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Retrospective Film Review: Richard Linklater’s ‘Before…’ Trilogy

Saturday 15 March 2014

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Linklater’s latest – Boyhood – made waves at last year’s Sundance Film Festival, but its genesis – an experimental technique whereby the film was shot over a period of twelve years in order to accurately capture its young protagonist’s ascent from six to eighteen-year-old – can be seen in Linklater’s Before trilogy.

This romantic drama triptych, though I am loathe to label them as such, being as they are so much more than the categorization suggests, begins with Before Sunrise, released in 1995.

The film finds Jesse (Ethan Hawke, also to be found in Boyhood) and Céline (Julie Delpy) meeting by chance on a train from Budapest to Vienna, whereupon on arrival, Jesse is to take a flight back to the US. In an impulsive move (one we rarely get the chance to initiate and almost certainly one we would lack the cojones to make even if the situation were to present itself), Jesse convinces Céline to get off with him and spend the entire night walking around the city until his departure the next morning. Pragmatically, the key to the film’s success – and that of its successors – is to make the audience fall in love with the pair and consequently their relationship. Everything depends on it. That we do, slowly and gladly surrendering ourselves, lies squarely at the feet of the disarmingly easy and passionately reactive chemistry between Hawke and Delpy. He’s innately cute, charming and sure of himself, neatly side-stepping game-over Cruisian smugness; she’s engaging, giggly and astute as she fires all manner of questions, suppositions and propositions at Jesse. She is of course, utterly beautiful too, although a lot of this resides in the way we see Jesse look at her, incredulous that such a find may be found unobtrusively absorbed in anonymous trains pootling around Europe.

As the minutes count down and the morning relentlessly approaches, the pair find it increasingly difficult to determine whether real contact has just been made, or whether their forced circumstances have lent an unrealistic romanticism to their time together. Indeed, their conversations, although eclectic in subject matter, never seem to run too deep, almost as if the pair are fearful of discovering or revealing neuroses that would derail the course of the finite time they have together. When they part in the morning, as we know they must, Linklater’s desolate shots of a city waking up to a new day, the morning sun illuminating all those secret places where Jesse and Céline shared so much by moonlight, are truly heartbreaking. Was this an opportunity seized or missed? It’s an open ending the likes and mysticism of which are regularly destroyed by sequels, but which Before Sunset, made and set nine years later in 2004, builds upon and enhances in a wonderful and surprisingly literary way.

In the second film, Jesse has written a book in which he recounted his night together with Céline, and unsurprisingly, the novel has made the bestseller list back home. As part of the requisite book tour, he stops off in Paris and meets Céline after a small signing in a local shop. For Linklater there are hard truths to confront; how can nine years of exposition be communicated in a way that won’t completely wreck the allure of the first film? Hard truths for Jesse and Céline too: the last time we saw them, they agreed to meet up in six months at the very spot where they say goodbye. Did they? Again, the star-crossed lovers find themselves hemmed in by time. Jesse has a plane to catch back home in little over an hour. Again, the script – this time co-written by Hawke and Delpy themselves – is as mellifluous and resonant as ever. It’s no mean feat to have two characters cram in this much musing on missed opportunity, personal ambition, political standing – not forgetting bags of Parisian-infused flirting – without the whole thing looking immensely contrived. And even when it threatens to, well no wonder they need to fit everything in.

Admittedly, some of the dreamlike, hypnotic qualities that defined Before Sunrise are absent here, but not without cause. This is the reality of having to deal with the morning after the transcendent night before, and the price the couple pay for potential commitment is a revealing and weighing of baggage. As the pair struggle to convince themselves of what they have, they reach Céline’s apartment and the movie’s most difficult moment; an aspiring songwriter, Jesse persuades her to sing one of her songs. She obliges and in doing so, reveals what she really thought of that night nine years ago. The problem is, as accomplished as Delpy is at singing (and it’s more Hawke’s reaction to the unfolding lyrics that sells the scene), it’s the first real ‘movie’ moment of the story so far, though to be fair, filmed in a static front-on shot that’s unfussy and direct.

So as bittersweet as Before Sunset is, compared to its predecessor, it truthfully reminds us that making anything work is always a battle, that we assume the couples we see walking around balmy European cities holding hands and cooing into each other’s necks just had their good fortune fall into their laps with the minimum of effort or conflict. It’s a true second act, the How It’s Made to Before Sunset’s main feature.

Anyone who knows anything about the fundamental rules of storytelling knows that Act Three is when the shit hits the fan. After the teasing mid-scene fade out that concluded the previous film, Before Midnight, which comes after another real-time nine year hiatus, shows us what Jesse and Céline have made of their lives and the consequences of their chance encounter eighteen years prior. The couple are in Greece having spent the Summer there with Hank, Jesse’s teenage son from the wife he wedded between Sunrise and Sunset. Jesse and Céline have kids of their own now – impossibly adorable bilingual twins – but the weight of being apart from Hank (he lives with his Mother in Chicago, they live in Paris) lies uneasily with Jesse. Céline too is at an impasse in her life, uncertain in which direction to take her career. Be warned, this is what happens when you fall in love.

The dialogue is as peppy and brilliantly observed as ever, but it’s not until they check into a hotel – a bit of intended R&R as a present from their Greek friends – that near two decades’ worth of neuroses and uncertainties emerge. Ethan Hawke and Julie Delpy (being Ethan Hawke and Julie Delpy), still look as radiant as ever, but as I can personally attest, there is no substitute for having the unravaged physique of a twenty-year-old. What’s interesting isn’t so much how Jesse and Céline have aged visually, but how experience and wisdom doesn’t necessarily entail clarity in one’s life. “Jump ahead, ten, twenty years, okay, and you’re married.” Jesse explains in Before Sunrise, trying to convince Céline to disembark the train with him. “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.” There are the promises we make, to ourselves, to others, and then there are the people we become. The sparring spunkiness too that Céline showed all those years ago has blossomed into resolute determination. Having found her soulmate and having borne his children, what now?

And so the couple fight. And what a fight. The AV Club included the scene in their Best Film Scenes of 2013. After the free-flowing open-range walk-and-talk of the first two films, it’s something of a shock to see Jesse and Céline hermetically sealed inside the room, but it’s also a potent reminder of how epic fights of this nature myopically unfold and how anger dissipates and reignites depending on tone or a simple choice of words. It’s a depressing watch – especially after the warm glow and soft edges of the Nineties original – but the leads are as captivating as ever. Ultimately, the film series’ primary device – the twenty-odd-year span – gifts the movies with a certain kind of truth. Yes, Delpy is in fact an accomplished musician, and Hawke was going through an uncomfortable separation from Uma Thurman around the time of Before Sunset, but following Jesse and Céline across two decades offers an authenticity that Ten Years Later title cards and all the CGI and makeup in the world can’t touch. Despite Midnight’s dream-dispelling, Linklater’s films are still entirely meaningfully romantic and touching. They remind us why we do what we do, why we, like giddy children pedaling towards cliff edges, take such risks. “This is real life” Jesse tells Céline. “It’s not perfect, but it’s real.”

Words: Ash Verjee