The most unique property of cinema is how it lets you mold time, whether it’s over a long or a very brief period.
Hardly ever do filmgoers see a trilogy of films as intimate, and miniature in scale, as the Before trilogy. Its singularity in this sense could be attributed to the general notion that the romance/drama genre simply does not lend itself to the format of a trilogy, but Linklater saw it as a perfect fit.
Traditionally, a film of such a genre will tell a story where the protagonists fall in love, hit a few bumps, then either reunite or separate indefinitely. We never return to those characters nine years later to check in on their relationship, nor do we ever return to them yet again after another nine years, as these films do. Whether the reasons be money, necessity, or mere disinterest, audiences are rarely afforded the chance to revisit a fictitious couple to explore how their relationship has progressed. There are more commercial films that do this, such as the Bridget Jones series, but they are typically variations of the same tired formula and miles from reality.
Linklater’s Before trilogy does aim to explore the reality of love, and more specifically, how it changes over generations of time. This unique approach to time in cinema is a defining characteristic of Linklater’s filmography. In some of his work, he focuses on short periods of real time such as in Slacker (1991) and Tape (2001), while in others he covers years of real time such as in Boyhood (2014) and, of course, the Before trilogy. In the case of the latter, he actually combines both methods by studying two characters over three short periods, with nearly a decade between each of them.
Before Sunrise introduces our charming mid-twenties leads, Jesse and Celine, as they are sitting on a train through Vienna, Austria. In their vicinity is a married couple loudly arguing, as well as an elderly couple sitting in silence. Jesse and Celine, on the other hand, are single and full of excitement and spontaneity. They are drawn to one another almost instantly, and quickly pass over the initial awkwardness of first exchanges into a realm of youthfully philosophical conversation. Their connection brings Jesse to convince Celine into getting off the train at his stop so that they can continue talking. He tells her to imagine that she is using a time machine, coming back to this moment in order to correct herself from refusing him and thereby regretting her choice when she finds herself in an unhappy marriage 10-20 years into the future. His charming pitch is successful, and the two of them stroll around together, all night long, in the romantic European city. The simple concept for this story was inspired by a night of conversation Linklater once experienced with a woman in Philadelphia – a night he felt he had to capture in essence on film.
So it begins: The magic of a young man and woman spending a quiet evening together. Through long, unbroken takes of dialogue, Linklater immerses us in the joy of watching these two converse, and we slowly fall in love with both of them just as they do with each other. As with Linklater, his characters have a contagious curiosity about other human beings and the lives they lead. Each interaction the protagonists share as the night goes on reveals their personal complexities, and furthers their intimate bond. A particular wordless scene in a claustrophobic record booth beautifully displays the nervous elation of newly explored attraction, as Jesse and Celine take turns longingly watching the other before they quickly turn away before making eye contact. Later, they playfully act out telephone conversations with friends imagined on the opposite end, and through this direct – yet indirect – game, they profess to one another their growing feelings of affection.
These moments, in addition to plenty other delightful scenes of thoughtful conversations, as well as the inevitable first kiss, eventually lead to the morning where they must part ways. Agreeing to meet again in six months’ time, they passionately kiss once more before Celine hops on a train. Given the short amount of time spent together, the emotion earned in these final moments is a tremendous feat on behalf of lead actors Ethan Hawke and Julie Delpy, and of Linklater for his perfectly soft directorial touch. The film closes with a montage of the places our protagonists visited over the course of the evening; now unoccupied and lit by the morning sun, each of these ordinary locations suddenly becoming extraordinary due to the memories we, and the characters, have made there. It is a subtle and brilliant way to end the film, on a note of total euphoria about the wonder of young love.
Viewers were satisfied enough knowing that Jesse and Celine would meet again in six months and hopefully spark a long-term relationship. While the ambiguity was refreshingly unconventional, the positive implications of Before Sunrise’s ending gave it the kind of uplifting quality often attempted, and seldom achieved, in most romance films. No one expected a sequel, and those who may have wanted one would have naturally expected it to take place six months following the events of the first. What they got, instead, was Before Sunset, shot and set nine whole years later, and spoiler alert: Jesse and Celine are not a couple. They didn’t even meet up six months after their first encounter. They are no longer the naïve, high-on-life young adults they were on that night in Vienna. Celine has since been through several failed relationships, and Jesse is now a father and a husband…
This is what separates the Before trilogy from others: its exploration on the passage of time, with Linklater using cinema as a tool to actually mold such passage of time without artifice. Linklater grew in the years since making Before Sunrise, as did Hawke and Delpy. Through their growth, their ideas about love adapted accordingly. So together they wrote this sequel to meet Jesse and Celine at a whole new stage in their lives, meeting again in Paris, and revisiting ideas they explored in Vienna with a fresh perspective. Before Sunset follows them in real time for 80 minutes before Jesse must catch a flight, doubling down on the urgency felt in the previous film. We are again treated to the trademark long takes of their conversations – only their youthful optimism has now taken the form of grown-up cynicism. They have deep regrets and unfollowed dreams, and they are just as heartbroken as we are that their six-month reunion was never realized. Linklater himself never did see that Philadelphia woman again after their night-long encounter. Before Sunset provides a meditation on the emotional dent made by missed opportunities – by what could have been.
The film is just as thoroughly engaging as the first, with the added impact of having Before Sunrise as a source of memories present in the air every single minute. By the time the characters’ feelings finally rise to the surface during a limousine ride, we are so burdened by their regret that we wish more than anything in the world that they did have a time machine to go back and re-direct the course of their lives. They must be together. The final scene of the film takes this palpable yearning even further, as Celine sings a song to Jesse which she wrote about that night in Vienna. “Even tomorrow, in other arms,” she sings, “my heart will stay yours until I die.” Even she is aware of the schmaltz within the lyric, rolling her eyes in embarrassment immediately after – but we know she feels it with every ounce of her being, and so does Jesse. When she begins to entertain him with a dancing impersonation, he remains seated, despite knowing he will miss his plane. Linklater fades to black on this note, again leaving us with an overjoyed sense of hope for the couple’s future. He manages to evoke a response even stronger than perhaps any other happy ending to a romance while maintaining truthfulness.
Finally, Before Midnight makes another nine-year jump to a day in the couple’s adult life, on which they are vacating in Greece with their twin daughters. Jesse and Celine have followed their hearts and stayed together, but their development into parenthood has drastically altered their dynamic. At this point, the characters have matured to a degree where little magic remains in the relationship, as they have spent years together raising children and gradually losing their intimacy in the stress and exhaustion of family life. It is easy to assume that having three kids with his wife, Rebecca, shifted Linklater’s viewpoint on the concept of love even further beyond the gap between Sunrise and Sunset. Before going into production, he was informed that the woman he met in Philadelphia actually passed away not long after they met. Mortality is a subject visited throughout the trilogy, but is especially prominent in Before Midnight, as Jesse and Celine feel they are approaching old age at a more rapid pace than ever before. “Is this really my life?” Jesse mulls over. “Is it happening right now?”
Linklater, Hawke, and Delpy also likely became more inspired by the company of others since the previous two films, as the third in the trilogy spends much longer with supporting characters detailing their own experiences with love, and their changing perspectives with relation to time itself. Closing a lovely dinner scene with various Greek residents of their vacation spot, one aging woman recounts her marriage with a man she loved dearly, and how his death affected her. She informs the listeners at the table that “we’re just passing through,” and the acceptance of this idea seems to dawn on everyone at the table. In essence, the writing trio is channeling their own realizations about aging through this universe they have created.
The film stays true to the series’ trademark of long continuous shots of natural walk-and-talk scenes, as Jesse and Celine wander around the village to enjoy some much-needed alone time. We are treated to more of the kind of thought-provoking conversations we bore witness to in the previous two films, which now serve as two whole sources of memories for us to reminisce over as we watch our beloved protagonists in their current stage of lesser romance. For instance, we may recall that scene in Before Sunrise where Jesse coerced Celine into getting off the train with him, by offering a hypothetical look into the future – a “time machine” showing her the potential regret of passing up that opportunity, and instead finding herself in an unhappy marriage with someone else years later. Now that such a future has become a tactile present, only with the very man with whom she did get off the train, the atmosphere of Before Midnight is noticeably melancholic and bittersweet. To highlight the evaporation of passion in their relationship, the couple watches the sunset slowly disappearing behind some mountains as Celine quietly commentates: “Still there… Still there… Gone.”
Not long after, a prolonged argument unfolds and seriously threatens the love between the pair, coming full circle with the scene that began the very first film in the trilogy. They are that bickering couple on the train now, devoid of the enthusiasm they once had for romance. By the film’s end, we are left with a different kind of ambiguity compared to Sunrise and Sunset. The film closes with Jesse once again playing a “time machine” game, now with a pain and desperation in his voice, pleading to his love that he is still the same man she fell for in Vienna. The couple seemingly makes up, but there is a lack of closure felt in their reconciliation, giving us a sad uncertainty for the future of their relationship.
Hawke and Delpy deserve equal credit for the colossal achievement that is this trilogy, as their richly nuanced performances carry each film with both affectionate tenderness and emotional power. Most of all, their on-screen chemistry is as strong as just about any movie couple in existence. What elevates them to such a level, however, is the benefit of having three individual films document their characters’ progression across multiple generations. Linklater’s infatuation with time in cinema is his greatest defining trait as an auteur and is best represented in the Before trilogy. By choosing not to easily please audiences with more of the same but instead to challenge them with the reality of love and its metamorphosis through decades of time, he has created three films that work beautifully as time capsules of love through generations, which all walks of life should be lucky to see as they pass through.