The Before Trilogy: Time Regained

“Think of this as time travel.” So goes one of the great pickup lines in all of cinema, arriving mere minutes into Richard Linklater’s Before Sunrise (1995) and inaugurating a screen romance unlike any other. Jesse (Ethan Hawke), a young Texan on a train in eastern Europe, has just struck up a conversation with Celine (Julie Delpy), a young Parisienne who’s heading home from a visit with her grandmother in Budapest. A strong mutual attraction is evident from their effortless banter, which darts from whimsical (Jesse riffs on his idea for a yearlong, real-time public-access cable experiment) to solemn (Celine reveals that she’s constantly terrified of death) to confessional (they share childhood memories and discuss the burden of parental expectations). When the train pulls in to Vienna, where Jesse will catch a flight home the next morning, he persuades Celine to hop off and continue talking as they explore the city. He pitches this as a way to forestall doubt: when her future self looks back, she won’t have to wonder if that interesting guy she once met on the train was a missed opportunity.

The shifting meaning of a moment—as it is anticipated and then experienced, as it is remembered or misremembered, as it gains or loses luster in a year, a decade, or more—is the existential question that animates the story of Jesse and Celine, which has now played out over three films spanning nearly two decades. Before Sunrise depicts the charmed brief encounter of this bright, self-conscious, hyperverbal, sometimes maddening, mostly endearing pair; Before Sunset (2004) stages the rueful deferred reunion that characters and viewers alike long yearned for; and Before Midnight (2013) catches up with them on the cusp of middle-aged domesticity, in medias res, as they go about the business of living.

Each film is a window onto a stage of life, sharply attuned to the possibilities and disappointments of one’s twenties, thirties, and forties. Taken together, they have become something much larger and more radical: an ongoing collective experiment in embodying the passage of time. Such decade-spanning endeavors are hardly unprecedented in cinema: obvious analogues include Michael Apted’s Up documentaries and François Truffaut’s Antoine Doinel series. But The Before Trilogy gains its unique emotional force from being, in the fullest sense, a love story, a rare, knowing engagement with both the fantasies and the realities of romance. Especially for those who have aged along with them, these films ask to be read reflexively, which is to say personally. Watching them entails a very particular form of viewer participation: as Celine and Jesse openly wrestle with the transience of love, the deceptions of time, and the specter of mortality, we are obliged to do so as well, in ways that relate to our own lives.

With its stream of seemingly solipsistic chatter, Before Sunrise was all too easy to dismiss at the time as just another Generation X romantic comedy. (Many critics did.) A closer look reveals just how astute it is as a portrait of youth in all its insecurity and hopefulness. The ritual of courtship is all about self-presentation, and as with most tales of new love, backstory moves into the foreground. But the script, by Linklater and Kim Krizan, locates its tension and drama not just in what their protagonists reveal about themselves but, more crucially, in when and how.

Having disembarked from the train together without knowing each other’s names, Jesse and Celine move past initial awkwardness by implicitly acknowledging the role-playing aspect of their impromptu date. He initiates a question-and-answer game, in which they take turns quizzing each other about sex and love. The verbal seduction drifts into strategic thought experiments—What would happen on an island with ninety-nine men and one woman? With ninety-nine women and one man?—that allow the opinionated twosome to get a fix on their respective worldviews. Late into the night, with time running out, they again use the indirection of play as disinhibitor and armor, launching into imaginary phone conversations in which they pretend to be each other’s friends hearing about their Vienna escapades.

Both of these highly self-aware individuals know well their assigned cultural and gender roles in this pas de deux—the sensitive, slightly callow American man and the worldly, somewhat neurotic French woman—and their getting-to-know-you repartee involves prodding each other for succumbing to type. Celine seems the more grounded of the two, keen to express a social and political conscience that can tip into self-righteousness. Jesse is happy to play the dreamer, musing out loud about reincarnation and the transmigration of souls. With his penchant for meta­physical free association, Jesse often seems to be his director’s mouthpiece—more than one of his monologues would not have been out of place in Linklater’s breakthrough feature Slacker (1991)—but it is Celine who articulates what amounts to a statement of intent for Linklater’s empathetic cinema. To the extent that God exists, she declares, it is in the space between us: “If there’s any kind of magic in this world, it must be in the attempt of understanding someone.”

The Before movies are often called “talky,” with good reason, but that tag gives short shrift to the sheer delicacy and precision of the actors’ body language, the degree to which these films are rooted in a subtle interplay of minute gestures and split-second glances. One sweetly telling moment happens aboard a tramcar early in Sunrise when Jesse impulsively reaches out, as if to brush a lock of Celine’s hair from her face, but just as quickly loses his nerve and withdraws his hand. And not a single word is exchanged in perhaps the film’s most heart-stopping sequence: squeezed into a record-store listening booth while a folk song by Kath Bloom plays, Celine and Jesse steal glances at each other, avoiding direct eye contact, smiling to themselves, fully aware the other is looking. The critic Robin Wood once proclaimed the scene resistant to analysis, calling it “the cinema’s most perfect depiction . . . at once concrete and intangible, of two people beginning to realize that they are falling in love.”

Hawke and Delpy are impeccably cast and perfectly matched, both willing to expose the brittle anxieties and exasperating pretensions beneath their characters’ charm offensives. Hawke had by then, thanks to Dead Poets Society (1989) and Reality Bites (1994), cemented his reputation as a Gen X heartthrob, possessed of an intelligence that could sometimes register as arrogance. The willowy Delpy was an art-house star, and had in fact been positioned as something of a male-fantasy figure in such films as Mauvais sang (1986) and Three Colors: White (1994), an image that Before Sunrise both draws on and complicates; Celine is an early glimpse of the prickly, neurotic Delpy persona that would emerge in her own comedies as a director (including 2 Days in Paris, from 2007, and 2 Days in New York, 2012).

Delpy and Hawke contributed script ideas for Sunrise and are credited as cowriters, with Linklater, on the subsequent films. Fully imagined and inhabited from the get-go, these characters are drawn with some autobiographical shadings (which would deepen over the years) and an abundance of sly details, starting with the books they are reading on the train when they meet (a Georges Bataille anthology for her; Klaus Kinski’s memoir All I Need Is Love for him). The films—Sunrise in particular—brim with extratextual allusions. Linklater, ever the cinephile, surely had in mind the atmospheric Viennese locations of Carol Reed’s The Third Man (Jesse and Celine’s first kiss is on the Prater Ferris wheel) and, more pertinently, Max Ophuls’s Letter from an Unknown Woman, just as the closing montage—a tour of the spaces that the protagonists have recently occupied, tracing an imprint of absence—calls to mind Michelangelo Antonioni’s L’eclisse. As the lovers part, we learn that their meeting took place on June 16, James Joyce’s Bloomsday, the day of the author’s own fabled perambulation with his beloved Nora, and of course the day on which everything happens in Ulysses—a fitting tip of the hat (it’s also quoted in Slacker), given Linklater’s own fondness for single-day narratives.

Even to its protagonists, Before Sunrise seems to unfold in a parallel universe: he calls it a “dream world,” outside of “real time”; she jokes about them turning into pumpkins with the morning light. The Vienna of the film seems faintly enchanted, a series of postcard-ready backdrops populated with benevolent passersby and bearers of good tidings: the bum who offers to write them a poem; the palm reader whose focus on Celine triggers the pair’s first mini-spat; the bartender who donates a bottle of wine to the penniless Jesse; the strains of Bach on a harpsichord emerging from the window of a basement apartment in the early-morning hours.

But the fairy-tale veneer barely conceals a melancholic undercurrent, which is even more pronounced in hindsight. This story of a blossoming love, counting down to the inexorable morning after, is preoccupied with the way things end. The couple’s first extended conversation is about death, as Jesse recounts a childhood vision of his late great-grandmother through the spray of a garden hose. Among their Vienna destinations is the Cemetery of the Nameless, the resting place for hundreds of unidentified bodies drowned in the nearby Danube. A poster for a Seurat exhibition prompts Celine to observe that his human figures are “always so transitory.” And as their time winds down, Jesse recites a few lines from “As I Walked Out One Evening,” W. H. Auden’s famous poem about the remorseless movement of time.

The anticipation of romance in Before Sunrise is freighted with a poignant foreknowledge that sets the stage for the next two films. Celine and Jesse are aware not just of mortality but, more specifically, of love’s finitude. They wonder if happy marriages are possible: Jesse’s folks are divorced; Celine’s grandmother spent her life pining for another man. It is the loud bickering of a couple on the train that provokes Celine to move to the seat across from Jesse. Intimations of doomed love are even woven into the music that accompanies the opening credits, the overture to Henry Purcell’s Dido and Aeneas. Sensing the preciousness and fragility of their encounter, Jesse and Celine resolve not to overburden it with promises to keep in touch, with obligatory phone calls that will dim their initial spark. They fumble their way toward what seems, from the careless arrogance of youth, the most romantic gesture: bidding each other farewell without exchanging last names, addresses, or phone numbers. Instead, they make a pledge—which is also a test, a dare—to meet again in Vienna in six months.

The open ending of Before Sunrise existed for years as a Rorschach test, separating romantics from cynics and fueling countless post-movie discussions about the fate of Jesse and Celine, who came to attain the status of characters with a life outside their fiction. (Robin Wood’s essay devotes several paragraphs to wondering what might have happened next—an uncharacteristic bit of speculation in a scholarly piece—and as it turned out, he guessed correctly.) Linklater considered shooting an epilogue to resolve the cliff-hanger but abandoned the idea after too much time had elapsed. He enlisted Delpy and Hawke to reprise their roles for a cameo in his rotoscoped head trip, Waking Life (2001). But it would take them nine years to attempt a sequel—one with an unusually high degree of difficulty, given that the very idea of not ruining the moment is built into the first film.

Before Sunset opens with Jesse, who has just published a novel, titled This Time, plainly based on his one night with Celine. The final stop of his European book tour has brought him to Paris, where he’s reading at the Left Bank institution Shakespeare and Company. Taking questions, he discloses his (rather Linklaterian) ambition to write a book that takes place within the duration of a pop song, with a mutable narrative that alternately stretches and compresses time. “Time is a lie,” he explains, just as he turns and locks eyes with Celine, who has been standing off to the side, watching him.

Jesse’s point is well taken: in cinema and in life, time has a way of folding in on itself. The tricks of montage, and the unpredictable workings of memory and perception, can wreak havoc on our sense of chronology. As he puts it: “It’s all happening all the time, and inside every moment is another moment.” Linklater illustrates this theory with several fleeting flashbacks to the youthful Celine and Jesse of Before Sunrise. But the here and now of Before Sunset—which finds its protagonists, now in their early thirties, wearier and warier, existing in separate orbits yet wedded to a shared moment from the irretrievable past—is a reminder that the linear march of time is no lie. More than most filmmakers, Linklater takes quite literally Andrei Tarkovsky’s concept of cinema as sculpting in time; he has even likened the Before films to a sculpture, with time as the force that shapes it.

Linklater’s singular Boyhood (2014), also starring Hawke, and shot over a twelve-year period, invites the viewer to feel the passing of time within a feature-length narrative. The Before films are a different, arguably more overwhelming experience precisely because of the long dividing intervals, which we might think of as a kind of negative space and time. What separates these three distinct moments in the lives of Jesse and Celine are not mere edits but unfakable real-time ellipses that carry a full durational weight for creators and characters and audiences alike. Each new film demands to be viewed through a palimpsest of accumulated experience. In the scheme of the Before movies, time operates both as a special effect and a reality principle.

Before Sunset establishes right away that Celine and Jesse have not seen each other since parting at the railway station in Vienna. For them, as well as for us, there are enormous gaps to fill in, all within the hour or so before Jesse has to leave for the airport. The biggest unanswered question is addressed early on: Jesse did make it to Vienna that winter, but Celine, though she wanted to, did not, as her grandmother’s funeral was that very day. There is more than a hint of skittishness as they start comparing notes—Jesse, knowing that Celine did not show up, is at first reluctant to let on that he did. Where in Before Sunrise there was a mutual hunger to discover the other, here that desire is held in check by a coy guardedness, and the trajectory of their conversation—as they walk through the streets of Paris, stopping at a café and continuing along the elevated Promenade Plantée and the banks of the Seine—involves the gradual peeling back of their protective layers.

Real time gives the film its formal rigor and dramatic urgency. With hardly a minute to waste, Jesse and Celine are no longer pausing to take in the sights or to engage with bystanders; the outside world falls away even more. Taking in a single sustained conversation—intricately plotted and mapped, and captured with a discreetly fluid Steadicam in the walk-and-talk scenes—Before Sunset illustrates better than any other Linklater film his gift for creating the illusion of spontaneity. The reunited lovers slip into the familiar rhythms of a lightly philosophical back-and-forth. Gazing at each other’s now more angular faces (Jean-Luc Godard’s axiom that every film is a documentary of its actors comes immediately to mind), they are naturally compelled to muse about time, how it speeds up with age, how it gets harder to exist in the moment. The script deftly spaces out its revelations and turning points. Jesse, who lives in New York, learns that Celine, now an environmentalist, also spent a few years there as a graduate student. Jesse’s wedding ring is in plain sight, and Celine knows from a magazine article that he has a wife and son, but the topic of their romantic statuses remains blatantly unspoken until relatively late in the film.

Reversing the structure of Before Sunrise, Before Sunset opens with a montage of the spaces that Celine and Jesse will pass through—a fitting prologue for a film devoted to a long-anticipated moment. There are other pleasing symmetries, as when Celine extends her hand to caress Jesse, only to pull away, a mirror image of his gesture on the tram nine years earlier. Memory is the very substance of this film. The characters are constantly reliving, perhaps rewriting, their previous meeting, and as Before Sunset replaysthe past, it also gives it a new context. The future regret that Jesse playfully warned Celine about when they met has become their very real present. Vienna haunts them both, so much so that Jesse turned it into fiction and Celine, we later learn, into a song. (Hawke had by then published two novels, and Delpy was about to release an album, which includes a few songs featured in the film.) Before Sunset is a deeply romantic film, open to the possibility of rekindling lost love, but it is also extremely aware that a romantic ideal can harden into a ruinous obsession.

The predicament of Jesse and Celine in this film—how to untangle their own feelings, to guess at the other’s, to decide what to express and how, under considerable time constraints and with higher-than-ever emotional stakes—calls for some extraordinarily fine-tuned work from Delpy and Hawke. The characters progress from niceties and flirtation to mutual admissions of regret aboard a tourist barge passing in and out of shadow under the bridges of the Seine, building to an eruption of candid distress in the backseat of an airport limo. The justly celebrated ending—Jesse ignoring the ticking clock as Celine dances to Nina Simone’s “Just in Time”—is a grace note for the ages, complete in its abruptness, finding a kind of closure in irresolution.

Linklater and his collaborators surely knew that to reopen the book again on Celine and Jesse would require a new approach. While the first two films have an integral urgency—there was always a train or a plane to catch, another existence to get back to—there are no more looming deadlines in Before Midnight, save for the ones that are part of life itself. Screen romances do not as a rule lend themselves to sequels. To extrapolate beyond the conclusion of most love stories is to complicate, or to shatter, the myth of happily ever after. It could be said that Before Midnight belongs to an entirely different, and considerably trickier, genre than its predecessors—that of the marriage movie (even if Jesse and Celine are not technically hitched).

This time, the viewers alone are forced to play catch-up, reconstructing the events of the intervening years from piecemeal information. Jesse and Celine have been together since the end of Before Sunset; he did miss his flight and went on to endure a messy divorce; they spent some time in the States but now live in Paris, with their twin daughters. Before Midnight finds them at the tail end of a summer vacation in Greece, in the southern Peloponnese. In their early forties and by now a long-established couple, Celine and Jesse, even in this most idyllic locale, no longer have the luxury of keeping the rest of the world at bay. As the camera pans up, we see that the feet in the opening shot belong to Jesse and his now adolescent son, Hank, who is being put on the plane home to his mother in Chicago. Jesse and Celine’s chat on the long, scenic drive that follows, with their angelic girls dozing in the backseat, has a familiar ease but also simmers with anxiety: her frustration over career setbacks and compromises; his guilt over being separated from Hank; an unspoken mutual sense that neither is quite hearing the other. As Jesse beats himself up for not spending more time with Hank, Celine retorts that she’s not moving to Chicago and, only part joking, rushes to a worst-case scenario: “This is where it ends . . . This is how people start breaking up.”

The film’s middle section, a leisurely gathering at the beachfront villa of a literary elder statesman (Zorba the Greek cinematographer Walter Lassally), observes the romantic unit in a social setting; the guests are played by, among others, Athina Rachel Tsangari, the director of Attenberg, and Ariane Labed, that film’s star. While the mood at this alfresco lunch is relaxed and convivial, there is a distinct edge to Celine and Jesse’s needling performance for their friends, who are mostly couples, as they once again revisit their origin story, downplaying the romance. She terms him a “closet macho,” and indeed there are signs of a gender divide within this holiday idyll—the women cook in the kitchen, while the men shoot the breeze—that set the stage for the third-act battle.

It takes some narrative maneuvering and a fair amount of screen time to get Celine and Jesse alone—an apt reflection of how hard it can be for busy long-term couples, especially if they are also parents, to find a spare moment for each other. Their friends have offered to watch their kids and booked them a night at an upscale hotel. Strolling to their destination past ancient ruins in the late-afternoon light, Celine, in a self-reflexive touch, asks Jesse: “How long has it been since we walked around just bullshitting?” These are unmistakably the same introspective, searching characters we have come to know, prone to windy digressions and comic deflections, more conscious than ever of transience and mortality (Jesse has just learned of his grandmother’s death). But the prospect of a rift looms, and not just because Celine alludes to Roberto Rossellini’s classic study of an unraveling marriage, Journey to Italy: they now know each other’s conversational gambits inside out, pose questions as bait (“What about me would you like to change?”), and do not hesitate to call out any perceived dodges or manipulations.

All three Before films take the form of psychogeographic drifts, transporting the lovers along scenic routes filled with temporal markers and memento mori: passing landscapes from a moving train, the gently flowing Seine, the age-old Greek ruins. That is, until the willfully static, claustrophobic final act of Before Midnight: a big blowup in a luxurious but sterile hotel suite. A thwarted attempt at intimacy turns into a vicious, door-slamming fight, complete with charges of infidelity and disavowals of love. The marital squabble on the train that earned their youthful disdain in Before Sunrise is child’s play next to Celine and Jesse’s nuclear escalations. Banking on our attachment to these characters, Linklater and the actors are willing to push their less attractive qualities to the limit: as we see them truly go at each other, Jesse comes across as condescending and selfish, a paragon of writerly self-absorption, while Celine is quicker than ever to accusatory anger and wild overstatement (without hesitation, she connects Jesse’s rationalism to the final solution).

In a clear nod to Eric Rohmer’s The Green Ray, one scene in Before Midnight finds the couple watching the sunset. “Still there, still there . . . gone,” Celine murmurs. It is not exactly news to us, or to them, that love loses its intensity—it was precisely this precocious awareness that compelled them to guard and idealize their magical night in Vienna. While it’s a truism to say that love fades, Before Midnight has a more complicated view, consistent with the other movies, that love is an ongoing negotiation between fantasy and reality. Looking to salvage their night, Jesse, as he did eighteen years ago, brings up time travel, calling himself a stranger from the future, encouraging Celine to take the long view. She no longer falls so easily for his tricks, but the heartfelt sweet talk is enough to bring about a provisional détente, though nothing quite so comforting as a clear way forward. Once again, Linklater pulls off the sleight of hand of an open-ended resolution, granting us, and his characters, what might be the most generous gift of all: a frozen moment, seized from the flow of time.

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