Without a shadow of a doubt, the three films Before Sunrise, Before Sunset, and Before Midnight encompass my favorite film trilogy of all time. Okay, maybe I will call it a tie. With The Dark Knight trilogy. People can take their Godfather series, or Star Wars, Lord of the Rings, The Matrix (does anyone include this in their favorite trilogies?), or whatever other group of three films they can think of, and in my mind, they all pale in comparison.
The three Before movies are perfect, in my mind.
Because they are great films, because they are wonderfully acted and written, because they take place in cities that I hold near and dear to my heart, and because of the emotional significance of the films, and where I was at in my life as each of them was released/viewed for the first time.
The first thing to love about these movies is that they are set in (essentially) real time. Not just within the film itself, but within their release. The first movie came out in 1995, when we first meet Jesse and Celine. The second film was released in 2004, and the events take place 8 years after their first encounter. Finally, the final (?) installment was released in 2013, and the events in the film take place 9 years after the previous one. This is brilliant. We have the chance to truly see these characters grow. There is nothing fake about their relationship, because we see how they are in their different stages of life. As the trilogy progresses, they get older, wiser, and maybe even more confused. And we are allowed to grow with them. This is a true love story, because it takes place over 18 years. Not a weekend, or a senior trip, or a vacation. It is a lifetime.
Seeing Jesse (Ethan Hawke) and Celine (Julie Delpy) go from fresh and naive characters just trying to figure out their way in the world, to seasoned adults burdened by everything that adults are burdened with, is one of the most refreshing things I have ever seen on the screen. And I can’t think of a couple I have cheered for harder than these two. Sure, you always want the guy and the girl to end up together, but we were left for agonizing years, wondering if they ever met at the train a year after their first meeting, or what would happen if Jesse missed his plane from France on his book tour. For years we waited.
And, in a way, hoped.
As a series, this is perfect storytelling. As individual movies, they are brilliant. I’m not sure how someone could go and watch one without needing to know what happened to the protagonists, but I’m sure those people are out there somewhere. A part of me feels like they didn’t really earn it, not having to wait for the lengthy periods of time between installments, to catch up with them, to know where their lives have taken them. But I hope that they can appreciate it all the same.
I feel a personal connection to these films, as I’m sure so many people do, because of where my life was in comparison to that of the characters during each installment. From wandering traveler, to on-the-cusp of success, to having a real life, I feel I can mirror them in many ways. They are older than I am in the film (Jesse is 41 in Midnight), but I get where they are at. Their lives are not exactly the same as mine, but there are definite mirrors there, and as director Richard Linklater tends to do, he connects with the audience, and makes them feel like they are watching a part of themselves up on the screen, like he knows who you are, and wanted to make you into a character. He even manages to do this in his lighter films, like Dazed and Confused.
The writing of these movies is excellent, mainly because the script is so loose, and really allows the actors to talk to one another, as real people talk to one another. Considering these films could be viewed as little more than people walking and talking, it seems like it could have been disastrous to just allow Hawke and Delpy to chat, hoping for the best. But they are so natural together, and they play off one another so well, that these films really do represent a slice of life. Some of the most real, albeit often philosophical, conversations one may ever see in a movie. Long takes and very, very, few cuts allow the actors to decide what they want to do with the ideas laid out in the script, and their characters develop in a natural way (this differed slightly on the third film, which, according to IMDB, had a tight script and heavily rehearsed scenes).
The third movie follows suit, with the conversations essentially taking place in five locations: in a car ride from the airport, at dinner with friends, on a walk (of course!) through the streets of a small Greek island village, in a hotel room, and at a waterside restaurant. But Midnight offers us something new that we hadn’t seen in the previous two movies, two movies that filled us with hope and belief that true love can be found in the strangest places: fighting. Before Midnight allows us to see the trials and tribulations of love, even if it is the best love story out there, and the two people we, as an audience, have decided are perfect for each other. Spoilers coming. There are cracks in their partnership. Beginning with Jesse lamenting his son leaving their summer Greek vacation for the States, to be back with his mother, the woman Jesse divorced in order to be with Celine. We learn about their history, after Jesse missed his plane at the end of the second film. The couple lived in New York for a couple of years, and then Paris, eventually having twin daughters while living their lives in Europe. Jesse thinks they need to be back in the US to be with his son, while Celine has decided to accept an exciting job offer in Paris. The cracks begin, and they know it, when Celine states that this is how “relationships begin to end.” Their is now an edge to their relationship. They argue in front of their friends, albeit with passive aggressiveness, but we still that they are still in love. Jesse is a successful author. He has written two books about his life with Celine, something that she is not entirely fond of, as well as a third. His writing is what brings them to Greece, as they are hanging around with other authors. Eventually, we see the blowup between the two of them. And it is a mighty battle. On screen, it is one of the better battles between husband and wife (or in this case, long-term partners, as they aren’t actually married) you will ever see. It is painful, and it is real.
The culmination, and heartbreaking moment for me was when Celine storms in to the room and announces that she no longer loves Jesse. This crumbles everything that had been created in the whole series. Their love was everything, but even it has its limits. And that was crushing and painful to watch. I won’t spoil the very ending, but Jesse puts it out there that this is real life, and even though it isn’t perfect, it is real. Another great line in a series of films that is essentially a myriad of great lines that manage to strike to the core of the audience. They try to pick up the pieces, reconstruct the fallout of their battle, but we are left to wonder if it will really work, if they are living in illusion, or doing it for real.
I think in a love story so strong, we secretly know that one fight will not bring them down. But we are not given the answer; at least, not the whole answer.
With Before Midnight, we get to see what happens to our favorite romantic couple. Even the most perfect romance is not perfect, and their lives are not a fairy tale. It was a struggle to make things work, and sacrifices were made. Lives were upheaved. Jesse gave up his marriage, and the ability to see his son on a consistent basis. He moved to Europe. Celine gave up her ambitions, her career dreams in order to make a family for them. It could all seem perfect, but the best part about all of this is that the writers, Linklater, Hawke, and Delpy, wouldn’t allow it. They wanted to show us what it would really be like. And I loved them for it.
In an interview, Ethan Hawke said that Before Sunrise is about what might be, Before Sunset is about what could or should be, and Before Midnight is about what is (from imdb.com). He couldn’t have said it better himself. By the end of the the three films, we see kids fall in love, reconnect, and survive.
And we know that they are going to be okay, which is all that really matters, when it comes to Jesse and Celine.
“I f*cked up my whole life because of the way you sing.”