“Baby, you’re gonna miss that plane.”
I must make a confession: I’m not much of a fan of Richard Linklater. I know the filmmaker has his scores of supporters; acolytes who swear up and down by his lackadaisical, shaggy sagas of shufflers and mumblers. I was never one of them. It’s not even that I dislike Linklater’s films; they all just leave me rather cold and, in some cases, bored.
So it was with this opinion in mind that I resisted giving in and watching Linklater’s heralded The Before Trilogy, three romantic sagas Linklater made, respectively, in 1995 (Before Sunrise), 2004 (Before Sunset) and 2013 (Before Midnight). Yet when The Criterion Collection announced they were bringing Linklater’s trilogy to Blu-ray, it seemed like as good a time as any to finally give in and give these films a chance.
I am thrilled that I did.
These films are so sweepingly romantic, so irresistibly charming and so achingly honest, to the point that I was in a near-swoon watching them. Here, at last, I was witnessing Linklater’s genius that so many of my peers had talked of, and I had always failed to see for myself.
The Before Trilogy should not, in theory, succeed as well as it does. It is comprised of scenes of two characters walking, and talking, and not much else. But Linklater, and his actors Ethan Hawke and Julie Delpy, find brilliant ways to keep the films alive. Never once do the narratives lag; we hang on every word, every gesture, every glance.
In Before Sunrise, young American Jesse (Hawke) is traveling by train when he meets young French woman Céline (Delpy) on a train. An German couple is having a disruptive verbal argument, to the point that Céline leaves her seat near them and just happens — perhaps by circumstance, perhaps by choice, perhaps by fate — to take a seat opposite Jesse. The two strike up an amicable conversation that dips into flirtatiousness. Jesse is heading to Vienna to catch a flight back to the states and Céline is headed back to Paris for school, but Jesse convinces Céline to get off the train with him in Vienna and see where the road takes them. The pair wander around Vienna, learning more and more about each other and reaching a point where they’re kissing as the sun goes down. They eventually part ways, agreeing to meet up again in six months at the same train station where they part ways. They fail to exchange phone numbers or addresses, though. Such is the folly of youth.
Before Sunset picks up nine years later. Jesse has written a successful book based on his one night with Céline, and while in Paris on the last leg of his book tour, the pair meet up again. We learn that while Jesse returned to the train station six months later, but a death in the family kept Céline from showing. The two had no way to contact each other, and their lives drifted apart. Jesse is now in a loveless marriage and also the father of a young son. Jesse and Céline stroll through Paris, talking about their past, and what could of been, and the feelings they still clearly have for each other. Once again, Jesse needs to catch a flight back to the U.S., but as the film closes it’s clear that he’s going to miss that plane.
Before Midnight jumps ahead another nine years. Jesse and Céline are now a couple, with two daughters of their own. And the romance and sunniness that dappled through the previous two films has given way to a harsher edge. Reality has set in, in a sense. Jesse maintains a strained relationship with Henry, his son from his previous marriage, but he struggles with guilt over having abandoned his old family to start a new life with Céline. Céline, for her part, feels terrified at the prospect of becoming domesticated; of turning into a boring housewife. It’s a feeling that’s exacerbated when Jesse pitches the idea that they move to Chicago to be closer to Henry just when Céline is on the verge of landing what she considers her dream job. While vacationing in Greece, the couple have a rather brutal verbal argument, and as the trilogy closes out we’re left with the sense that while Jesse and Céline will reconcile, things won’t truly be the same again.
Linklater moves his characters, and his camera, through the European locations, and we’re brought right along with them. We can practically hear our own footfalls echoing off cobblestones as we tag along with Jesse and Céline, watching them grow closer and closer before coming dangerously close to bring driven apart. While the conversations Jesse and Céline have are interesting, it’s not so much what they’re saying as it is how they’re saying it — along with the things they’re not saying. This is all due to the work of Hawke and Delpy. The actors find just the right balance and harmony to their characters: Hawke’s Jesse fancies himself a poet, but he’s constantly trying to counter-balance this with borderline-crude sexual innuendos; Delpy’s Céline is a quick-witted neurotic with an activist streak. The two have a palpable, almost crushing chemistry together, and Linklater lets his actors play this to the hilt.
Following this story for 18 years allows Linklater to set-up moments that mirror each other. A montage of shots showing all the locations visited through the film at the end of Before Sunrise is matched by a similar montage at the beginning of Before Sunset, showing all the locations the characters will eventually visit. Jesse asks Céline if she believes in reincarnation in Sunrise, and she quickly says she does, yet when she’s asked the same question nine years later in Sunset, she scoffs at the notion. My favorite of these mirrors involve a near-breathtaking moment in Sunrise carried over into Sunset: on their first journey together, during a conversation in the back of a bus, Jesse reaches out and comes perilously close to touching Céline’s hair, only to pull away at the last second. Nine years later when they meet again, it is Céline who does almost the same exact gesture to Jesse while in the back of the cab. With this seemingly simple, subtle moment, Linklater and his actors perfectly paint a picture of this couple. And then there is, perhaps, the saddest mirror of all: the fact that the fighting Jesse and Céline in Before Midnight have, in a sense, become the same bickering couple on the train in the very first film — the same couple that caused Céline to switch seats and meet Jesse in the first place.
Of the three films, Sunrise and Sunset are nearly equals in perfection, with Sunset slightly maintaining the edge because at this point we know these characters, and we can’t wait to see where they end up. You also can see how confident a filmmaker Linklater became in between the first two films, with the camera finding new and creative ways to move and flow through the journey, such as when Jesse and Céline enter a cafe and the camera seems to reveal new corners and rooms with each subtle inch. Before Midnight is something of an outlier of the three. Besides the fact that it’s the more bitter of the three films, and is at times incredibly unpleasant to watch when compared to how lovely the first two films are, it also spends a strange amount of time focusing on other characters besides Jesse and Céline. One understands Linklater’s need to open this world up and bring in some more people to keep things fresh, but an extended dinner sequence where Jesse and Céline sit and talk with some friends lacks the magic that’s so inherent in the other two films. To put it bluntly, these other characters are dull, and I’d rather have stayed with Hawke and Delpy for the full ride again instead of having to see them make small talk with others. Once Midnight moves beyond this scene, though, it settles back into the rhythm of the first films — although it’s playing a more sour tune than before. It is, in a sense, an inevitable conclusion, but that doesn’t mean we have to entirely like it.
The Criterion release of The Before Trilogy is a must-own for any cinephile. Even if you’re a schmuck like me, who doesn’t worship at the altar of Linklater, you will be in awe of the achievement of this trilogy. It will make you fall in love with movies again.
- New, restored 2K digital transfers of Before Sunrise and Before Sunset and a 2K digital master of Before Midnight, approved by director Richard Linklater, with 2.0 surround DTS-HD Master Audio soundtrack on the Before Sunrise Blu-ray and 5.1 surround DTS-HD Master Audio soundtracks on the Before Sunset and Before Midnight Blu-rays
- New discussion featuring Linklater and actors Julie Delpy and Ethan Hawke, moderated by critic Kent Jones
- Behind-the-scenes footage and interviews from the productions of Before Sunrise and Before Sunset
- Audio commentary on Before Midnight by Delpy, Linklater, and Hawke
- Richard Linklater: Dream Is Destiny, a feature-length 2016 documentary by Louis Black and Karen Bernstein
- After Before, a new documentary by Athina Rachel Tsangari about the making of Before Midnight in Greece
- New conversation between scholars Dave Johnson and Rob Stone about Linklater’s work
- Episode of the radio program Fresh Air featuring host Terry Gross, Linklater, Delpy, and Hawke
- Linklater // On Cinema & Time, a 2016 video essay by filmmaker :: kogonada
- PLUS: An essay on the trilogy by critic Dennis Lim