Written By: Daniel Kinsley
“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.”
Many artists have spent a lifetime exploring the same questions, themes, and ideas through their body of work; for writer-director Richard Linklater, the prism through which he so often explores life is an exceedingly simple, but ultimately limitless one: time. No other American filmmaker has utilized time the way Linklater has; from the kaleidoscopic exploration of reality in Waking Life (2001) to the towering achievement of Boyhood (2014) the Austin-based auteur has long been obsessed with time and its effect on the human condition. While both of the aforementioned films are notable achievements (and much of his other work ranges from pleasantly enjoyable to must-see) the Before films (perhaps one of the most unlikely trilogies in cinematic history) remain the crown jewel atop his filmography; anchored by two uniquely lived in performances and spanning nearly two decades, each chapter is a glimpse at a different stage of love and life that adds up to an entirely remarkable whole.
Before Sunrise (1995) begins with Jesse (Ethan Hawke), a young American abroad who encounters a Parisian girl named Celine (Julie Delpy) on a train bound for Vienna. After both are distracted from their respective books by an argumentative husband and wife, Jesse strikes up a conversation before boldly inviting her to join him in the lounge car to escape the bickering couple. The conversation moves from casual getting-to-know-you banter to the meandering and deeply personal with ease, and it becomes clear to both that there is a mutual sense of chemistry and attraction. When the train arrives in Vienna, Jesse, who is flying out of the city the following morning makes his “admittedly insane” pitch: get off the train and spend the night exploring the city. In a more traditional rom-com, it would almost certainly come across as maudlin, but the entire exchange is charged with the kind of nervous humor and self-deprecation that make it feel like something more true to real life.
Once they depart the train, the depth and range of their conversation becomes boundless. During a conversation about the necessity of love, Celine opines that if there is any kind of God, it would not be a part of any individual, but in the little space in between. “If there’s any kind of magic in this world, it must be in the attempt of understanding someone.” Indeed, it is a sentiment that could be a summation of the entire film (and really, the series). The pair wanders the streets of Vienna leisurely, ducking into cafes, and arcades, and encountering strange side characters like a palm-reading gypsy or a word-seeking poet. It is these whimsical details that lend to the feeling of watching something unique and almost dreamlike, as if the couple stepped off the train into a benevolent episode of The Twilight Zone, a world outside of the ordinary rules of time. In a film that depends on small gestures, Vienna is ultimately the uncredited third lead.
If the film is light on traditional plotting, that is only because its aims are more naturalistic; Jesse and Celine are both bursting with big ideas about parenting, love, death, sex, reincarnation. They are each careful, rapt listeners, but there remains something vital and hungry in the way their conversations take shape. It is a structure that demands an equal commitment from the viewer, as the gradual way in which they each realize they are falling in love is made up of dozens of tiny moments; a quiet moment inside a record booth, a fake phone conversation to a friend back home, a tender first kiss aboard a Ferris wheel. There is something hopeful and excited about it all, and the way they dive into every topic with abandon is a feeling that ought to be recognizable to anyone who is or ever was young. Of course, it is the same youth that prevents either of them from recognizing the significance of the moment until much later.
By the time the sun comes up, the enchantment inevitably gives way to something more melancholic. In a fit of naive romanticism (or perhaps foolishness) Jesse and Celine agree not to exchange information. Any contact, they reason, will dwindle and eventually fizzle out, thereby dulling the power of the experience they shared. Instead, they agree to meet again in Vienna (on the very same train platform) in six months. For years after, the open-ended nature of the film led to rampant speculation and debate about the fate of the pair. While they would appear briefly in Linklater’s experimental animated film Waking Life (2001) it would be nine long years before there would be any answers.
Before Sunset (2004) surely must be a candidate for the most unlikely sequel ever. It is not as if anyone were clamoring for a follow-up to this darling indie, however, the early 2000s still seemed to be a bolder time in the kinds of films that were greenlit (before the Great Superhero Takeover). Perhaps most importantly, the small price tag and quick shooting schedule (only 15 days!) must have made for a fairly easy pitch. As Hawke explained, “It’s not like anybody was begging us to make a second film. We obviously did it because we wanted to.” In many ways, it must have felt (even to the creative team) like an enormous risk to revisit Jesse and Celine, particularly after so much time had passed. Instead of a diminishing return, however, Sunset is a masterpiece; it is deeper and richer, and while it would not exist without its predecessor, it is an even better film. The passage of time between them only enhances the experience as both parties have aged in real time, and the audience has grown along with them. It is a pretty radical notion, and the decision for the film to play out in real time makes it far more experimental, even for a filmmaker so fascinated by time as an effect.
When the film opens, Jesse is holding court at a small bookshop in Paris. Since the events of the first film, he has written and published a novel (titled This Time) inspired by his and Celine’s night in Vienna. Paris is the final stop on a European bookstore. Several journalists in attendance play audience surrogates; one believes they met again, a second believes they did not, and a third wants to believe, but expresses doubts. When asked about his ideas for a second book, Jesse admits, “I don’t know” before segueing into the very Linklater-inspired idea of a book that takes place during the length of a pop song. The central conceit of the novel concerns a man who has grown into security and stability, but yearns to rediscover a search for meaning. His daughter hops onto the kitchen counter and begins to dance to a song that is playing, and suddenly, he is 16 again and in the company of his high school sweetheart, and the same song is playing. The man knows that it is not a memory, he insists, but that he is in both moments simultaneously. While he goes on, footage of a young Jesse and Celine fills the screen. Both moments converge when he declares “It’s obvious to him that time is a lie,” as he looks up and makes eye contact with Celine, listening at the edge of the frame.
It is almost immediately apparent they have not seen one another since parting in Vienna. Within minutes of their reunion, Celine insists on knowing whether he showed up six months later as they planned. Jesse plays coy, and turns the question back at her. She explains that though she wanted to, she was unable to due to the death of her grandmother. He confesses that he was not there either, until she presses him for a good reason, and he reluctantly admits that he was. This knowledge seemingly creates a new dynamic between them, as Jesse appears hesitant to divulge the parts of himself he so easily gave away before. While it is clear that the two still have extraordinary chemistry, they are older and warier, both toward life and one another; the vigor and curiosity of youth has been replaced by something more thoughtful, and less hungry. It is only after Celine asks what they would talk about if today was their last day on Earth that they begin to circle back to what they mean to one another.
With little over an hour before Jesse is due at the airport, there is a more ready sense of urgency to their walk-and-talk; there are no scenic diversions of tertiary characters to distract from a carefully orchestrated conversation. While Sunrise was imbued with a sense of longing and discovery, the romance in Sunset is more subtle, as Jesse and Celine grapple with the effects their night in Vienna had on their lives. There is an escalation of sorts to the way they reveal themselves, and the desires that neither has been able to shake. As their time together begins to near its end, Jesse convinces Celine to take a boat ride down the Seine, where he laments their youthful decision.
“Oh, God, why didn’t we exchange phone numbers and stuff? Why didn’t we do that?”
“Because we were young and stupid.”
“Do you think we still are?”
“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.”
It is around this time that their roles are reversed as Celine seems hesitant to indulge his notion about what might have been. Things finally break wide open on a car ride back to Celine’s apartment as they finally lay themselves bare in a confessional sparring match. While they each internalized their night in Vienna, its effects played out very differently for each of them. Celine considers whether all of her romanticism was used up in that one night, as she has struggled to find meaning in love ever since. “Reality and love are almost contradictory for me,” she explains. Jesse, on the other hand, is trapped in a failing marriage that survives under the pretense of keeping it up for his young son. It is abundantly clear that all roads lead back to one another, as they are each haunted by Vienna in their own way. It is a spectacular display of vulnerability from both actors, and the resultant catharsis is what has made Sunset this writer’s favorite of the three films. Though it remains deeply romantic, Jesse and Celine are old enough now to dismiss the sentimentality of the might have been. Instead, they are forced to grapple with the painful complexities of the present.
If the poetry of Sunset’s final scene assures us that true love finds a way (at least some of the time) then Before Midnight (2013) is the examination of what happens after happily ever after. It may seem especially daring for Linklater and co. to go back to the well for a third time (after all, how many great film series’ are marred by a lackluster final film?) but just as Sunset was the perfect response to Sunrise, the concluding (at least, for now) film in history’s most unlikely trilogy both honors what came before and takes aim at something even more ambitious.
Midnight begins in media res, quickly and sparingly catching up with Jesse and Celine, both of whom are now in their early 40s. The pair has spent the last nine years together as a couple, and are now parents to twin girls. They have spent a summer vacationing in Greece (a truly gorgeous setting befitting of the trilogy’s previous cities) joined by Hank (Seamus Davey-Fitzpatrick) Jesse’s son from his first marriage. After taking Hank to the airport, the pair engage in a 13 plus-minute conversation while driving home (much of it done in a single take) which reveals that things are both much the same and very different since we last saw them. Celine expresses her frustration at working in the non-profit sector, while Jesse wrestles his guilt over being a part-time fixture in his son’s life, thanks in part to the contentious relationship he still shares with his ex-wife. Watching the two of them, you often get the sense that they are often only moments away from snapping, as if their soulful chemistry has bred such familiarity that it now carries an undercurrent of irritation, ready to surface with the slightest provocation. It is a clever way to play catch up as well as a window into the current state of their relationship. They are each older, and more settled into themselves; so, consequently, is their relationship.
Upon returning to the home of their hosts, Patrick (Walter Lasally) and his partner Natalia (Xenia Kalogeropoulou) they attend a dinner party along with Patrick’s 20-something nephew, Achilleas (Yiannis Papadopoulos) and his girlfriend Anna (Ariane Labed) as well as fellow visiting writer Stefanos (Panos Koronis) and his partner Adriani (Athina Rachel Tsangari). Even more so than the earlier scene in the car, it is a deeply revealing moment, exploring the many ways in which their dynamic has evolved. The staging of their company was undoubtedly intended, as the other three couples are each in different stages of life, and subsequently so are their thoughts about love. For the young lovers, their relationship is a finite, practical affair; they believe that their relationship will definitely end, and neither of them seems troubled by this belief. Patrick and Natalia, nearer to the twilight of their lives, are more reflective and remark upon the importance of not just romantic love, but of a fulfilling life of one’s own. Each of them in their way appear to recognize the limitations of love while also recognizing its singularity. After Natalia recalls her late husband, she suggests her memories of him are ultimately as ephemeral as our lives. “We appear and we disappear. And we are so important to some, but we are just passing through.”
At the insistence of their friends, Jesse and Celine plan to spend their final evening away from their children in a romantic hotel setting. A walk across the peninsula is made up of several long takes and is the most reminiscent of the previous entries as anything in the film. Away from their friends and family, the pair remains entirely recognizable as the pair who first connected over their ability to walk around bullshitting. While the context has changed with the passage of time, it is clear that beneath the superficial changes, they remain the same people who challenge, reward, and confound one another in equal measure. Instead of looking ahead to what might be, they contemplate the turns their lives have taken and the changes and compromise brought on by middle age. Despite their still-tangible chemistry, it also becomes increasingly clear that not even they are immune to the wear and tear of a life spent together. Celine perhaps sums it up best during a conversation about how well they know one another. “I feel close to you,” she says, “But sometimes, I don’t know, I feel like you’re breathing helium and I’m breathing oxygen.”
It does not take long after arriving at the hotel for their romantic evening to sour, as many of the little digs they have made at one another throughout the film come to a boil. The result is a sustained, gut-wrenching verbal sparring match that surely ranks among the most realistic and painful arguments ever committed to screen. After nine years together, each of them know which buttons to press to inflict maximum pain. It is dizzying to see these two people who were so easy to romanticize tear into one another with such wild and intentional abandon. Like nearly everything else about the series, the way something small leads down a rabbit hole of resentment and grudges feels uncomfortably familiar, and even the way their tempers recede, only to flare up over a misplaced word or phrase, makes it a difficult passage to sit through. But that ultimately is the point. Most romance films (even many of the greats!) focus on the early heights of falling in love, but what this film acknowledges above all else is that falling in love is easy, but sustaining it over a lifetime is much more difficult, even for the best of us.
Ethan Hawke once said of the trilogy: Sunrise is about what might be, Sunset is about what should be, and Midnight is a film about what is. As a whole, Before Midnight seems to be most concerned with interrogating and reflecting upon what came before, and trying to make sense of whether it remains compatible with what comes next. It is a daring thing to try and capture, as the story takes place long after most stories about romance have ended. The less you know about a person, the easier it is to love them, as all of those gaps can be filled in by some combination of imagination and desire. About halfway through the film, when Celine asks Jesse whether he would still ask her to get off the train with him if they met today, exactly as they are, he hesitates. While she accuses him of blowing the chance at saying something romantic, it is less an indictment on his love for her than his inability to re-imagine his partner of so many years as an ideal that never really existed in the first place.
In an effort to salvage the evening (and perhaps even the relationship) Jesse brings up time travel, echoing his younger self, insisting that he is still the same sweet, romantic man she fell in love with so many years ago. Ultimately, Jesse and Celine make it out of their brutal fight with their relationship unbroken, but just barely. Even in the depths of despair, it is clear that they still love one another, but the film seems to understand that love alone is not enough. If Linklater draws any conclusions, it is that there is no happily ever after, not really; there are only the choices we make, and whether it is happiness or love, they are things that must be renewed daily. As Jesse insists, “If you want true love, then this is it. This is real life. It’s not perfect, but it’s real.” After everything, Jesse and Celine remain together not because they are soul-mates; rather, it is because they continue to choose one another, over and over.