In 1995, two young people – a wannabe American male writer and a strong-headed French woman – met on a train from Budapest. He had just broken up with his girlfriend in Madrid and was going to Vienna to catch a plane to the USA, while she was going back to her university in Paris after meeting her ill grandmother. He convinced her to get down in Vienna and spend the night with him – a rather quixotic step which would spare her of the lament that would ensue if she didn’t give herself the time to know him. She agreed and they disembarked. That night, the two strangers became confidants, sharing their lives and secrets, and evolved to be lovers who had in between them only one night. They lay under the moonlit night, kissed and made love, even had a poem written to them by a street-side poet, but all of this Before Sunrise. For when the Sun awoke on the horizon, it signalled with its arrival his departure – a going away that held no promise of return, a separation that could no longer dissemble the bleak chance of reunion. They were in their 20s – too early to be tied down by the memories of that one night. If only wisdom and youth had walked hand in hand, they would have known that they could go away from that night but the night would never go away from them.
2004. Nine years later, the guy, now an established writer, was on a book tour in Europe and stopped in Paris as one of the destinations. He had written a book and it was widely acclaimed. “This Time” – his book was a memoir to that night he had shared with her but relived possibly every remaining day till then. They exchanged no phone numbers, they wrote no letters to each other, but the travails of Life and the sand dunes of time could not shroud that night from their memories. So, when he saw her again, standing at the door and smiling at him, he knew it wouldn’t be easy for him to walk away, so easily, yet again. They walked on the streets of Paris, talked about love and passion, went to her home and listened to her play the waltz she had composed in his memory, and reignited their love which had lain dormant in the interim period. Yet, for all of this, they had barely an hour in hand, Before Sunset. But time was not the only barrier anymore – he was no longer the lad without enough money to find a hotel in Vienna; he could get another plane to fly him home. The bigger predicament was that their lives were no longer the same – he was, after all, a married man. She hadn’t tied the knot but was in a relationship. In the wake of these changes, was it possible for him to forfeit his family, move out of the country and settle down with her in Europe? In love, they thought they would.
But, nine years down the line again, in 2013, they realised that love is not always the most cogent driving force in life. He did give up America, he did step out on his wife and son, he did settle with her in Europe and became father of twin girls she gave birth to, but did their love stand the test of time? Eighteen years after they had first met on the train and had hastily decided to jump off and spend a night together. He was still charming, she was still pretty – but they were more than forty years old, disillusioned by the brutal truths of life, cynical of romantic thoughts, and unsure of their own relationship. He wanted to witness his son growing up in the USA; she couldn’t give up on her life in Europe and settle down in an alien continent. He might have become a successful writer but she was searching for her true calling. At one point, she even said that she loved him no more. Were all the feelings so ephemeral – so tenuous that the winds of life could whisk away with one stroke of insecurity? Could their love succumb to those bouts of whimsies or stand up, with head held high, and say that it was entrenched in far greater faith and desire than they had envisaged. They needed to figure out, for themselves, but Before Midnight.
In his mesmerising “Before” trilogy, Richard Linklater gave us these two wonderfully vulnerable and fractured souls longing for love. Jesse (Ethan Hawke) and Celine (Julie Delpy) – are from two worlds, so different yet so alike. And Linklater nurtures them and presents them with such tenderness that you do not only witness their lives but also take parts in them – relive several moments of your life with them. Very few filmmakers can show passage of time the way Linklater can – he doesn’t need fancy tools or adroit technology – he chooses to grow with his characters, quite literally. Hawke and Delpy didn’t mature with make-up and special effects, they matured as people – their thoughts and acting styles remained inherently similar but evolved with time, just like their characters in the story. And that’s what makes the films so special. Jessie and Celine’s freshness in the first instalment gave way to their maturing up in the second part, and the third leg showed them on the doorstep of ageing – each phase with its unique texture and appeal.
Let’s look at some of the salient features which enhance the beauty of the film.
The scripts of the “Before” Trilogy are not masterful series of events that bring together or break apart the lovers. We get the stories only through the talks. I love conversational films, where the dialogues explore the lives – often portraying the banality with intense poetic vision or presenting the exotic in its full dramatic splendour. I believe in cinema where an actor can just play the guitar and sing along with acoustic sound, without caring for background symphonies or orchestrated pieces. In Linklater’s films, the discussion ranges from politics to career ambiguities, from religion to mutual passion and love. However, the talks are so engrossing that not for a moment do you feel indifferent to the ongoings or taken aback by the sudden shifts in topics.
Writing Dialogues with Actors:
The principal reason, according to me, which leads to such natural yet engrossing conversation is the fact that Richard Linklater dared to involve his protagonists in the writing of the film. Now that’s a tough call to take, given that actors are almost always narcissistic. The 2nd and 3rd instalments of the film credit both Ethan Hawke and Julie Delpy as co-writers of the screenplay. Linklater said in an interview that both Hawke and Delpy would send him monologues for their characters, and he would edit and modify them in the context of the film. This collaborative effort shows on the screen as even after eighteen years of the first instalment, the characters do not strike a false note even once. The harmony is uniform because the actors and the director are always playing the same tune.
The video below from “Before Sunset” shows us Celine picking up the guitar in the middle of a conversation and starting to sing. What makes it even more real and remarkable is the fact that Delpy had composed and sang the piece herself.
Romantic vs Cynic:
At the heart of the trilogy is obviously the love story between Jesse and Celine. Yet, you know that this is not the candyfloss tale of romance. It’s a recipe of the maturing of love, amply seasoned by cynicism, doubt and often despair. It’s not too novel to have that, but what makes special is that the two actors don’t embody one quality each. The seeds of Romanticism and Cynicism are found in both characters – Jesse and Celine believe deeply in love but are also torn by pangs of self-doubt and disbelief about others. You find Celine more in conflict with the idea of growing old and losing her attractiveness, which most possibly affects her confidence in other fields of life. It seems that she wants to trap Jesse in her play on words, and make him feel guilty for not being as romantic as he was in their 20s. Who knows the real reason for her not wanting to shift to Chicago is nothing but the apprehension that Jesse might again be attracted to his ex-wife. Even in the first instalment, she is constantly ambivalent about making love to Jesse – deeply desirous of physical intimacy but sceptical of the repercussions after his departure. Jesse, on the other hand, initially portrays himself as the cynic who tries to shed the encumbrances of attachment, but eventually turns into the more romantic of the two in his constant strife to maintain his passion for Celine burning and youthful.
Europe & Art:
Richard Linklater’s love for art is well established. Even the protagonist in his recently released “Boyhood” is a photographer. In the “Before” trilogy, he gives us ample evidence of his inclination towards artistic characters. While Jesse is a writer by profession, Celine is a singer and music composer by passion. Probably this proclivity for art gets even more pronounced because the three films are set in Europe – the continent that values art more than the others do. Vienna, the home for “Before Sunrise”, is known as “City of Music” for its musical legacy and being home to some of the greatest musicians including Mozart. It is of no surprise that the blossoming of love and ruminations about the same between the two protagonists are set in this city, which saw the formative years of Sigmund Freud. Paris or “City of Lights”, where we see “Before Sunset”, is known for its love for Love and Art, and the Louvre is arguably the world’s best known museum, especially for containing The Monalisa. And the Peloponnese peninsula of Southern Greece, which forms the backdrop for “Before Midnight”, has seen equally influential artistic epochs including the Byzantine era that is known for its deeply religious form of art and culture. While the presence of art is pervasive throughout the films, my favourite portion is the small segment in the first instalment, where Jesse and Celine are approached by a man on the street. The man says that he won’t beg them for money but he will write a poem for the couple, and they can choose to reward him if they like his verse.
Here’s the video to the part, where the man presents to them “Delusion Angel” (a poem written by David Jewell especially for this film), using the one word Celine gave him to write the poem. The word? Milkshake!
Long Duration Shots / Scenes:
The “Before” trilogy is not an especially difficult series of films to shoot. While the first segment shows the couple walking through different parts of Vienna, the other two are comparatively limited to smaller areas. It’s of no surprise that both the 2nd and the 3rd films were shot in exactly 15 days, which is a remarkable achievement. In fact, “Before Sunset” is one of the very few films shot on real time – the running time of the film is same as the time spent by the two characters in the film. One of the more remarkable things here is the way Linklater has taken his long shots – while some of them are static shots of the characters sitting at a table or in a car, there is one segment in “Sunset” which is an almost 9 minute uncut shot of Jesse and Celine walking and talking. In fact, “Midnight”, which is also the only film of the series featuring other characters with significant dialogues, has a lunch sequence which is 17 minutes long, and a post-introduction car-scene which is 14 minutes long. Who else but Linklater can shoot such lengthy sequences without boring you for one second?
The number Nine:
I don’t know whether it was a deliberate choice on the part of the filmmaker or just a stroke of destiny that every 2 consecutive films of the trilogy were made 9 years apart. Every movie in the series stands for the inception of one aspect – if Sunrise gave us the beginning of Love, Sunset showed us the maturing of love and the probable onset of the couple deciding to stay together, and Midnight gave the beginning of fracture in the couple’s life, and the understanding that love and marriage are often at loggerheads with each other, though the characters seem to reconcile in the end. In numerology, 9 stands for the end of one cycle and beginning of the next, when you go back to one. Even in the birth of humans, 9 stands for the number of months for inception. In the Greek Mythology, it takes 9 days to fall from Heaven to the earth, and nine more to fall from earth to the underworld. Perhaps, it’s the reason why Linklater doesn’t provide us with a conclusive ending for any of the films, including the last, because he keeps hopes for another inception alive. Before I repel you further with my philosophical rambling, let me leave you with the ending scene of “Before Midnight” – which according to me provides a befitting conclusion to the trilogy.
great work !
thank you 🙂
thank you 🙂
A superb write-up by you which aptly sums up the trilogy. Very few directors can make banal conversations engaging like Linklater as you have rightly said.
Thanks Adi 🙂
When I had seen Before Sunrise a few years ago I was so fascinated with the film that it still remains my best romantic one till date… The entire charm of 2 strangers just taking a long walk in a city not too known to them made me plan a date which was as successful and good; till it lasted… There is something so magnetic in the way when a man and woman talks, especially when the camaraderie between a couple is electric.
Jesse and Celine talk and they talk damn good. Linklater has a great sense of understanding to make his characters speak and very rarely anyone can make the audience hook only on the basis of conversations.
Pretty awesome effort in writing about the series Souvik, as it deserves a larger recognition and should be inspiring for film makers to make such independent efforts where even the story is non existent if you have words and a few characters.
I always felt that Jesse(Ethan Hawke) in between these films made an appearance in Linklater’s underrated but terrific room drama TAPE and followed up to get married and divorced with his wife in Boyhood during all these span of years.
Also appearing together for a dream segment in Linklater’s animated Waking Life, Hawke & Delphy will always be etched in my memory forever and will be part of my own existence.
thanks, Ajay, that’s really nice 🙂