In an age of film where many stories play out like the latest episode in an ongoing series (which, to be fair, they kind of are) Richard Linklater’s unlikely trilogy about time, love, and so, so much else feels like nothing else we’ve seen in a long time. And that’s because it largely isn’t. The central conceit of the story is simple: revisiting two characters over a real period of years. Before Sunrise, the first in the trilogy was released in 1995. Before Sunset came out 9 years later in 2004, and the final (for now) entry Before Midnight bowed in 2013.
It’s an idea that could have gone off the rails any number of times over the years. Remarkably though, each film is a unique part of a a masterful whole. Ethan Hawke and Julie Delpy have arguably never been better. Watching these two actors grow and age, not only as the characters, but as performers and real people, brings a unique something that no amount of CGI or title cards marking the passage of time ever could.
Linklater has always been an artist fascinated by the passage of time, but with due respect to Boyhood (2014), this series is his crowning achievement. Filmmakers before Linklater have toyed with the idea of revisiting characters over time (notably, Truffaut and his surrogate Antoine) but for this writer none have been as filed with truth, realism, and emotional satisfaction. *
I. BEFORE SUNRISE
“Alright, alright. Think of it like this: jump ahead, ten, twenty years, okay, and you’re married. Only your marriage doesn’t have that same energy that it used to have, y’know. You start to blame your husband. You start to think about all those guys you’ve met in your life and what might have happened if you’d picked up with one of them, right? Well, I’m one of those guys.”
Before Sunrise (1995) was Richard Linklater’s follow up to his seminal classic Dazed and Confused (1993). It’s the shaggiest film of the three, as Linklater was still a young filmmaker, but it’s no less special. The film introduces us to Jesse (Ethan Hawke) and Celine (Julie Delpy) two 20-something students who cross paths on a train and spend a single night together in Vienna. It’s about as simple a central conceit as can be. Yet Linklater and his actors know how to make the most of every frame.
The initial meeting between the two is sweet, but it also feels borne of something genuine. Jesse notices an attractive girl, and he takes his shot. It’s charming in a way that many of us have probably imagined a chance encounter, but it never feels too much like a movie meet-cute. Jesse and Celine spend this one night they have together, waxing philosophical about love, religion, parents, traveling. It’s perhaps some of the most organic writing ever put to the screen. It resembles a specific but universal sense of connection; the moment when you meet someone who just gets you, and the ideas can’t flow fast enough.
The film that explores young love, and if it all feels earnest at times, it’s only because it’s about two people in their early twenties. For this writer, that time was not so long ago that it has been forgotten. It can certainly feel a little cringe worthy, but it is undeniably true. It is also a look at two people on the cusp of real adulthood. Looking back, it is easy to recognize Jesse and Celine as two people who believe they’ve experienced real milestones of love and longing (and this is not to deny that they have) but mostly in that way that young people do, with an overly inflated sense of importance and dramatics. It is important because it is this very notion that leads the two not to exchange information when the sun comes up.
The film ends with a tearful goodbye and a promise that the two will reunite at this very spot in one year. The two part ways as the high from their evening together finally beings to fade, shots of Vienna playing across the screen.
II. BEFORE SUNSET
“I guess when you’re young, you just believe there’ll be many people with whom you’ll connect with. Later in life, you realize it only happens a few times.”
Jesse and Celine have gotten older. Life has knocked each of them on their asses a few times. Wrinkles have set in. They appear less eager, but also more aware of themselves. Both Jesse and Celine wonder aloud at their youthful arrogance: why didn’t they just exchange information? Celine has gone on to experience a number of heartaches, but she has found purpose in her career and as a pioneering feminist. Jesse is a successful author who went on to marry and have a young son.
The two of them may take time to get back into a rhythm where they feel comfortable enough to be entirely themselves (no longer in their 20s, those walls come down a little more slowly), but when they do, their truths begin to come out. The conversations retread some of the same territory, but there’s a weariness to their perspective that wasn’t there before. Old resentments and insecurities rear their heads, and soon the only real question that matters is laid bare: is there still something between them or was it just that one night?
It is a complex question, and it is to the film’s credit that it’s given due gravity in exploring the answer. It is easy to believe a night as affecting as theirs left its mark, and revisiting it forces each to examine what it might mean if the answer to the question is yes. It’s a brutally honest film, emotionally raw in a way that sells Jesse and Celine as real people who haven’t been able to shake their experience Vienna entirely out of their lives, regardless of what came after.
As the film draws closer to the end, it feels as though they may rob of you of any satisfaction in figuring it out. Will they or won’t they? Jesse continues putting off leaving for the airport, holding out to squeeze as much time as he can, and then it becomes clear. As the final scene fades, we’re given a glimpse of what is to come. The messiness of how these two might get there is only hinted at, but when we last see them, Jesse is smiling at the image of Celine dancing, slinking her hips like Nina Simone.
III. BEFORE MIDNIGHT
“If you want true love, then this is it. This is real life. It’s not perfect, but it’s real, and if you can’t see it, then you’re blind.”
If the second film reassures us that sometimes true love does find a way, then Before Midnight (2013) is a reminder that there never really is a Happily Ever After. This is not to say that the film loses its romantic edge, or that time has dulled the chemistry between Jesse and Celine. On the contrary, after 18 years of onscreen depiction, they feel like old friends whose lives we are granted a look at every so often. And though the film paints a rocky road for the couple, there are still moments of great affection that most romantic films barely reach for, much less achieve.
Jesse and Celine have been together since the end of the second film, and now have two daughters, in addition to Jesse’s son from his previous relationship. Midnight centers on a family vacation in Greece, brought on by an invitation from Jesse’s writing colleague. The film maintains the same relaxed pose, but it soon becomes clear this is the most harrowing portrait of these two we’ve seen.
After so many years of loving one another, Jesse and Celine’s relationship has taken on some wear and tear. Now in their 40s, each of them has made mistakes, and sacrifices, sometimes at the expense of the other. Life did not always turn out the way they imagined. These are undoubtedly two people that still love each other deeply, but the heart of the film is concerned with whether that is still enough.
It is somehow an even more painfully honest look at love and the way, like all of us, it changes over time. Roughly the final forty minutes are a look at a slowly escalating meltdown fight between the two; at times, it feels so personal and private to these two that it can be uncomfortable to watch. It will also be familiar to anyone who has spent a long time with a partner, as each of them escalates things in that way that only someone very close to you can.
The entire film is a refutation of the way love is ordinarily portrayed on film, with cute misunderstandings and grand romantic gestures. The truth is much more complicated, and at times, harder to face. It is an intimate portrait of those that love us most being the same ones who are capable of inflicting the most pain.
When we last see them, Jesse chases Celine down, and there is a bit of catharsis to the way he attempts to cut through her anger with his shtick about being a time traveler. These two have braved tough times, and found a way to go on. And isn’t that often true, too? Tempers flare and blood is drawn, but love endures.
Ultimately, the only thing that matters is that the two make a choice to stay together, and that’s really what the whole series adds up to. Life is hard enough on your own, and it can be even harder to share it with someone else, regardless of how much love you share. Of equal importance is the notion that enduring love is real, and it should be treasured, but it is not a fairy tale. It’s challenging, and frustrating, and there is no fairy tale ending. Sometimes keeping the flame alive only means making a choice not to let it burn out.
Ethan Hawke once described these films thus: Sunrise is about what might be, Sunset is what could or should be, and Midnight is a film about what is. Though for this writer, the middle entry is the strongest, picking a favorite is ultimately the most subjective aspect of the entire experience. One of the things that makes the story as a whole so enduring is that it will change alongside you, as you age, as you love, and lose, and make your own life.