Review: The Before Trilogy (1995-2013)

Crimson Quill’s Appraisal #669

Number of Views: Multiple
Release Dates: January 27, 1995 (Sunrise), July 2, 2004 (Sunset), May 24, 2013 (Midnight)
Sub-Genre: Romantic Drama
Country of Origin: United States
Budget: $8,200,000
Box Office: $44,900,000
Running Time: 101 minutes (Sunrise), 80 minutes (Sunset), 109 minutes (Midnight)
Director: Richard Linklater
Producers: Richard Linklater, Anne Walker-McBay, Christos V. Konstantakopoulos, Sara Woodhatch
Screenplay: Richard Linklater, Ethan Hawke, Julie Delpy
Based on characters by Richard Linklater & Kim Krizan
Cinematography: Lee Daniel, Christos Voudouris
Score: Fred Frith, Julie Delpy, Graham Reynolds
Editing: Sandra Adair
Studios: Castle Rock Entertainment, Venture Forth
Distributors: Columbia Pictures, Warner Independent Pictures, Sony Pictures Classics
Stars: Ethan Hawke, Julie Delpy, Vernon Dobtcheff, Seamus Davey-Fitzpatrick, Jennifer Prior, Charlotte Prior, Xenia Kalogeropoulou, Walter Lassally, Ariane Labed, Yiannis Papadopoulos, Athina Rachel Tsangari, Panos Koronis

Suggested Audio Jukebox ♫

[1] Appaloosa “The Day (We Fell In Love)”

[2] Kathy McCarty “Living Life”

[3] Kath Bloom “Come Here”

[4] Julie Delpy “An Ocean Apart”

[5] Julie Delpy “A Waltz For The Night”

[6] Nouvelle Vague (feat. Julie Delpy)LaLaLa”

[7] Graham Reynolds “The Best Summer of My Life”

I find the idea of soul mates wonderfully enchanting. The idea that somewhere out there in this vast universe is another soul designed solely for you may seem a little too far-fetched a notion for some to grasp but I always have been a dreamer and from what I hear, I’m not the only one. Let’s not bow Cupid’s arrow here, I’ve never once read a Mills & Boon novel and the impish side of me secretly smirks each time Sam Wheat fails to kick the can in Ghost. But I’m open all hours to whimsy, and despite the course of true love proving far from easy, never once surrendered hope of forging that special connection. I kind of like Aristophanes’ take on soul mates. He claims that each soul is split into two halves by the almighty and spend the remainder of eternity searching for one another. This can play out over a number of reincarnations, and each time, the two puzzle pieces will seek to fuse back together thus returning to their ultimate form. It’s all terribly romantic, and whether you buy into ancient philosophy or not, it’s nice to share an unspoken affinity with another soul. It sure beats peddling hate.

One man who I’m reasonably certain gets me is American dreamer and auteur, Richard Linklater (Waking Life, A Scanner Darkly). You see, the original concept of Before Sunrise actually stemmed from real-life experience, after he happened across a woman in a toy store in Philadelphia in 1989 completely by chance and the pair wound up walking the city together, chatting away until the early hours almost as though they’d met in a previous life and were just getting reacquainted. Along with co-writer Kim Krizan, he ruminated over this for a number of years, looking to explore the idea of two people with complete anonymity trying to find out who they really were well outside of their comfort zones.

Eventually, Jesse and Céline were born, and after nine gruelling months of searching for his leads, he plumped on Ethan Hawke and Julie Delpy. Once Hawke and Delpy were on-board, the concept finally took flight, and after refurnishing his original script, the pair ended up co-writing both sequels from completely different parts of the globe. Set at nine-year intervals, The Before Trilogy has since gone on to become one of the most enduring romances ever committed to celluloid.

Okay so I guess there’s no better place to begin but the very beginning like any good love story right? Wasting precious little time or leg room, Jesse and Céline meet on a train from Budapest and strike up a conversation instantly. Céline is returning to Paris after visiting her grandmother and Jesse is headed for Vienna, where he plans to catch a flight back to the United States the next morning. On their arrival, he manages to convince her to disembark with him, although it doesn’t take a great stretch as they’re feeling effortlessly drawn to one another, as though magnetized by a force neither one feels ready to ignore.

Alas Jesse has insufficient funds to rent a room for his last night in Europe, so the two decide to roam the streets of Vienna and see where that leads them. Given that both are far from their comfort zones or respective homelands, they’re more inclined to throw caution to the wind and trust this feeling deep in their guts. After all, moments like these come along once, perhaps twice in a lifetime and neither one wishes to arrive ten or twenty years down the line still wondering “what if” so really what’s to lose?

Straight off the bat, the chemistry they share is sweet, unforced, and exciting. Needless to say, both are committed to making a good impression and Hawke and Delpy touch beautifully on the awkwardness of these early exchanges. However, while it’s easy to lose your audience, particularly when they come from an entirely different culture than you, Jesse and Céline hang from one another’s every word, captivated to learn more about their one-night travel companion. They’re also under no illusion that their time together will ultimately draw to a close and that long distance correspondence will likely amount to one or two broken hearts and lessen the magic. Thus, this is a one-time deal, bereft of strings, just two kindred souls masquerading in a romantic city until which time as the sun rears its head and bursts their cozy bubble.

Massive stretches of dialogue play out in long, uninterrupted takes and never once does their connection feel forced or insincere. There is no language barrier between them as Céline speaks impeccable English, leading them to try on new conversations and ideas like window shopping together for the very first time. Speaking of which, there’s a scene inside a record store listening booth that exquisitely captures the awkwardness of something as intimate as sharing audio. One looks at the other. Then turns away in time for the other not to catch them looking.

All the time it feels simple and natural, speed-dialing us effortlessly back to our own youthful enlightenment to Kath Bloom’s mystifyingly beautiful ode to true love, Come Here. Then later in a traditional Viennese café, Jesse and Céline stage fake back-and-forth phone conversations and we receive our first definitive clue as to what they truly mean to one another, after a few short hours no less. The sentiment is clear, and what’s more, it doesn’t feel improbable given the context.

Before Sunrise is a film for the hopeless romantic that exists in all of us should we choose to search hard enough and both Hawke and Delpy play a role too incalculable to place into sufficient words. We count down every second, desperate for time to stop, for the world to cease spinning on its axle – and it pretty much feels like it does because of the inimitable bond they share. From first glance, to first joke shared, first lover’s quarrel, first kiss, first time, and ultimately the dreaded sunrise appointment with adieu, it’s perfection in its purest form, and thanks to young dreamers, Jesse and Céline, I will never forget that one borrowed night in Vienna.

Crimson Quill’s Judgement: 10/10

So how could one ever hope to follow up such a treasured memory? Elementary with these three souls fully invested. Given the ambiguous manner in which the first film concluded, Before Sunrise has nine gap years to fill in and it does so extraordinarily well. Before the film has even begun, the anticipation is overwhelming, like catching up with two old friends who you haven’t seen for almost a decade. And that is what Jesse and Céline are to us now – old friends and of the very best variety imaginable.

Naturally a great deal has changed during the interim and their worlds feel even farther apart now. Jesse is a published author and his latest novel, This Time, is on the bestseller list, while Céline is an environmental activist and fiercely passionate about her role in making the world a better place for all. Both have taken tremendous strides in their personal lives too but neither have forgotten what they shared in Vienna.

It just so happens that Jesse is on the last leg of a European book tour in Paris and is wrapping up a Q&A at a quaint little bookstore called Shakespeare and Company. As Jesse prepares to depart for the airport, his eyes wander and he spots Céline there, smiling at him warmly. Secretly this is precisely what he wished for as this is her home turf after all and a glimmer of hope was all it took to place himself in the hands of fate a second time.

This time, their encounter will need to be even more brief as Jesse has barely an hour to kill before leaving for the airport. However, none of this matters right now as he has got what he came for, and while she plays it coy initially, we already know that Céline has too. They’re thirtysomethings now, settled in their routines, and less starry-eyed about what the future holds; but the spark between them is still evident and they’d follow this electricity to the end of the earth and beyond just to bask in one another’s presence once more.

While the conversation flows just as effortlessly as before, there is a reticence about each exchange, and to begin with at least, they shy away from the real burning questions on both of their lips. However, once they start to relax into the same kind of rhythm of nine years ago, the inevitable topics are breached. It’s understandable that they’re wary as they know only too well that the answers won’t all be to their liking. After all, life has happened, commitments have been made, and they’re no longer the carefree kids they were before the sun rose.

Despite the fact that a little of the youthful naïvety of their time-sensitive liaison has been surrendered, the dialogue between them is every bit as fascinating to observe. Moreover, we’re positively willing them on to tackle the real elephant in the room and, after much toing and froing, we get what we booked the return trip for.

Time is no longer a luxury they have at their disposal so they head back to Céline’s apartment and Jesse persuades her to play him a waltz on her guitar. Naturally she obliges and takes a deep breath before serenading him with A Waltz For A Night. This is one of those key cinematic moments that will remain with you until your dying day, provided you don’t possess a heart of stone of course. Vulnerable, heartfelt and delivered straight from the soul that Jesse has a 50% stake in, Céline elucidates in a few short verses what that one night in Vienna truly meant to her.

Before Sunset could so easily have failed to measure up to the original as so much water has passed under the bridge since but Linklater and his two performers remember that, while Jesse and Céline are older and wiser now, the audience is too. The topics mused about may have changed considerably from music and the arts to politics and gender, but the naturalistic manner in which they approach them hasn’t. Every second counts. Every word counts. Every expression counts. And where the original presented us with an ideal, its sequel provides their love affair with real world context, rekindling their romance, and just as critically, ours too.

Crimson Quill’s Judgement: 10/10

Time for a break from all this lovey dovey stuff methinks. Thus before I tackle the third and final leg of Jesse and Céline’s journey, I shall run my eye over a film which takes a significantly different approach to a similar theme. Delpy wrote and directed 2 Days in Paris herself, and on paper at least, it appears to fit into Linklater’s universe rather snugly. Charting the events of a two-day trip to one of the most romantic cities in Europe, it follows Marion (Delpy) and her American boyfriend Jack (Adam Goldberg) as they drink in the local culture together. However, this is where any similarities end as this trades the kismet romanticism of the Before films for the real-life struggles of navigating the minefield of a relationship in turmoil.

French-born photographer Marion and interior designer Jack have just endured a rather unromantic trip to Venice, which culminated in a nasty case of dysentery for the latter. They arrive in gay Paris on the night train with the intention of reinvigorating their stalling passion for one another and head straight to the home of Marion’s mother and father (her real-life parents Albert Delpy and Marie Pillet) which they plan to use as a base. If it all sounds cozy, then think again, as their turbulent two-year relationship is in dire straits and it’s all about to go off big time.

Tattooed to within an inch of his life, Jack smokes like a chief, is neurotic to the point of hypochondria, and doesn’t speak the lingo which places a hefty barrier between the two as she adopts her native tongue to catch up with her numerous past conquests leaving him woefully adrift. Everywhere they go, another old flame crops up, and jealousy starts to rear its ugly head as Jack begins to wonder just how well he knows his significant other after all. Meanwhile, Marion harbors her own hang-ups about their relationship, has anger issues, and clearly struggles with her impulsive nature. She also has an issue with being upfront about her homeland, family and sexual history which leaves poor Jack feeling very much left in the dark.

Goldberg is simply superb here, growing every more tetchy with every revelation that he is forced to reluctantly accept and relying largely on gestures to piece this puzzle together. The more his racing mind plays tricks on him, the more agitated he becomes, and every last mannerism speaks on his behalf. However, while many of the jokes come at his expense, Delpy too is more than willing to self-efface and the pair play off one another quite brilliantly throughout as they stumble from bad, through worse, and ultimately to Defcon 5.

Forget loves young dreamers, Jesse and Céline, Jack and Marion are unwitting ambassadors for love’s jaded nightmare and the moment when Jack’s saintly patience is tested too far and he blurts out “We’re not in Paris! We’re in Hell!” sums up their spiraling predicament perfectly. Whereas the burning question with Jesse and Céline was always will they or won’t they surrender to their feelings, here it is more a case of will or won’t things end in bloodshed.

2 Days in Paris is effectively the anti-thesis to Before Sunrise and therefore not the ideal date movie. That said, while Jack comes across as a whiny self-absorbed sad sack and Marion a strung from the rafters left-wing hot head, it’s impossible not to sympathize with their plight and will them on to bury the hatchet someplace other than each other’s spleens. It may be uncomfortable to watch them spar so incessantly, but the hilarity of each skirmish provides high points almost too numerous to tally, and both Delpy and Goldberg are never less than a joy to observe. Hearts and flowers may take a back seat to wild eyes and brambles here, but it’s also not without its genuinely touching moments, albeit fleeting, and like all three of the Before films, is respectful enough of its audience to leave us to form our own conclusions. As a matter of fact I have one for you right now – C’est Magnifique.

Crimson Quill’s Judgement: 9/10

Right then, now that we’ve got all that unpleasantness out-of-the-way, I suggest we check on our lovebirds Jesse and Céline before natural light diminishes. Before Midnight shifts us forward another nine years, this time relocating our sweethearts to the idyllic coastline of a rustic peninsula in southern Greece. Once again, a lot has changed since we last caught up, most critically that they are now a bona fide couple with twin girls in tow, not to mention Jesse’s 14-year-old son from his previous marriage who is about to return to Chicago. They have a few days to kill before the end of their summer vacation and decide to see their trip out at the bohemian residence of Jesse’s mentor Patrick (Walter Lassally).

As we have long since come to expect, the pair hit their stride instinctively and the first twenty minutes comprise of only two scenes as we are brought safely up to speed on their journey together. Now in their forties, the luxury of impulse is no longer so freely at their disposal as juggling their careers and family is proving more all-encompassing than either of them anticipated.

On the surface they appear happy enough and remain upbeat and jovial as they enjoy good food and fine wine with friends around the dinner table. During what precious little down time they have, they stroll through sun-bleached orchards and reminisce over how they came together in the first place. However, it’s hard to shake the feeling that there’s an underlying resentment simmering in both of them.

Something clearly has to give here and any pent-up grievances eventually spill over as they are afforded a rare night off from their responsibilities. What starts promisingly enough soon turns ugly as they attempt to rekindle the flame of passion and any expelled fluids clear the way for some brutal honesty. Jesse drops a bombshell, Céline reacts, home truths are delivered and things continue to escalate as they get a few things off their chest that have evidently gone unspoken for too long.

There are a number of reasons why this particular scene hits home, none less the fact that Delpy spends most of it bare-chested. Before you go reaching for the hand lotion, this is far more than a cheap exercise in titillation. It’s as natural as it is utterly logical. Somehow things have reached the point where they look at one another merely as wallpaper and the romance of Vienna and Paris is some way in their slipstream.

Moreover, they know each other well enough to know precisely which words will hurt most and this will resonate with anyone who has arrived at the same relationship crossroads. Nothing is overblown or undercooked, the fight is instigated and plays out like real conflict would and their bitterness and world-weariness is brought sharply into focus, excruciatingly so.

If it all sounds suspiciously downbeat then scowl not as there’s just as much joy in Before Midnight as there is doom and gloom. The greatest strength of the Before trilogy is that Jesse and Céline have never felt like fictional characters; they’re no less flawed than any other couple for whom reality is biting and their path to a happy ending no more defined. It has never been the intention of Linklater or his co-writing leads to make things cut and dried and they understand that real life can rarely match up to one’s limitless imagination. Thus in keeping with time honored tradition, he supplies just a glimpse of a bigger picture and allows our minds to do the rest. God bless him for that.

Crimson Quill’s Judgement: 9/10

As far as trilogies are concerned, Linklater’s masterful three-piece is right up there in the uppermost tier. All three films differ markedly from one another but they also chart a natural progression. Before Sunrise is all about two people forging a connection, Before Sunset ponders whether or not it can be reestablished, and Before Midnight fixates on keeping that spark alive through the testing times that every couple faces. One thing is consistent throughout however and that is our emotional investment. We’re willing Jesse and Céline on all the way as they offer hope to every last one of us, even when it appears that all is lost. And that is why, should the trio choose to reunite in 2022, I’ll be the first to renew my passport.

Read Garden State Appraisal
Read Lost in Translation Appraisal
Read Spring Appraisal
Read A Scanner Darkly Appraisal

Richard Charles Stevens

Keeper of The Crimson Quill

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1 Comment

  1. I have never seen the trilogy but a lot of people revere it. At this point in my life, it hits home way too hard as I am personally grappling with this issue.
    Always a closet romantic, a believer in the designs of fate, I find myself embroiled in this senario for real.
    What a beautiful assessment, Rich. Thanks for giving me the power to dream in a world that is designed to discourage it.

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