The Stages of Love and Life in the Before Trilogy

For almost two decades Richard Linklater, along with stars/co-writers Ethan Hawke and Julie Delpy, has given the world a story showing the ups and downs of love, life, and adulthood through a trilogy of films. We follow the story of Jesse (Hawke) and Celine (Delpy) as they meet and spend a night together in Before Sunrise, reconnect 9 years later in Before Sunset, and deal with all the beauty and problems that come with sharing a life together in Before Midnight. Even more, these films show the transition of the characters from young, hopeful, and optimistic to older, wiser, and just trying to find contentment. This is a story that everyone can relate to in some way. Whether you’re a hopeless romantic with the whole world in front of you, a fully fledged adult trying to make your mark on the world, or a middle aged survivor just trying to keep it all together, the story of Jesse and Celine is one that resonates long after the credits roll.



Before Sunrise

The journey begins in 1995’s Before Sunrise. The film itself feels much the way its characters do: romantic, optimistic, and a little nervous in its own skin. This was one of Linklater’s first films, following 1993’s Dazed and Confused, and the romantic love story was a heavy departure from the comedies he started his career with. It’s a respectable move, because the movie doesn’t play it safe. There is no sex or action, no love rollercoaster of the couple breaking up, getting back together, overcoming obstacles, etc. The film is just two people meeting, connecting, and spending a night together…that’s it. Even though the film did double its modest budget, it was by no means a huge hit. However, you can tell this was a personal film for Linklater, and the film that he wanted to make.  


Jesse and Celine meet on a train in Europe. Celine is headed back home to Paris and Jesse is on his way to Vienna to catch a flight back to the States, after a rather unsuccessful visit with his now ex-girlfriend. The two strike up a conversation after witnessing an older couple having a heavy argument in German, who storm out of the train car. It’s funny that this strife is the catalyst that starts our character’s love story, but even more so in retrospect as an eerie foreshadowing of how we find these characters 18 years later in Before Midnight. After chatting for a bit, they realize they have a strong attraction towards each other and Jesse woos Celine into getting off the train to spend the night with him in Vienna.


The fact that she does is a testament to the connection they feel, but also to youthful naivety. The two haven’t spent that much time together before the decision is made. They could run out of things to talk about 10 minutes away from the train or one of them could turn out to be a serial killer! Of course, it’s not that kind of movie, but it captures that leap-without-looking excitement of youth, and what’s more romantic than spontaneously spending a night with an attractive stranger in a foreign city?


From here, the pair walk around the city, taking in the sights and sharing conversation. They seem nervous around each other, for obvious reasons, but are also just trying to impress and relate to each other within their limited time. They throw out any interesting story, theory, or philosophy in their arsenal, presenting the versions of themselves they want to other to see and believe. It’s like any first date, only they intend to have this be their only date, so they want to be memorable to each other.


One of my favorite scenes from the film perfectly encapsulates the excitement and fear of new and young love, in a record store. The two spend the duration of a song in a listening booth, while awkwardly standing close to one another. Hawke and Delpy play this scene wonderfully and Linklater leaves the camera almost uncomfortabley close to them, as if we were the record player watching their reactions to the music. While the song plays, they steal glances of each other (they masterfully go back and forth without catching the other’s eyes for an extended amount of time) and emote a ton of nervous questions in their facial expressions. “Is this song good? Do I stink? Should I touch him? Should I kiss her? Am I crazy for getting off that train? Does she think she’s crazy for getting off that train?” Soon after, we get to their first kiss in a giant Ferris wheel overlooking Vienna. It contains every awkward and exciting feeling of a first kiss. Jesse is unsure, a little bumbling, and relies on Celine to make the first move. When it happens, though, the electricity between them is obvious.


Celine and Jesse spend the rest of the evening taking in the night life. They have a midnight romp in the park with a bottle of wine, and end with an intense parting the next morning. This is one of my favorite small touches in the film: In the early light of morning we see all the locations our characters moved through the previous night, but they look different now. They appear as plain and normal, instead of exotic and full of life, like the night before. It is as if the characters brought a whirlwind of passion and life into these scenes and took it with them when they left.


The one thing that really dates the film is perhaps its most romantic. At the last minute Jesse and Celine decide to meet again in 6 months without exchanging any information. This ending couldn’t work these days. Even if the characters had parted in the same way, I doubt either could have resisted looking up/keeping in touch with the other through the ease of social media (they might not have even wanted to meet back up in 6 months if this were the case). The relationship could have easily fizzled out by then or they might have turned each other off with the vague personalities presented on their Facebook pages, Twitter feeds, and Instagram…whatever you call thems (“Ugh, his favorite film is The Hangover?” or “Ugh, she listens to Miley Cyrus?”…yeah, I know what the kids like). The movie may date itself, but it also makes it that much more magical.



Before Sunset


9 years later in 2004, Before Sunset (my personal favorite of the trilogy) was released to answer all the questions left by Sunrise and continue the character’s story. Excuse me while I go into a little personal detail with my first experience with this film. I was 17 when it came out and being a huge fan of the first one, I knew a sequel was in the works, just not when it would be released, much less when I would be able to see it. I found out the film was playing, as if by fate, while walking to my car after tagging along to see a movie with a friend. I happened to glance down and see a ticket stub with “Before Sun” on it. Could it be? I ran to the ticket booth and sure enough, it was playing at my local theater! I decided to come back that night for the midnight show. I would attend the screening by myself. It was far too special to share with anyone that wasn’t as excited as I was…not that I knew anyone that would want to go anyway. Plus, it was a midnight showing of a sequel to a relatively unknown film on a Saturday night. I’d probably have the theater all to myself! There was actually one other person at my showing. It was a guy, probably in his early 40s, who turned out to not only be very quiet and respectful (which I wasn’t used to at that theater), but helped me see how the film could affect people of separate generations differently.


It turned out to be one of the best movie going experiences of my life. There were times we laughed together or separately and it really felt like a shared experience, and one I haven’t really felt again in a theater since. It really struck a chord with me and I ended up sitting alone on a swing in an abandoned playground, trying to take it all in. Sometimes, if you’re lucky, you see a film that just changes you in some way. That’s what Before Sunset did for me and I cannot recommend this film highly enough. Ok, enough of that gobbledygook, on with the film itself.


Before Sunset opens with establishing shots of the locations our characters will occupy throughout the course of the film (this time in Paris). These locations seem ordinary and lifeless now, but will soon have a whole new feeling as Jesse and Celine pass through their space. We are shown a bookstore where Jesse is taking questions from reporters about his book (written about his night with Celine) for the final leg of his book tour. Linklater finds a very clever and effective way to bring anyone who hasn’t seen the first film up to speed by having Jesse and the reporters talk about the book and tossing in a few key flashbacks. He even manages to tease the audience about the answer to if they met again in 6 months without actually giving it away (because that would take the piss out of the whole thing). When Celine shows up at the bookstore, we can tell by the look on Jesse’s face that they haven’t seen each other in a long time.


The beautiful thing about this film is that it really didn’t need to happen. The ending of the first would have sufficed just fine as a romantic one night story, but Linklater, Hawke, and Delpy had a lot more to say and new directions for these characters. They are now more jaded and world weary. They have lost their youthful idealism and replaced it with a more grounded acceptance of how the world really works. Romantic love is out and ‘this works for now’ is in. Ultimately, it’s a film about second chances and trying to recapture a feeling long lost, even if it is irrational, and possibly catastrophic to your current life. Linklater upped the ante by having this story unfold in real time. In less than 90 minutes, these characters reconnect and have to decide if there is still something tangible between them or if it’s just fleeting feelings for days gone by.


After a brief awkward back and forth, the two finally spill the beans about what happened 9 years ago. We find out that Jesse showed up 6 months later (of course) and Celine made plans to, but couldn’t due to a death in the family (the idea of fate vs. chance comes into play throughout the film). With this out of the way, our leads are free to do what they do best, walking and talking around European cities. They discuss life, politics, religion/philosophy, and family. Celine has a boyfriend who is hardly ever there (the way she likes it) and Jesse is married with a young son (unhappily married, but accepting of it to be with his son). They still have chemistry and are more willing to openly discuss their flaws.


There are two amazing scenes in this film that recall the listening booth scene in Before Sunrise. The first is a heart wrenching scene with them sitting together in the back of a car, as their time is nearly at its end. They both throw all of their cards on the table, and talk about never having forgotten/stopped pinning for each other, and there’s a pair of moments where they almost touch the other as one stares out of a window, unburdening their souls to each other. It’s a perfect representation of their feelings/fears of the past and it’s executed expertly in one long take. It breaks my heart every time. In another beautiful and difficult shot pulled off by Linklater, the camera follows Jesse and Celine walking up a long spiral staircase. Jesse is walking Celine to her door, supposedly to see her apartment and say goodbye, but as made apparent in the last few scenes, he is really just trying to find any excuse for a few more moments with her…or perhaps, a lifetime.


The ending of the film is even more ambiguous than the previous one. After chatting a little and Celine playing a song she wrote for/about Jesse, its final lines are Celine saying, “Baby, you are gonna miss that plane.” while dancing and Jesse replying with a simple, “I know.” as the film fades out. That “I know” rings in your head and contains just as much meaning as Han Solo’s in The Empire Strikes Back. Even though the audience doesn’t entirely know what the future holds in store for these characters, those final lines and the romantic in us all seems to suggest they stay together. This time though, it definitely feels like we will see Jesse and Celine again…their story is far from over.



Before Midnight


That brings us to the third chapter of Jesse and Celine’s story, 2013’s Before Midnight. I actually believe that Midnight is the best film of the trilogy (but Sunset will always be my favorite). Another 9 years have passed and this time we are shown what happens after the initial spark fades, when two chance encounters turn into every single day together. We see beyond the romance and conversations to two people trying to live with each other’s flaws and their own regrets. This is the hardest film to watch because it shows the downside of relationships and how two people in love can hurt each other the most. It also makes this film more true to life than the hopeless romanticism of the first two.


The film opens with Jesse dropping his son Hank (only mentioned in Sunset) off at the airport after spending the summer with him. We see how hard it is for Jesse to let him go and the regret he feels for not being with him all the time, which plays into the major conflict of the story. After this initial scene, the camera follows Jesse out of the airport and we discover that, yes, he is with Celine. We also find out that they have a set of twin girls, apparently around the age of 6 (I don’t know what children look like). The girls are asleep, so we get to catch up with Jesse and Celine while they drive to their destination (in Greece).


The conversations are different now. Instead of big ideas and talking about the world, they talk about the smaller details that now make up their whole lives. They talk about work (and money), about Hank (and his relationship with his mother/Jesse’s ex), and about the girls. It seems like this is the epitome of the conversations they have these days. Something else has changed, though, they are no longer starry-eyed and stealing looks at each other. Their talks contain a bit of resentment and malice, like they could break into a fight at any moment.  You can tell that they still love and care for each other, but you can also sense that things didn’t turn out the way either of them wanted.


We find out that they have been spending the summer in Greece with a hero/mentor figure of Jesse’s and two other couples. This brings up my favorite scene in the entire trilogy, the dinner scene. This film is different than the other two, in that it has other characters play a part of their story. It makes sense because that’s their life is now. It’s not all about Jesse and Celine anymore, they have kids and careers and problems to worry about, and this film is smart enough to reflect that by giving more focus to other characters.


Joining Jesse and Celine in this scene are a young couple (reflective of them in Sunrise), a couple a little older than them (like them if they can move past their resentments), and two people towards the end of their lives that have already lost their significant others (perhaps a glimpse into their future). Jesse and Celine hold conversations with everyone, while gently ribbing each other, with an underlying aggression that causes a raised eyebrow or two from their company. They even seem to be sprouting some warnings about love to the young couple who met in a way rather similar to them, but were able to keep in touch and grow the relationship immediately through emails, Skype, etc. (but of course the young couple will hear none of it). The couple around Jesse and Celine’s age seem to view them with a knowing smile. They’ve been through the rough stage our leads are going through, and survived, learning to accept each other’s faults and find a lasting love in spite of it. The couple also crack jokes about each other’s shortcomings, but it’s done with much more affection and acceptance than Jesse and Celine. Towards the end of the scene, the older pair chime in with memories and longings for their lost partners. It plays with an unavoidable finality that all relationships must face, but it’s all the more romantic because of it. It even gets Jesse and Celine to stop their bickering and appreciate what they still have.


As the two walk along the streets of Greece, on their way to an evening getaway alone, they talk and laugh and remind us of the Jesse and Celine we’ve known for years. This shows that it isn’t all bad and these characters still have a lot in common and tons of chemistry. They are still at their best while talking and walking alone together in foreign cities. When they arrive at the front desk of their hotel, we see how Jesse writing books about their first two encounters has affected Celine. She is so much a part of these stories that a fan asks for her autograph on the books as well as his, but it plays as another resentment boiling under the surface.


Now we get to the hard part of the film, as they enter the hotel room. What starts as a much needed night alone quickly escalates into a fight that is tough to watch. Not only have we known these characters for so long that it’s hard to watch them like this, it’s painful because it rings so true for anyone that has ever had serious problems in a relationship. Neither one of them is right or wrong. They both have their points and feelings. They also know exactly what to say to cut the other to the bone. As all the pent up aggression and anger of the years comes to the surface, we see that even the most romantic of beginnings, with the best intentions, can turn into an unsatisfying life with unbearable regret.


After the fight comes to an end, Celine leaves Jesse alone in the hotel room. Neither of them is really sure what to do at this point, but that doesn’t mean they are done. In the same vein as the previous two, the ending of Midnight is ambiguous. The final shot sees Jesse and Celine sitting at a table by the water, trying to start over and just enjoy each other’s company again. As it fades out, we are unsure if their relationship will last and if they can recover from all the damage done in the previous scenes, but we know that they will try.


The Before series is, of course, open for another film (this one would come out in 2022?), and although I will always be game for another outing with Jesse and Celine, I would be completely fine with the series ending right here. We’ve seen these characters move from their early 20s to their early 40s and deal with everything life can throw at you in that time. I’ll be paying attention to any murmurs about another one in a few years, but I’m happy to think of those two, sitting at that table in Greece, wondering where their story will go next.

Aril 7th, 2014