In January 1995, director Richard Linklater introduced the world to Jesse and Celine – two young strangers travelling through Europe by train, in his film Before Sunrise. Jesse (Ethan Hawke) and Celine (Julie Delpy) meet, talk, decide to get off the train together and spend a night strolling around the sights of Vienna, until they are necessarily separated the following morning by the continuance of their respective journeys.
So begins something completely astounding – not just one of the greatest romances in cinema, but a demonstration of filmmaking so subtle and delicate as to render the structure of production completely invisible. We are entirely in their world – eavesdropping as two people find each other, and connect.
Nine years later, after a brief appearance in Linklater’s Waking Life, Jesse and Celine returned in Before Sunset to let us listen in on the next chapter of their story – this time as they wander around Paris. Taking place in ‘real time’, the pair have just 80 minutes to catch up and reconnect, and the result is something utterly wonderful. Collectively, the Before films have earned 20 award nominations, winning four, and have attracted a large, dedicated fan base. As with Sunrise, Sunset ends with a resounding question mark, and the filmmakers have once again returned to the story after the now traditional nine year gap. Before Midnight is the next instalment in Jesse and Celine’s story so, to celebrate its arrival, here are ten reasons to love Linklater’s masterpiece of life and love – his Before movies:
1. They are a true labour of love.
Firstly, Sunrise and Sunset are true collaborations. The screenplay for Sunrise was written by Richard Linklater and Kim Krizan, based on characters created by them. However, stars Ethan Hawke and Julie Delpy were included right from the moment they were cast, and helped to hone the dialogue. Nine years later, the trio of Linklater, Hawke and Delpy shared the writing credit equally, crafting a screenplay around a story shaped by Linklater and Krizan. All three cite their love for this story and these characters as the reason to revisit them, and their involvement creates a real sense of ownership over the project. Delpy even wrote three original songs for Before Sunset. Secondly, the premise of the story was inspired by a real experience which, as it turned out, was a great tragedy. Richard Linklater met a young woman named Amy Lehrhaupt in a toy store in 1989, and they spent the night walking and talking. When it came time to part, they exchanged details and tried to keep in touch, but soon lost contact. Linklater briefly wondered if she would show up to a screening of Before Sunrise when it was released in 1995, but she never did. Before Sunset, beginning with Celine showing up to a signing of Jesse’s book about their night, was released in 2004, and there was still no sign of Lehrhaupt. It wasn’t until 2010 that Linklater was informed that she had died in 1994 – just before Sunrise began shooting. Before Midnight is dedicated to her.
2. The characters are perfectly formed.
These are not one-dimensional, cookie-cutter romantic characters that are created specifically to further a plot. These are very real, complex, fully formed people with lives, personal experiences and points of view, whose paths happen to converge on a train one day. They very clearly exist separately and in their own universes, which makes their growing connection all the more tantalising. The characterisation for each is so clear and distinct that as they become closer and more drawn to each other, their burgeoning relationship almost becomes the third character in the films.
3. The performances are an acting master-class.
Listen to any interview, or Q & A of the Before trio, and the same question arises every time. “How much of these movies is improvised?” It always raises a smile from the filmmakers, because the answer is always, “None.” The reason people ask, and the reason that the answer is so surprising, is that the performances delivered by Hawke and Delpy as Jesse and Celine are perfect. In films that are about two people having a conversation, that is what we get – two people having a conversation – and it is completely natural. At times, a topic sparks with one or the other of them, and they plough into a stream of consciousness, expounding on this issue or that. But equally, there are lulls, as they become lost in thought, or are caught in an awkward moment. Their performances are beautifully complimented by Linklater’s long takes and patient direction, as Hawke and Delpy verbally dance around each other, building cautious intimacy.
4. The locations become part of the fabric of the movies.
Many films are shot in beautiful locations, but with Linklater’s Before movies, the locations become a part of the film. In Sunrise, as Jesse and Celine wander around Vienna chatting, in the most natural way, their conversation often turns to discussion of what they are looking at. They point out sights to each other from atop the Wiener Riesenrad – a 212 foot tall ferris wheel at the Prater amusement park in Leopoldstadt, Vienna. They discuss the history of the Friedhof der Namenlosen (Cemetery of the Nameless) in Simmering, Vienna. Nine years later, they view Paris from a Bateau Mouche (an excursion boat on the River Seine), and wander through the Promenade Plantee (a Parkway in the 12th arrondissement of Paris). With realism and honesty, the movie locations are seamlessly woven into the fabric of the films.
5. The movies document the times of their lives.
When we first meet Jesse and Celine, they are in their early twenties. They are both filled with wonder and anxiety in equal measure about what could be. In the second movie, Before Sunset, they have spent nine years living their own lives separately, and are now in their early thirties. They are respectively coming to terms with their own lives and the weight of taking responsibility for their own choices and actions, as they ponder what should be. In Before Midnight, as Jesse and Celine are now in their early forties, they are coming to terms with the fact that this is how life is. These are three beautiful movies that truthfully chronicle the lives and love story of one couple over the course of eighteen years – and the honesty on display is inspirational. Watching Sunrise, the audience is drawn into the urgency of the final goodbye. That one night has been so utterly perfect, you want it to continue for them. You feel that desperation of the just-twenty-something being caught in the moment and that being all there is. But then comes Sunset, nine years later. They left that wonderful bubble, and life continued regardless. This is cinema at its most reassuring, in that it reminds us that there is more than just this moment – there is an entire life to be lived.
6. They are entirely original.
Rom-coms are ten-a-penny. Every summer brings the high-octane action films – the “tentpole movies”. Every awards season brings the earnest, serious, Oscar-baiting fare. Movie release slates have become utterly predictable. But, while all that re-hashed noise fills the air, in stroll Jesse and Celine – deep in conversation and enjoying each other’s company – just trying to figure out where they are going. These films are not comedies – although there are plenty of laughs to be had while watching them. They are not dramas – although the tension created by the constraints placed on their time together is palpable. This is just life, playing out on the screen before you.
7. They provide insightful social commentary.
Jesse and Celine are two people with points of view. Jesse is thoughtful, with the soul of a poet, while Celine is emotional, with the heart of a feminist. Set these two off on a discussion or debate, and insightful social commentary is produced. Over the course of these movies, Jesse and Celine discuss love, sex, death, reincarnation, childbirth, marriage, religion, architecture, relationships, privilege, romance, mindfulness, war, dreams, literature, physics, feminism and environmentalism, among other things. The screenplays are so rich with ideas and concepts that the conversation between the two characters is almost symphonic.
8. They are about connection and, as such, are about being truly alive.
In Before Sunrise, these two people find they have a deep and profound connection, and through that connection discover understanding in a world that otherwise they have no real control over. When they meet again in Before Sunset, they each realise that they have been unable to replicate that level of understanding elsewhere. Their brief times together become almost an alternate reality, where life is paused and stock is taken. They take a ‘time out’, and in doing so realise that this connection and understanding gives meaning and purpose to their existence, making them feel truly alive. Throughout both films, the conversational dialogue serves to chart this connection, as Jesse and Celine gradually reveal themselves to each other, while instinctively trying to engage some self-protection. This balance of passion and reticence demonstrates the wonderful things that happen when you open yourself to possibilities. On a practical level, their choices make no sense. But by following their emotions, instead of their rational selves, they allow life to unfold.
9. They are at once both a celebration of spontaneity, and a comment on personal responsibility.
Jesse and Celine’s lives are defined by the spontaneous choices they make – getting off the train together, writing a book, attending a signing, missing a flight. Some of those choices put them on the right path, and some on the wrong, but each leads to an experience of value that informs later choices. Celine missed her flight six months after their initial encounter, and as a result, each set off on different adventures and relationships. At the end of Sunset, Jesse ponders another choice – whether to miss his flight home or stay with Celine. Amongst the choices to be made are the personal responsibilities resulting from those choices – parenthood, work and relationships. As the characters grow, they must come to terms with their personal responsibilities and their effects on future choices.
10. As in life, there are no clichéd happy endings.
There is no sudden realisation of love, nor a dash through rain-soaked streets to declare an undying passion – those endings, while entertaining and ‘feel good’, are not honest. Instead, Jesse and Celine share what they share in Sunrise and make their plans. Maybe it works out and maybe it doesn’t. In Sunset, there is regret, mixed with excitement at a chance for another ‘time out’ – we find them at a cross roads and, again, maybe it works out and maybe it doesn’t. As the audience, we want them to live happily ever after but, as Midnight demonstrates, these are two people just living their lives, and the path they choose to take is up to them. That’s the truthfulness of the story.
What happens when you finally have the life you wanted? That is the question asked and answered in Before Midnight – the third instalment in this trilogy of masterpieces, by Richard Linklater.