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Remember Death: Passage of Time Through Linklater’s Lens

Kia Rahnama

Richard Linklater's Before trilogy is a rare work of cinema that lives up to the true spirit of memento mori: remembering that we all will die.

The Latin phrase memento mori translates to “remember that you will die”. It refers to an artistic impression that reflects upon mortality, passage of time, and death. The maniacal swipe of destitution imposed by the Black Death in the 15th century was the instrument behind its introduction into European art. In tune with the religious paradigm of the time, texts and manuscripts dedicated to meditations and reflections on death appeared on the scene. Its natural incorporation into the visual arts in the next century soon solidified its track. A human skull, an hour glass, other artifacts of the same poignancy became the defining characteristics of the genre.

In music, the most convincing works of memento mori were produced by likes of the German composer Johann Jakob Froberger, who wrote many pieces solely dedicated to reflections on passing of friends and companions. At the beginning of the 18th century memento mori imagery took on a more elusive path. Regular iconographic symbols of the method such as the human skull or the hourglass were replaced with more modern representations of life’s limits. The most prominent artifact in applying memento mori soon became the mechanical clock. Many iconic images from the past century in movies are vivid examples of the tradition. In western movies, in particular, the imagery of a clock striking twelve became the clearest form of death personified. George Orwell’s masterful command of the imagery shaped the beginning sentence of the novel 1984.

Despite its transformation, the genre has found a comfortable medium in cinema, continuously appearing in pieces that deal with perennial matters that are linked to or are byproducts of our eschatological concerns: namely love, heroism, and sex.

Film: Before Sunrise

Director: Richard Linklater

Studio: Castle Rock

Cast: Julie Delpy, Ethan Hawke

US Release Date: 1995-01-27

UK Release Date: 1995-04-20

Year: 1995

MPAA Rating: R


It is no surprise that experiences of collective grief, such as the events of September 11, 2001, precede a wave of revival in the genre. Memento mori has surreptitiously defined some of our favorite pieces of art in the last decade. The “Nolzation” of the DC Universe is a fine example of the form’s revival; the superhero genre focused more on narratives that tackled concepts of death and sufferance. The romance genre has followed the same pattern. But the concept is most immaculately brought to life when the genius artistry of Richard Linklater is at play.

The Before trilogy and Jesse and Celine’s love story, in its depiction, pulls at this stretched and enduring thread. W.H Auden’s hauntingly beautiful poem "As I Walked Out One Evening", recited by Jesse in one of the critical closing scenes of Before Sunrise, is a classic rendition of memento mori art. In the poem the message of life’s transiency is delivered to the young lovers as all the clocks in the city come to life and boorishly sing the song of death. The mechanical clocks in the poem carry the foreboding message that neither lover can escape the passage of time and that each will in time become engrossed with the thought of death.

Jesse and Celine’s story is, in many ways, Auden’s poem recaptured on the screen, constant reminders of transiency of life are reverberating in the characters’ minds, and more than often the most candid moments between the two revolves around recollecting memories that have shaped each one’s perception of death.

Film: Before Sunset

Director: Richard Linklater

Studio: Castle Rock

Cast: Julie Delpy, Ethan Hawke

US Release Date: 2004-07-02 (Limited)

UK Release Date: 2004-07-23 (General)

Year: 2004

MPAA Rating: R


The first discussion of death appears 12 minutes into Before Sunrise when Celine confesses that she finds herself occupied with the fear of death “24 hours a day”. Jesse distinctly remembers a confession from a friend who found himself strangely occupied with the thought of death when holding in his arms his newborn. Frequent references to older relatives of both Jesse and Celine are also of great significance, driving home each character’s obsession with life at its most frail state. Both characters’ obsession with death is prelapsarian and rooted in their childhood. Celine’s attachment to a childhood picture of her with her grandmother and Jesse’s childhood story in which he purports to have seen a vision of his then-deceased grandmother are evidences of the characters’ precocity.

Reflection upon death, in the most effective memento mori pieces, however, is captured by presenting the image of death in contrast to jubilance of life. In Nicolas Poussin’s “Arcadian Shepherds”, a classical memento mori painting, youthful Arcadian shepherds roaming around a scenic pastoral stumble upon a tombstone that reads: “I too lived in Arcady”. Jesse and Celine’s short walk through the austere graveyard in Vienna serves the same exact element. It is to impose on the audience the bleak image of the final destination when the picture at the same time is revealing the contrasting elements of love and life. Much like the characters in Poussin’s painting, Jesse and Celine are left to oscillate between utopian love and the ever-present dystopia of death.

Whereas the contrast in Poussin’s painting is drawn against the youthful vigor of the shepherds, in Linklater’s trilogy the question is whether or not the fear of death will break through the emotional armor of romantic love. Linklater successfully preserves the background of Auden’s poem. A sense of confinement imposed by passage of time is present in the first two films of the trilogy as the lovers have to reconcile their indefatigable desire to stay with each other with time constraints of their daily lives. In Before Midnight, the third film in the trilogy, these constraints are lifted, yet Jesse and Celine have to face the far greater challenge of contemplating the passage of time as it starts to more and more resonate the arrival of death. Under this context, Jesse assumes wardenship of the relationship in the final moments of the Before Midnight, self-assured that he will not succumb to his fear of time. All of this is embedded inside a profoundly beautiful metaphor of a time machine that will protect both lovers from their own trepidations.

Film: Before Midnight

Director: Richard Linklater


Cast: Julie Delpy, Ethan Hawke

US Release Date: 2013-06-13

UK Release Date: 2013-06-21

Year: 2013

MPAA Rating: R


The strongest link between the narrative of the Before trilogy and the mement mori tradition is evidenced through the use of music. Finding resonance in the detached quality of sound produced by strings of a harpsichord (as opposed to the piano beats which fill the momentary silence created from transitioning notes) Johann Froberger, one of the pioneers of the style, insisted that all memento mori pieces be only played on this instrument. Froberger found that the spaces of silence left in between note transitions on a harpsichord meet the goal of meditating on the subject of death by signaling patience and transition. J.S. Bach, arriving on the scene years later and undoubtedly influenced by both the style and Froberger, produced many works of memento mori which found their identity in the sound of a harpsichord for the same reason.

In Before Sunrise, Jesse and Celine are captured by the sounds of harpsichord from a basement in Vienna. The mellifluous rhythm of Bach’s Andante from "Sonata for viola da gamba" is so strong that Jesse finds himself back in real time. The two lovers trying to escape the passage of time find themselves face to face with the reality of its dominion. Bach’s piece in its immediate resemblance to Froberger’s memento mori piece solidifies Linklater’s pronounced revalidation of the art-form, projecting the style in sight, sound, and motion.

Kia Rahnama is a student of international law at George Washington University. He frequently writes about politics and cinema and can be found on Twitter at @KRahnama.

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