The Before Trilogy – Before Sunrise (1995), Before Sunset (2004) & Before Midnight (2013)

The Art of Conversing & the Articulation of Love

I have always held a special fascination with the simple things in life; the confluence of unspoken companionship and quotidian quibbles which so often come to define personal relationships. In filmmaking, nowhere has it been manifested so starkly than in Richard Linklater’s Before Trilogy. Whilst Linklater’s latest triumph – Boyhood – has generated widespread acclaim by adopting the same experimental technique of shooting a film over an extended period of time, its genesis lies in his quintessential love epic, the Before Trilogy (the first of which was released in 1995).

Before Sunrise opens quietly, on an unassuming train ride through Europe’s idyllic countryside, where our protagonists find each other absorbed in their readings, but most of all, absorbed by a mutual curiosity. Ethan Hawke’s Jesse is a laidback, charismatic American, on his way back to the States via Vienna, whilst girl-next-door Celine (Julie Delpy) is travelling home to Paris having visited her elderly grandmother in Budapest. The strangers strike up a conversation, and utterly amazed to have discovered such an obliging companion, are loathe to part on such fleeting terms. Here, in a “what could have been” moment indulged by most of us in our imaginations (but only the rare few of us in reality), Jesse persuades Celine to elongate the time they have together by disembarking the train at Vienna.

Having realised the spontaneity with which they have acquired their time together, the pair quickly delves into questions of the heart and mind with vivacious relish. It is interesting to note that their conversation, whilst brisk and eclectic (flowing effortlessly from career, religion, family, to death and reincarnation), seems innocuous enough, each holding back just before it would be deemed too personal or neurotic. The conversation engaged by their bodies is similarly tentative at the start; each wishing to reach out to the other, but inwardly fearful of rejection by revealing too much, too soon.

Before 2

Despite the absence of cinematic pyrotechnics, there is no shortage of onscreen spark between Delpy and Hawke. The beauty of the young and impressionistic Celine (“isn’t everything we do in life a way to be loved a little more?”) is magnified through the way Jesse looks at her, incredulous that an aimless wandering in Europe could have transpired in such fruitful romance. The city, iridescent in their presence, also does not disappoint with its cosy cafes, friendly bars, dizzying showgrounds and clandestine parkways, which conveniently provide the perfect landscape for the nurturing of young love. Before Sunrise closes with more questions than answers, however, and chief amongst them, the fate of that one night on the rest of their lives remains unanswered.

Before Sunset, filmed nine years after the initial encounter, further extends the allure of the first film (and surprisingly, this second film is my favourite of the trilogy). Under the guise of successful authorship, Jesse, now in his mid-thirties and unhappily wedded, sets out to find the one he has been unable to forget. The bestselling book, in which Jesse recounts that one night with Celine, inevitably draws Celine to him at a book launch in her hometown. Reunited again after nine years of deafening silence, both have burning questions that they want answered: in that winter, did either turn up at the same place where they bid goodbye as agreed upon? For Jesse, who has waited long for this moment, the answer is too much to bear, learning that their unfortunate circumstances could have been so easily overcome by an exchange of contact details.

Before 3.jpg

Delighted at their reunion, however, the pair reconnects prior relations and once again engages in conversations which are as mellifluent and scintillating as ever. We soon learn that both have partnered in the intervening years and appear to lead wholesome lives. Against this backdrop, our protagonists are understandably more delicate and restrained; both having more to lose, and uncertain yet of what can be gained through their rendezvous in Paris.

Therein lies the undeniable chemistry of the film. The afternoon cruise ride, culminating in the car ride back to Celine’s apartment, delivers some of the most devastatingly enchanting and powerful dialogues of any modern romance. The floodgates are opened and both are finally able to express with unbridled passion their overwhelming disappointment of dreams dashed and lives remaining unfulfilled. Celine’s “I put all of romanticism into that one night and I was never able to feel all this again” is harrowing, as much as Jesse’s “I might have given up on the whole idea of romantic love, that I might have put it to bed that day when you weren’t there…”

Before 4

Heartrending as the dialogue was in Before Sunset, in Before Midnight Linklater discloses the inevitability of the previous episode. The past nine years have borne a divorce (for Jesse and his first wife), a son (Jesse’s adolescent son Hank), a long-awaited marriage and an expanded family (the adorable bilingual twin girls born as a consequence of Jesse’s missed flight to the US). Having forsaken his American roots to settle in Paris, Jesse and Celine are on the Greek islands for a family holiday.

The relaxed backdrop of the Mediterranean belies the tensions which bubble underneath. Nonetheless it would not be at all difficult to conjecture the main theme of the third episode. Contrasting with the dulcet romanticism of Before Sunrise and the brewing intensity in Before Sunset, the heated sparring in Before Midnight is only a realistic and meaningful extension of their lives. With its appeal again squarely hinged on its conversational brilliance, Before Midnight will prove to be the most unreserved of the trilogy. Linklater also comes full circle with his exploration of time travel, which Jesse applies with adeptness in finally softening the edges of the quarrel (having first deployed the same tactic in captivating the attention of Celine some eighteen years ago).

The Before Trilogy is representational of simple, eloquent storytelling at its finest; stripped of all artifice and melodrama typical of its contemporary peers, we are offered a rare glimpse into the stirrings of young love played out over nearly two decades. In addition to the continuity of the actors, what makes the films so believable and endearing is that both Hawke and Delpy have co-authored much of the script in Before Sunset and Before Midnight. Ultimately, it is an enduring love affair of two individuals drawn to each other through the magnetic influence of words; and it is this ability to articulate love which will no doubt continue to weave its magic in the lifetime to follow.

Before 5Rewatchability Index: 4.5/5.


The Best of Celine

Before Sunrise: You know, my parents haven’t really spoken of the possibility of my falling in love, or getting married, or having children. Even as a little girl, they wanted to think of a future career as an interior designer or lawyer or something like that. I’d say to my dad, I want to be a writer, and he’d say journalist. I’d say, I want to have a refuge for stray cats, and he’d say veterinarian. I’d say I want to be an actress, and he’d say TV newscaster. It was this constant conversion of my fanciful ambitions into these practical money-making ventures.

 *           *           *           *           *

Before Sunrise: People can live their whole life as a lie. My grandmother, she was married to this man, and I always thought she had a very simple and uncomplicated love life, but she just confessed to me that she spent her whole life dreaming about another man she was in love with. She just accepted her fate. It’s so sad…

 *           *           *           *           *

Before Sunrise: I always feel this pressure of being a strong and independent icon of womanhood, and without making it look my whole life is revolving around some guy. But, loving someone, and being loved means so much to me. I always make fun of it and stuff. But isn’t everything we do in life a way to be loved a little more?

 *           *           *           *           *

Before Sunrise: I believe if there’s any kind of God, it wouldn’t be in any of us, not you or me, but just this little space in between. If there’s any kind of magic in this world, it must be in the attempt of understanding someone sharing something. I know, it’s almost impossible to succeed, but who cares really? The answer must be in the attempt.

*           *           *           *           *

Before Sunrise: He has beautiful blue eyes, nice pink lips, greasy hair. I love it. He’s kind of tall and he’s a little clumsy. I like to feel his eyes on me when I look away.

*           *           *           *           *

Before Sunrise: So often in my life I’ve been with people and shared beautiful moments like travelling or staying up all night and watching the sunrise. And I knew those were special moments. But something was always wrong. I wished I’d been with someone else. I knew that what I was feeling, exactly what was so important to me they didn’t understand. But I’m happy to be with you. You couldn’t possibly understand why a night like this is so important to my life right now, but it is.

 *           *           *           *           *

Before Sunrise: When you talked earlier about after a few years how a couple would begin to hate each other by anticipating their reactions or getting tired of their mannerisms. I think it would be the opposite for me. I think I can really fall in love when I know everything about someone – the way he’s going to part his hair, which shirt he’s going to wear that day, knowing the exact story he’d tell in a given situation. I’m sure that’s when I know I’m really in love.

 *           *           *           *           *

Before Sunset: Memory is a wonderful thing if you don’t have to deal with the past.

 *           *           *           *           *

Before Sunset: I read one of mine [journal] from ’83 the other day, and what really surprised me was that I was dealing with life the same way I am now. I was much more hopeful and naïve, but the core, and the way I was feeling things, is exactly the same. It made me realise that I have not changed much at all.

 *           *           *           *           *

Before Sunset: I’m happy you’re saying that, because I mean, I always feel like a freak because I’m never able to move on like this. People just have an affair, or even entire relationships… they break up and they forget. They move on like they would have changed brand of cereals. I was I was never able to forget anyone I’ve been with, because each person had their own specific qualities. You can never replace anyone. What is lost is lost.

 *           *           *           *           *

Before Sunset: I just guess when you are young, you believe that you will meet many people with whom you’ll connect with, but later in life you realise it only happens a few times.

 *           *           *           *           *

Before Sunset: I’m a strong, independent woman in my professional life. I don’t need a man to feed me, but I still need a man to love me and that I could love.

 *           *           *           *           *

Before Sunset: I was thinking, for me it’s better I don’t romanticise things as much anymore. I was suffering so much all the time. I still have lots of dreams, but they’re not in regard to my love life. It doesn’t make me sad, it’s just the way it is.

*           *           *           *           *

Before Sunset: I’m really happy only when I am on my own. Even being alone, it’s better than sitting next to a lover and feeling lonely.

 *           *           *           *           *

Before Sunset: I was fine, until I read you book. It stirred shit up, you know? It reminded me of how genuinely romantic I was, how I had so much hope in things and now it’s like I don’t believe in anything that relates to love. I don’t feel things for people anymore. In a way, I put all of romanticism into that one night and I was never able to feel all this again. Like somehow this night took things away from me and I expressed them to you and you took them with you. It made me feel cold, like love wasn’t for me.

*           *           *           *           *

Before Sunset: Men go out with me, we break up and then they get married. And later they call me to thank me for teaching them what love is. That I taught them to care and respect women… I wanna kill them! Why didn’t they ask me to marry them? I would have said no, but at least they could have asked!

 *           *           *           *           *

Before Sunset: You come to Paris, all romantic, and married. Okay, screw you… There’s been so much water under the bridge, it’s not even about you anymore, it’s about that time, that moment in time that is forever gone.

The Best of Jesse

 Before Sunrise: Yeah, yeah, yeah, I get it, I get it. So I’m the crude, dumb, vulgar American who doesn’t speak any other language so has no culture, right?

 *           *           *           *           *

Before Sunrise: I want to keep talking to you. I have no idea what your situation is, but I feel like we have some kind of connection… Think of it like this: jump ahead, ten, twenty years, okay, and you’re married. Only your marriage doesn’t have that same energy that it used to have, y’know. You start to blame your husband. You start to think about all those guys you’ve met in your life and what might have happened if you’d picked up with one of them, right? Well, I’m one of those guys. That’s me y’know, so think of this as time travel, from then, to now, to find out what you’re missing out on. See, what this really could be is a gigantic favour to both you and your future husband to find out that you’re not missing out on anything. I’m just as big a loser as he is, totally unmotivated, totally boring, and, uh, you made the right choice, and you’re really happy.

*           *           *           *           *

Before Sunrise: If she’d known him, I’m sure he would have disappointed her eventually… People have this romantic projection they put on everything that’s not based in any kind of reality.

 *           *           *           *           *

Before Sunrise: Well, I kind of see love as this escape for two people who don’t know how to be alone. It’s funny. People always talk about how love is this totally unselfish, giving thing. But if you think about it, there’s nothing more selfish.

*           *           *           *           *

Before Sunrise: If somebody gave me the choice right now of to never see you again or to marry you, I would marry you. And maybe that’s a lot of romantic bullshit, but people have gotten married for a lot less.

 *           *           *           *           *

Before Sunset: [Thomas Wolfe] says that we are the sum of all the moments of our lives, and that anybody who sits down to write is gonna use the clay of their own life, that you can’t avoid that.

 *           *           *           *           *

Before Sunset: I’m serious. I think I wrote it, in a way, to try to find you.

*           *           *           *           *

Before Sunset: In the months leading up to my wedding, I was thinking about you all the time. Even on my way there, I’m in the car and a buddy of mine is driving me downtown and I’m staring out the window and I think I see you, not far from the church, folding up an umbrella and walking into a deli on the corner of Thirteenth and Broadway. And I thought I was going crazy, y’know, but now I think it probably was you.

*           *           *           *           *

Before Sunset: I’m just happy to see you. Even if you’ve become an angry, manic-depressive activist. I still like you, I still enjoy being around you.

 *           *           *           *           *

Before Sunset: I can’t keep living like this, there’s gotta be more to love than commitment. But then I think that, I might have given up on the whole idea of romantic love, that I might have put it to bed that day when you weren’t there…

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7 thoughts on “The Before Trilogy – Before Sunrise (1995), Before Sunset (2004) & Before Midnight (2013)”

  1. I’ve always wanted to wait h the whole series. I think I’ve seen the first one but now that they’re on Amazon I think ill watch them. Movie marathon! That’s for sharing. I appreciated your perspective.

    1. Hi Marie! Thanks for popping by. Your comments have made my day! I was only chatting to my friend recently about how I loved this series and how I watched it in one breath just before I wrote the review. Best movie marathon ever! Before Sunset is my personal favourite, and that moment when Celine tried to reach out to Jesse in the car (only to pull back last minute) is one of the most electric moments on the big screen… Hope you’ll enjoy it as much as I do😋

      1. You’re welcome! I’m glad I followed an impulse and went through the blog posts! Oh! That was one of the pictures you included right? It sounds wonderful, you know who has a movie night coming up soon! 😉

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