and breaks down the barriers between one artistic form and another. It is the knowing transference of ideas, keeping them eternal.

Richard Linklater’s Before trilogy is more subtly and rewardingly Joycean than any literal transcription of his work to the screen. Whether Linklater knew of Rossellini’s referencing of ‘The Dead’ in Voyage to Italy I don’t know, but I suspect so. There had to be a place for Joyce somewhere, to complete the odyssey.


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14 thoughts on “Joyce, film and allusion

  1. This arvellous article had me smiling and laughing from beginning to end. How wonderful that Linklater has so blithely stitched in these references. Thank you for pointing them out.

    1. I had fun writing it. It was spotting the Voyage to Italy reference that opened up for me what Linklater was doing. Blithely stitched, indeed.

    1. Of course. Thank you for the correction. I’ll amend the text, for accuracy’s sake. James Joyce and Nora Barnacle did not marry until 1931, twenty-seven years after they first met.

  2. Terrific . . glad to have this connections pointed out (and sorry not to have spotted them myself!). There’s a very good short book on The Dead (Kevin Barry, UCC) that includes discussion of Voyage in Italy

  3. Thank you, and thanks for the tip. The Barry book looks really interesting. He doesn’t note the connection between Le Mépris and Voyage to Italy, but he does propose Woody Allen’s Another Woman as a Dead-like film, which I’ve not come across before.

  4. I’ve added a couple of extra references to the post (on Jesse’s real name being James and on the life-in-a-day concept) which were originally in the comments.

  5. It’s no good. I originally called this post ‘Joyce, film and metaphor’, which sounded good, but it is chiefly about allusion and only indirectly about metaphor. They are not the same thing, of course. Finally my grammatical conscience has got the better of me, and I have changed the title.

  6. Came across this piece completely accidentally (while vainly looking for a link between Le Mépris and Bill Frisell’s version of the Delerue theme). A terrific and illuminating read; I very much like the celebration of subtle allusion.

    1. Geoff, glad you liked it. Some programmer should revisit that Joycean film idea, don’t you think?

      And you’ve made me dig out my copy of Naked City – I’d quite forgotten Contempt/Le Mépris was there.

  7. Great text. I am a Joycean and huge fan of Linklater. It is a pity the Joycean influence on his films is but seldom studied. Best. Vitor

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