” Before Sunrise wonders WHAT love might be; Before Sunset poses what it should be; Before Midnight shows what it is. “
– ETHAN HAWKE
Richard Linklater made his name in independent cinema experimenting with structureless narratives and minimalism that would come to define his directing style. Dazed and Confused proved the commercial viability of this style beyond independent film connoisseurs, but it was his next film that arguably became his masterpiece. Employing the same humanist approach of his past works to the “Before” trilogy, Linklater strips down romance to its core essence, presenting it with touching authenticity. Spanning three decades, 1995’s Before Sunrise, 2004’s Before Sunset, and 2013’s Before Midnighttogether form an unrivaled, encompassing depiction of love at all stages.
Linklater and co-writer Kim Krizanestablish Before Sunrise’s deceptivelysimple, central premise just minutes into its opening: a young American named Jesse (Ethan Hawke) and a young French woman named Céline (Julie Delpy) cross paths aboard a train to Vienna: Jesse is set to catch a flight to the United States the next morning, and Céline is heading back to university in France. An immediate connection is formed, and the former convinces the latter to get off the train and spend the rest of the day with him seeing the sights of Vienna.
It’s the nearly universal “what if?” scenario – the idea of finding the words to speak to that random passerby, or fellow public transit rider, and connecting with them on such a deep level – that adds an immediate hypnotic quality to Before Sunrise. That feeling stems not just from the beautiful sights of Vienna, which, like Jesse and Céline seem to think, almost seem to exist in a universe separate from our own, but also from the true nature of this relationship, one weighed by questions that grow heavier with each passing hour. Is this truly just a chance encounter, or one determined by fate? Is this a moment seized, or one whose greater potential is wasted by its fleeting existence?
Before Sunrise premiered at the Sundance Film Festival and was universally acclaimed, and earned Linklater the Silver Bear award for directing at the Berlin International Film Festival, but was only a modest success at the box office. But Linklater, Hawke, and Delpy, now deeply entranced in the lives of these characters, decided this story wasn’t over and took on a rare romance film sequel in 2004 with Before Sunset.
In a way, the structure of Before Sunset is very much the same as Sunrise: Jesse’s novel inspired by that fateful night is a best-seller, and while on a book tour in Paris, he once again crosses paths with Céline. And just like that night, time between Jesse and Céline is constrained: Jesse has to be at the airport in an hour, lest he miss his flight. In their nine years apart – we learn their plan to meet each other at the Vienna train station six months later never came to be – Jesse and Céline’s lives have changed drastically. As well as being an established writer, Jesse is married and has a son, while Céline is an environmentalist, with a boyfriend of her own.
Before Sunset, this time written by Hawke and Delpy alongside Linklater is significantly more mature than Sunrise. The philosophical discussions haven’t gone anywhere, especially as now thirty-something Jesse and Céline have grown older and wiser, but Linklater infuses melancholy that wasn’t exactly present in Sunrise, which lingers over every conversation. There’s a much stronger sense of reality here, as Jesse and Céline confront both dissatisfaction in their lives and the struggles of rekindling a relationship after so long. The conversations are more restrained as if Jesse and Céline are now afraid of sharing too much with one another. With Sunrise, Linklaterpresented the idea of these two sharing a special connection; Before Sunset has them truly facing up to it, and realizing just how big a waste it is to pass on such a connection. And it’s in the film’s wonderful final scene that it all comes together: Céline sings Jesse a waltz (showcasing Delpy’s beautiful musical talents) and tells him how he’s “gonna miss that plane.” His reply: “I know.”
Following further critical acclaim for Sunset, including an Academy Award nomination for itsscreenplay, Before Midnight finds us reuniting with Jesse and Céline once more another nine years later. The two are now a couple with two young girls, taking in the last moments of their summer vacation in Greece. Jesse remains a novelist but grapples with thoughts of being an insufficient father to the son from his past marriage, and Céline faces an uncertain future regarding her career path.
If the dreaminess of Sunrise had diminished in Sunset, it vanishes almost entirely with the arrival of Before Midnight. These are no longer the fresh-faced youths from Vienna: just as their skin has begun to wrinkle, cracks have started to appear in this relationship. The first half is more traditional Before fare, though the hopeful discussions about the future have largely been replaced with regretful ones about the past and present. An argument between Jesse and Céline explodes in the third act, and to see this trilogy’s naturalistic dialogue applied to such biting remarks is heartbreaking. They have become the bickering couple from the beginning of Sunrise that ultimately drew them together in the first place. Even worse, there’s an unfortunate truth to their conflict: each side makes a valid point about the flaws of their opposer. Linklater makes choosing sides impossible. And yet, in the darkness this relationship faces, Jesse offers a hint of light, and perhaps the biggest truth: “If you want true love, this is it. This is real life. It’s not perfect, but it’s real.”
Like many other romance films, this is a classic meet-cute story of “boy meets girl,” but Linklater tells this one with depth unlike all others, and evolves it into something that feels like more than a piece of fiction. With focus set exclusively on the fundamental essentials – a burgeoning connection primarily developed through thoughtful, philosophical conversation – Linklater allows these films to avoid the trappings and tropes of their peers. There are no sweeping musical scores, no saccharine reunions or bombastic confessions of love. Linklater frames love as it actually is: quiet moments between people who want nothing more than to know everything about each other. Linklater’s notable minimalist style then presents the story through an appropriately realist lens. Shots are often long and unbroken, following Jesse and Céline in a simple two-shot as they walk the streets of Vienna, or Paris, or Greece. With no fancy stylistic choices to detract from the moment, we can focus on their conversations and the subtle physical responses that often say just as much as their words.
The nine-year time gap has come to unofficially define the Before trilogy; that would put us just three years out from a theoretical fourth Before film. Fans have been clamoring for another look into this relationship, and Linklater, Hawke, and Delpy have all shown interest in a fourth film, albeit with no concrete confirmations. Surely the trio would put their hearts into the next chapter of this story, but with Before Midnight is a certain sense of closure that almost negates the need for a fourth film. The idyllic couple has become an imperfect one, but the love isn’t gone: it has only changed its form. It’s not perfect, but it’s real.