The year is 1994. The location: a train from Budapest to Vienna. And the players: two amorous strangers with a penchant for lengthy musings on everything from cultural tribalism, familial affection, and Austrian avant garde theatre. This is Before Sunrise. Starring Ethan Hawke and Julie Delpy as Jesse and Celine respectively, two twenty-somethings who decide to spend an impromptu night together in starry Vienna. If the concept seems a little too pretentious upon first glance, I could relate. Indeed, it’s hard to believe that when director Richard Linklater pitched such an abstract and minimalist project back in 1993 that it would gain much traction. After all, Sunrise has no real pay-off, it’s supporting cast is essentially non-existent, and the philosophical elements can, at times, feel a little overbearing for what is essentially a Hollywood Romantic drama.
And yet, as Linklater would later go on to prove countless times with films like Dazed and Confused, Waking Life and Everybody Wants Some, such minimalism is not just the charm of this trilogy, but its very essence. And it works beautifully. Indeed, it is precisely because Jesse and Celine know how limited their time together is that the viewer is afforded such intimacy. Consider, for instance, how a simple conversation starter from Celine about national stereotyping evolves into one about how trying to understand someone is almost beautiful in its futility. Or when an innocuous trip to a fairground leads to Jesse, a somewhat cynical but affable character who almost feels like he belongs in a Nick Harvey novel, to casually lament on how his parents’ separation has always given him a feeling of misanthropic dissociation from the rest of the world. Even though this kind of dialogue comprises the bulk of the film, it never loses its fluidity, nor does it get any less captivating.
Nine years later, the film’s sequel, Before Sunset is no less dazzling. Playing out in in Paris in real time, the dialogue between the two feels no less organic, if a little less idealistic. The two are trapped in failing relationships, and almost suffering from a lack of romantic validation they could have afforded each other over the last nine years if only Celine hadn’t missed their planned reunion. Still, the quintessential quirks of both characters are not lost with time. The two still enjoy especially enlightening conversations about sex, hubris and personal growth (or, indeed, lack thereof), with the climax (!) proving that their love was anything but a fallacy.
If Sunrise and Sunset felt so effortlessly romantic because, as Jesse remarks, the two were perhaps ‘only good at wandering around European cities for hours at a time’, Before Midnight somewhat re-affirms this. In it, Linklater, Hawke and Delpy ditch the fabulistic tone of the movies’ predecessors to expose the newfound realities of middle-age. With Jesse secretly resenting Celine for his son being stuck in Chicago and Celine struggling to reconcile her desire for personal identity with the responsibilities of parenthood, whatever perception the audience has of the two’s lingering affection feels more like a pastiche of the untrammelled idealism of Sunrise and not-so-secret longing the couple felt in Sunset. It is only after the catharsis of the two’s raw and fraught fight that we see any semblance of feeling – laying bare the ultimate irony that true love does indeed require a certain level of animosity, if not, hatred, to survive.
“love does indeed require a certain level of animosity, if not, hatred, to survive”
If anything, the Before trilogy is just a re-affirmation of how interconnected this dichotomy actually is. Time and time again, albeit subtly, we see Jesse’s cynicism and false sense of entitlement channeled in his love for Celine – a woman who he harbours a deep affection for but ultimately feels like he deserves more than he needs. Equally, whilst Celine remains idealistic and longing for Jesse throughout, the audience is more often than not reminded that she ultimately has her own personal interests at heart, especially by the time Before Midnight rolls around. Do the two really love each other unconditionally? Or, as Jesse observes, is love not just a selfish enterprise designed for self-validation anyway?
It would be easy to assume that such contradictions would come across as stunted and inorganic. Yet, as Linklater has also shown in his 2014 magnum opus Boyhood, the trilogy so perfectly captures all the beautiful little ironies of human nature and the passing of time that one almost forgets that Jesse and Celine’s story is, more than anything, just an artifice. It was designed to encourage each viewer to meditate on their own notions of love and personal vices through the medium of story. With that in mind, I heartily encourage you to delve straight into The Before Trilogy, if only because you might see a little bit of yourself in the impossible couple who for eighteen years clung on so perfectly to what they called love.