Hidden Gems: The Before Trilogy

By Kyle Lee

January 10, 2018

No, I will never play a character named Jolly the Pimp in Valerian.

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Richard Linklater’s Before movies arguably make up the greatest trilogy in cinema. Beginning with 1995’s Before Sunrise, then 2004’s Before Sunset, and likely concluding in 2013’s Before Midnight, the series follows the lives of Jesse (Ethan Hawke) and Celine (Julie Delpy) as they meet by chance on a train in their early 20’s, fall in love, and try to live their lives. I have always loved Linklater’s movies, and have been happy that his work is getting more popular by the year (especially after his mainstream hit Boyhood a few years ago) but these are his masterpieces.

Before Sunrise is where we see young American Jesse, riding the train through Europe when a German couple begin arguing and he finds himself watching them, while also catching the eye of a pretty blond girl trying to read her book. After the arguing couple leave the car, Jesse strikes up a conversation with the girl, Celine, who is on her way home to Paris. Just as the conversation is starting though, the train arrives at Jesse’s stop in Vienna. He convinces Celine to get off the train with him and wander the city all night before he has to leave home for New York in the morning. So they walk through the city, talking, philosophizing about nearly everything under the sun. Jesse pretends to be more coolly jaded than he is, trying to hide the hopeless romantic underneath. Celine is outwardly, initially, quirky and fun and lighthearted, but soon comes out that she is opinionated, her intelligence razor sharp, though she too has the heart of a romantic. They connect deeply, and it’s exhilarating to see them fall slowly in love over the course of the night that changes both of their lives. In the morning they agree that it’s crazy to give up their lives for each other, even though they’re obviously head over heels for one another, because they just met. So they agree to meet back in Vienna in six months, and if they show up, they know that what they had was real. They part and we watch as they smile to themselves as they bask in the glow of that glorious night.

After the open-ended beauty of the ending of Before Sunrise, when I heard they were making a sequel, I was angry, as the ambiguity of the ending to the first movie would be ruined by catching up to the characters again. Part of the genius of it is that you got to make up your own mind about whether you thought the characters got back together in six months. At the beginning of Before Sunset (my favorite of the trilogy, if I had to pick) we see Jesse having this exact conversation with a group of journalists in a bookshop in Paris. We realize that he’s written a book about that night, “fictionalized” it, and he’s telling the reporters that the ending of the book is meant to be made up by you. If you’re a romantic, you think of course they got together. If you’re a rationalist, you hope they did, but it’s understandable that they probably didn’t. If you’re cynical, you think there’s no way they made such a big leap for a person they’d only known for 10 hours or so. I was the romantic that wanted them to have gotten back together. Of course, I first saw the movie when I was about their age, early 20’s, idealistic and in love with the idea of being in love. But we don’t see Celine around. What happened? We soon find out as Celine shows up to the bookstore and the movie goes on a real time journey of 90 minutes before Jesse again has to catch a plane back to New York.


The final entry, Before Midnight, is the hardest to watch. Jesse and Celine are married with children and although both are still those same romantics they were when they’d met 18 years before, they’ve let the mundanity of life dull their edges. They gotten complacent in their lives. They’re successful, Jesse’s writing has obviously given them a rich life. But they’re not as happy as they once were. Most of the movie, about the second half or so, is taken up in one of those epic fights that couples sometimes have once they have the space and time to hash out all of their issues with one another. They know how to hurt each other, they know what buttons to push, and they’re both stagnant and unhappy with where they are right now. But again, as all three movies have, there’s an uplift of hope at the end of the movie. There’s an ending of possibility and love. These two are soul mates and we have to hope that they can work things out.

Now, if it sounds like I just spoiled all three movies, trust me that I didn’t. The biggest pleasure of the films is watching Celine and Jesse talk. Watching them push and pull each other. Watching them love, and fall in love again and again. Watching them get drunk on their ideas. But my favorite thing about the trilogy may be how each is a portrait of these people at very distinct times in their lives. In their early 20’s, Sunrise, they’re idealistic and romantic and the whole world is their oyster. In their 30’s, Sunset, they’ve experienced life more. They’ve loved and been loved and hurt and been hurt. The world has made them a bit wearier, but they’ve still got those young kids inside them. That’s not gone. In their 40’s, Midnight, they’re evaluating their lives in totally different ways. What paths have their decisions taken them on? Is this where they want to be? Is this who they want to be with? What do they want? Can they have what they want? What if they want different things? The questions are much more complex in your 40’s than they are in your 20’s. You are much more complex.

It’s a testament to the actors and to Richard Linklater as the director that they don’t just rehash the same movie. It’s the same characters, but each movie is distinct to itself. I don’t find myself re-watching Midnight as much, but it’s an invaluable part of the series. Ethan Hawke has said that he felt like the ending to Midnight was an ending to these characters and he doesn’t anticipate the trio making a fourth movie, but that would still be four years away at this point, so who knows. As it is, I cherish what we’ve got. Even though Linklater has made many masterpieces (Dazed and Confused, Boyhood, and near masterpieces like Bernie, A Scanner Darkly, Waking Life, and Slacker) these are his crowning achievement. It might’ve been chance that he ended up with the perfect partners in Ethan Hawke and Julie Delpy, but it was chance for Jesse and Celine too.



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