Linklater's "Before" Trilogy Is About So Much More Than Romantic Love

by Evan Sawdey

12 June 2017

Across three films and 18 years, the characters of Jesse and Céline have endured in the hearts of cinephiles everywhere, but their journey remains more complex than you remembered.
Céline (Julie Delpy) and Jesse (Ethan Hawke) in Before Sunrise (1995) 
cover art

The Before Trilogy (The Criterion Collection)

Director: Richard Linklater
Cast: Julie Delpy, Ethan Hawke

US DVD: 28 Feb 2017

The story of Jesse and Céline, at least we know it, both begins and ends with an argument.

In Richard Linklater‘s Before Sunrise (1995), an older couple is arguing on a train ride to Vienna. It’s not just any fight though: it’s one of those deep-seated, knows-each-other’s-ticks kind of fights, one that’s intensely personal but soon spreads around in the train car like some sort of airborne poison. It’s for this reason that a young, vibrant Céline (Julie Delpy) moves seats, sitting down in front of a handsome American named Jesse (Ethan Hawke). The two strike up a short conversation, with Jesse asking Céline if she knows that the couple was arguing about, but she doesn’t.

Flash forward 18 years later. At the tail end of Before Midnight (2013), the third filmed meeting of the characters (not counting their too-brief appearance in Linklater’s Waking Life), Jesse & Céline have just finished a fight of similar toxicity. The couple is arguing about their life trajectories, their responsibilities, and whether or not they’ll ever be able to find a compromise. Céline ends the argument in a heated exchange where she tells Jesse she’s not in love with him anymore, before retiring to a table on the Greek docks, Jesse trying to get her to smile even still.

There are several things that are profoundly unique about Linklater’s heralded “Before Trilogy”, a rightfully heralded documentation of falling in love and all that goes with it, but perhaps the triptych’s greatest asset is that each film works both as a standalone piece as well as a part of this distinct three-act story.

Before Sunset (1995)

Before Sunset (1995)

Before Sunset opens with Jesse in a Parisian bookshop, giving a talk about his hit novel (based on this incredible one-night encounter with a girl he met on a train). A series of short flashbacks tell you all that you need to know, but the more you dive into each film, the more the connective tissue becomes apparent: outside of the obvious use of the same central characters, there are always a litany of shots depicting either places the characters have already visited in the film or will visit later on; there are frequent shots of the couple’s shoes as they’re walking together (and Linklater brilliantly subverts this trope with the Before Midnight opening). There’s often an extended long take of Jesse and Céline just making conversation as the camera casually tracks them, this one shot sometimes totaling more than ten-minutes without a single edit.

Yet while each film tells you everything you need to know about it even without having seen the others, these films still work best as a unified whole. This is why Criterion felt the need to release these films so close together (to say nothing of capitalizing on Linklater and Hawke’s monumental success with their 2014 collaboration Boyhood). Both Before Sunrise and 2004’s Before Sunset breathe a rare romantic air, with Before Sunrise depicting young love developing in the most idyllic of fashions, while the arguably more charming Before Sunset alludes to promises kept, promises broken, and the anticipatory air of reconciliation, even in the face of the most outrageous circumstances.

Before Midnight (2013)

Before Midnight (2013)

The final chapter, however, brings everything together. It’s a bold movie, and in Dream is Destiny, a feature-length documentary about Linklater’s works which is just one of the expectedly-many extras that populate a Criterion release, Linklater talks about what happens during the “ever after” part of a relationship that does not get made. He’s not wrong, as, during the promotion for Before Midnight, there were more than a few press statements wherein Hawke referred to these works as “the lowest-grossing trilogy in the history of motion pictures.”

Despite the last two films scoring well-deserved Academy Award nominations for Adapted Screenplay, each entry in this series ended up grossing less than $10 million, connecting with the arthouse circuit but not much beyond critics and cinephiles. However, these movies have nonetheless developed a mighty cult following. Each film is just one small peek into the universal cycle of relationships, with Before Midnight nailing all the little details that people so often forget after you’ve spent years in a routine with someone. Details such as sex being interrupted by a phone call, talking to your partner while one of them is using the restroom (and leaves the door open), one person’s joke about your relationship in front of friends going a bit too far, etc. It’s those small, difficult, too-relatable moments which speak the loudest, as both Jesse and Céline (and Hawke and Delpy) have grown into these characters so much that their level of comfort with each other means that their blowup fights ring painfully true. The fire between them present in the last two films is now down to flickering sparks, but sparks nonetheless.

Simply filming two people talking in a single take isn’t enough for the modern movie-goer, which is why Linklater uses the medium of film to truly convey the earnestness and sweetness contained within Jesse and Céline’s compelling relationship. Long shots in a leafy green Parisian pathway alternate between following behind the duo and tracking shots ahead of them, their dialogue cut flawlessly so as to give Linklater’s vision complete fluidity. In fact, with Before Sunset, Linklater set out to make a film that truly did feel like it’s happening in real time, tracking the couple across 90-minutes that feels like a breezy 90-minutes (it was shot in only 15 days). Before Sunrise and Before Midnight take longer jumps in time, but the overall effect remains stunning: every one-off conversational topic and cutting aside simply adding (or removing) bricks from the stability of their relationship. Even with both characters being intensely (sometimes too overtly) verbose, their chemistry feels natural, relatable, and truly earned.

While the Before trilogy does have parallels in relationship-centric movies ranging from Ingmar Bergman’s Scenes From a Marriage (1974) to Woody Allen’s Husbands and Wives (1992), Linklater moves to his own beat, follows his own muses, and despite the European locales and inspirations, the Before Trilogy truly does feel like an American creation. Linklater indulges those sly smiles and conversational oddities that Jesse and Céline get into, moving the “plot” on its terms. The numerous commentary tracks provided here speak less to the universal themes of each film more to the funny stories from on set and information about various locales. When Linklater, Hawke, and Delpy get together, their collective sense of camaraderie is immediate and infectious.

While some Criterion releases contain supplemental material that feels absolutely essential, some of the behind-the-scenes footage proves to be rather droll, to say nothing for the indulgent “video essay” about Linklater’s thoughts on “Cinema and Time”. However,  the amount of critical discussions, radio shows, and additional documentaries made available truly allows fans to dig into the creative space that each film was born from. There are rumors that a fourth film may transpire in 2022, but there’s no need, as the arc we have experienced with Jesse and Céline has endured and endeared them to us. They have made us think of them less as mere characters and more like a couple happen to know oh so very well.

The Before Trilogy may be billed as pure romantic escapism (and in the case of Before Midnight, harsh realism), but at the end of the day, this is truly a human story, one that we’ll come back to time and time again. They may argue and bicker still, but as long as their purely fictional love preserves, so will our adoration.

The Before Trilogy (The Criterion Collection)

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