Brief Encounter: Richard Linklater’s ‘Before’ Films Stand the Test of Time

Those who know me personally (or have read my literary blog, starts & stops.) might also know of my particularly soft spot for Richard Linklater’s Before trilogy.  (And when I say soft, I mean like…ooey-gooey-caramel-filled-Stroopwafel-melting-atop-your-espresso soft.)  (Yeah…that soft.) (Can you tell what I’ve just been snacking on before typing this?) (This is a lot of parenthetical asides, huh?) (Okay, back to the post, now.)  I first came across Before Sunrise (1995), the series’ first installment, when it aired on the Lifetime network back in high school, around the time its sequel Before Sunset (2004) was released.  I was about sixteen or seventeen at the time, and though I’d only caught the middle portion of it, something about the conversation between the boyishly handsome American Jesse (Ethan Hawke) and the ethereal Frenchwoman Celine (Julie Delpy) that captured my teenage imagination.  

I never actually got to finish that first viewing, and it wasn’t until roughly two years later, at what was then the Times Square Virgin Megastore (R.I.P., sob sob!), that I would purchase my own copy and finally see the whole thing through.  Quickly after that initial purchase followed Sunset in its wake.  By then, I was a freshman in college–and as one on the cusp of her early twenties, heavily steeped in culture and armed with a personal “yen” for travel, the idea of having a philosophical, intellectually-charged conversation with someone whilst traipsing around a European city over the course of an evening was, at the time, just about the highest form of romance there was.  

The intervening years between each film viewing were, naturally, a highly formative growth period for me (and one which this blog can certainly attest to).  Since then, just like the cherry blossoms that promise their bloom every late spring and early summer, Sunrise and Sunset became a pair of perennial favorites, and I would find myself amiss if the changing seasons were not accompanied by a viewing of both films.  As a result, Linklater’s examination of Time and Memory’s effects on human relationships (most recently and notably evident in his Oscar®-winning film Boyhood [2014]) would eventually become hugely influential in my writing, reflecting my own curiosities.

As author and Film Comment contributor Phillip Lopate described in “The Long and Winding Road,” his review of the trilogy’s third installment Before Midnight (2013), the initial two films center on “the flowering of a mood over a period of less than a day between two characters: an American, Jesse, and a Frenchwoman, Celine.”  They happen upon one another on a train across Europe–she, heading back to Paris after visiting her grandmother in Budapest; he, wandering aimlessly on a Eurail pass after getting dumped by his girlfriend in Spain.  After witnessing a petty argument between a German-speaking couple next to her, Celine gets up from her original seat and settles across the aisle from Jesse at the back of the train, unbeknownst of what is to follow.

What follows, of course, is the above-mentioned philosophical, intellectually-charged conversation.  The two eventually decide to get off the train at Vienna and explore the city on foot, making their way past various postcard-worthy locales: the famous Prater ferris wheel; a cemetery filled with anonymous graves; an alternative record store; and even find themselves at that most universally requisite of twenty-something haunts, a seedy dive bar replete with pinball machines and musicians decked out in plaid and baggy jeans (this takes place, after all, at the height of the grunge era).  They run into two quirky theatre actors who playfully joke at Jesse’s linguistic ignorance (“Do you speak German, for a change?”), as well as a seemingly omniscient fortune-teller and a homeless man who writes poetry in exchange for money (Jesse: “I like this Viennese variation of bum.”)–the conversation forever flowing all the while, bouncing off these interactions.  They, of course, flirt–not just with words, but with pauses, silences and sidelong glances (Celine: “I like to feel his eyes on me when I look away.”).  As the day turns into night, it is not just the characters who fall in love with one another’s beguiling turns of phrase, but the audience, as well.  Here is where the film’s (mostly) real-time premise lends itself perfectly, providing a wonderful, ineffable immediacy to their seemingly spontaneous exchange. 


The series’ second installment, Before Sunset, picks up where Sunrise‘s ambiguous ending left off (they part ways, vowing to meet again six months later amid a flurry of hurried kisses and rushed goodbyes).  This time around, Jesse encounters Celine in her hometown of Paris, where he is on the last leg of a promotional tour for a book he’s written chronicling their night together.  A few minutes into Sunset‘s opening scene, wherein we find Jesse in the midst of a Q-&-A session with members of the press at the legendary Shakespeare & Company bookstore, a young reporter in the crowd eagerly asks him the question we all want answered: “Do the two of them ever meet again, like they promised each other?”  Jesse struggles to find a satisfactory response to this, instead playfully brushes it off and moves onto a query about his next project–only to glance to the side, where he finds the answer in the form of a smiling Celine standing betwixt the bookshelves.

After a few verbal fumbles at the mere sight of her, Jesse finally finishes the session and walks over to the still-smiling Celine, sharing in an awkward exchange of hellos.  From there, it’s back to the postcard-worthy locales, the likes of which only Paris can provide (from coffee and tea at Le Pure Cafe; to walks down High Line pre-emptor, the Promenade Plantee; to a dreamy ferry ride along the Seine), as well as the ever-familiar restraints of Time (they have until, you guessed it, sunset — before Jesse must leave to catch his plane back to the States).  Despite some moments of awkwardly finding their bearings, the two fall right back into the thick of things, continuing the conversation they had started nine years before.

As Celine thoughtfully says to Jesse towards the end of Sunrise: “If there is any kind of magic in the world, it must be in the attempt of understanding someone sharing something.”  This magic is also due, of course, to both actors’ on-screen chemistry and eventual off-screen collaboration by the time Sunset and Midnight come around.  The brainchild of Linklater and original collaborator Kim Krizan, the two characters and the story surrounding them only seem to fully take shape once under the guiding hands (or more accurately, voices) of the actors portraying them, by the time its sequel comes around.

“The auteur of the Before series,” Lopate affirms, “must thus be considered a triumvirate…Hawke and Delpy share two-thirds of the screenwriting credit with their director […] and it’s probable that a fair amount of dialogue came from them.”  Linklater and Krizan’s original Sunrise script certainly portrayed the hopeful naivete & navel-gazing platitudes commonly spouted by many a twenty-something Gen-Xer of that era, and much of that magical dialogue is still evident in Sunset.  In fact, one might even come to realize just how strikingly (and marvelously so) the unfolding conversational themes in each film, echo one other–especially when viewed together.

Perhaps the most obvious of these is what Lopate dubs the “Time Machine” motif, first seen in Sunrise, wherein Jesse says to Celine: “Think of it like this–jump ahead ten, twenty years, and you’re married.  Only your marriage doesn’t have the same energy it used to have.  You start to blame your husband.  You start to think about all those guys in your life, and what might have happened if you’d picked up with one of them.  So, think of this as time travel from then to now, to find out what you’re missing out on.”  As we literally jump nearly ten years later in Sunset, we see this very scenario enacted through Jesse himself, who confesses to being stuck in an unhappy marriage, his years spent together with his wife occasionally punctuated by thoughts and even dreams of Celine and their almost-romance.  (This motif, as Lopate further points out, is once again invoked by Jesse at the end of Midnight.)

Celine, too, does some invoking of her own, with the motif of an “old woman” alter-ego.  She states in Sunrise, “I always have this strange feeling I’m this very old woman laying down about to die — you know, that my life is just her memories or something.”  As the two meet once again in Sunset, she says to a frustrated Jesse: “But we’re not real anyway, right?  We’re just characters in that old lady’s dream.  She’s on her deathbed, fantasizing about her youth, so of course, we had to meet again, right?”  Other thematic elements occur between the two threads of conversation in each film, from musings on religion and spirituality to the ever time-honored debate over the social expectations of Man versus Woman.Just as with its predecessor, Sunset also ends on an open note — however, one much less ambiguous in comparison.  By the time the pair’s jaunt all over Paris ends up at Celine’s apartment (with Jesse’s driver waiting by the courtyard below to take him straight to the airport), it is clear that he won’t be crossing that ocean by day’s end, after all.  As Celine playfully dances along to a Nina Simone track (the very aptly-titled “Just in Time”), she turns to him and says, “Baby, you are going to miss that plane.”  At which he softens into a grin and simply replies, “I know.”  Ambiguous endings or not, the unforgettable chemistry between Linklater’s characters are anything but.   From the way Hawke & Delpy each tackle the dialogue, to the similar ease with which their characters seem to bask in one another’s company, the first two films in the Before Trilogy prove to be a unique walk down memory lane — one we’ll want to revisit again and again.

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