A few words on Richard Linklater’s ‘Before’ trilogy

Before Sunrise

I recently finished Richard Linklater’s ‘Before’ trilogy, and the final film left such an indelible impression on me that I felt compelled to write this post to share my thoughts on the series. Before I start, I should say that I will be talking about plot details so it’s best not to read on if you don’t want to hear about the outcome of the films. After I finished watching Before Midnight, the third and final film, it struck me that I’ve rarely seen a romance film which offers such authentically human characters. As much as that may sound like a cliché, the three part nature of Jesse and Celine’s story allows for such careful and meticulous crafting of their relationship that it’s easy to forget that the films are only fiction. Having completed the series, I feel truly close to both characters as though I know them personally, having rooted for them during every phase of their time together. They definitely serve as a reminder that much of the success of any cinematic love story is constituted by intelligent writing. The combined writing efforts of Linklater, Julie Delpy and Ethan Hawke prove the value of simple, beautiful conversations as a means of creating a lasting impression on viewers, perhaps for different reasons from person to person. I have no doubt that the nine years which passed between the release of each film in the trilogy only further enhanced Delpy and Hawke’s performances as Jesse and Celine, with their own personal experiences of love likely infusing their portrayal of each half of the couple. The nature of the films’ production proves just how effective this ‘real time’ technique can be.

I first saw Before Sunrise at some point last year, and was enraptured by the connection between Jesse and Celine, two young, introspective travellers who meet on a train from Paris to Vienna and end up spending just one night together. As an intense and genuine connection quickly flourishes between them, it is clear that they both begin to ponder whether there could be any potential future between them. Whilst appearing to adopt a rational approach and brush off that possibility, the end of the film leads to arrangements being made to meet again exactly six months later, and we as viewers are left with questions pertaining to whether this will actually happen and how things might progress. Of course, as a present day viewer I was already aware that Jesse and Celine would meet again due to the release of Before Sunset in 2004 and Before Midnight in 2013, but I imagine that viewing Before Sunrise  on the big screen back in 1995 would’ve been an utterly magical and unique experience, leaving audiences completely uncertain of what the fate of these characters would be. I’m incredibly envious of those who had that experience.

On a personal level, I loved Before Sunrise because it encompasses everything I cherish and look for in love; instant affinity, friendship, equality, humour and engaging conversation. The feeling of connecting deeply with someone immediately upon getting to know them is something which drives me in life, so watching this kind of bond unfold between two people onscreen is truly intoxicating, particularly when it’s depicted in such a simplistic and understated way. For example, my favourite scene from the film, and one of my favourite scenes from any film in fact, allows us to genuinely feel the electricity between the pair through a series of shyly exchanged glances and poorly masked facial expressions. It goes without saying that music is an excellent communicator when it comes to emotion, often more so than words, so I like to think of the track used in this scene as filling in everything left unsaid. This is the scene that first made me fall in love with Before Sunrise.

Following on from Jesse and Celine’s whirlwind romance is their second meeting in Before Sunset, the next chapter in the series, which takes place nine years later in Paris. Jesse is now travelling through Europe on a tour to promote his bestselling book, which is based on the night he spent with Celine in Vienna. Hearing that Jesse is visiting her native Paris, Celine attends his book reading and the pair quickly reconnect, despite their time together being restricted by Jesse’s imminent departure to the next destination on his book tour. We learn from this film that the pair didn’t meet up as planned, six months after their initial meeting, due to the sudden passing of Celine’s grandmother, and that they were unable to contact each other as they never exchanged addresses or phone numbers. Of the three films in the series, I feel this one is the most melancholy. Despite both being in relationships, neither seem completely satisfied with their lives, and it is clear that this unexpected meeting rekindles their initial feelings.

Before Sunset

Despite the sadness which colours the film, the ending, as is the case with all three films, leaves a lot to the viewer’s imagination. Is there really any chance of them ending up together? I feel that this consistent end point in all three films is one of the most interesting and skilfully realised decisions of the series, as even at the end of Before Midnight (which I will go on to talk about) we’re still left unsure of the future of the couple. This is an integral part of what makes this trilogy so absorbing. Once again, the effortless chemistry between the characters and the wonderful naturalistic dialogue are conducive to creating some awe-inspiring long takes, in which we almost feel like voyeurs rather than viewers. As demonstrated by the record store scene from Before Sunrise, it’s clear to see that Linklater possesses a real talent for using music to communicate unspoken feelings between his characters, and he proves this once again in one the final scenes of the film. Celine plays a song to Jesse in which she confesses how much their initial night together meant to her, which creates a new found air of possibility regarding their relationship.

The third film in the trilogy is easily the most unique in tone, introducing new elements such as supporting characters, as well as a very different perspective on love due to the stage of life Jesse and Celine now find themselves at. In terms of plot, Before Midnight revisits the now married couple, just as Jesse bids goodbye to his son from his previous marriage, after spending the summer with him, Celine and their two daughters in Greece. As would be expected, the couple are far more jaded than their younger selves, having experienced the trials of married life: sacrifice, compromise, relocation, careers and ex-partners all come into play here, fuelling the infamous argument scene which comprises the latter part of the film. Ethan Hawke and Julie Delpy’s performances here are simply astonishing, and arguably the best they gave throughout the trilogy. They still channel the inquisitive, philosophical and insightful personalities I grew to love, but with an additional layer of tiredness, understanding and knowing acceptance, their characters imbued with love for each other, but also an awareness of the growing problems in their relationship.

Before Midnight 2.jpg

Despite the overwhelmingly positive critical response to Before Midnight, I have seen a great deal of negative feedback from fans of the films, many of whom argue that the new found fractures in the relationship betray the characters’ identity. Whilst the screenplay does exhibit a huge tonal shift away from the serene and idyllic dynamic which exists in the first two films, I couldn’t disagree more with this as a criticism. Linklater, Delpy and Hawke utilise the argument scene to paint a painfully realistic picture of the reality of long-term relationships, particularly when faced with adversity in the form of dissatisfaction with living arrangements and career paths. An interesting technique was the previously mentioned use of a supporting cast, something we haven’t seen before. The couples accompanying Jesse and Celine at their temporary Greek retreat represent the pair at the different stages of their journey, with the youngest couple being perhaps the most notable, reminiscent of their more youthful, naive and ingenuous selves.

Before Midnight 3.jpg

Much of the criticism I saw pointed out that the evolution of the couple’s relationship would only appeal to older couples who face similar quandaries, but as a 20 year old whose longest relationship to date lasted nine months, I can safely say that Jesse and Celine are incredibly easy to identify with to those outside of that demographic, as the film beautifully illustrates the tragedy of love being challenged by insurmountable obstacles. I feel it would be wholly unrealistic to depict Jesse and Celine’s marriage as flawlessly as some viewers clearly hoped it would be, as to do so would do justice to the richly textured, opinionated, brilliant and intelligent characters they are. Jesse and Celine as we know them are still very much present in this chapter, but are riddled with the inevitable baggage which comes with spending your life with someone, and whilst this might not make for the easiest viewing and most gratifying conclusion, it certainly makes the trilogy hugely unique in its ambitious and honest look at a relationship at its most raw.

Does loving Before Midnight make me cynical? I don’t know. Some people might view it that way. Either way, Linklater should be applauded for creating a film which veers away from the usual romantic utopia which concludes many films of this nature. Through the exquisite screenwriting and simple concepts employed within each film, as well as Linklater’s willingness to challenge audiences, the ‘Before’ trilogy remains one of the greatest achievements of the romance genre, offering an arresting, transcendent and moving experience which ingrains itself into your memory long after watching. I often catch myself thinking about where Jesse and Celine might be as of right now, and I hope that my curiosity will be quelled by the potential release of a new chapter in 2022, at what will be nine years on from Before Midnight. The idea of Ethan Hawke and Julie Delpy ageing, learning and flourishing alongside their onscreen characters truly excites me, and has done ever since I first encountered them on that train to Vienna.

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