which might not even be a trilogy in the future

By Angelynne Jose

Time yields hard truths

How many movies end in perfect love? The couple gazing into each other’s eyes, the knowing smiles, the arms entangled around each other, the kiss, and then the slow fade to black: happiness, forever after. Richard Linklater, filmmaker, screenwriter, and art house darling, is as fascinated with love as any Hollywood hack, but how he depicts it is radically and strangely different. His Before trilogy challenges the notion of happily ever after, and instead looks at how we love and why we love. They explore stages in a relationship that are too often sugarcoated over by clichéd notions of romance (Hello, Nicholas Sparks. Hello, Bridget Jones and all your diaries). Instead, Linklater gives it to us as it is.

The trilogy consists of Before Sunrise, Before Sunset, and Before Midnight, all starring Ethan Hawke and Julie Delpy. Before Sunrise introduces us to Hawke and Delpy’s characters, Jesse and Celine, when they meet by chance on a train in Vienna. Jesse asks Celine to get off the train with him and, you know, kind of walk around and have a date or something. It’s a lovely film, but the ending hardly promises any happily ever after as it fades out on Delpy’s enigmatic smile.

Young Love
Before Sunset, the second film of the maybe trilogy—Linklater, Hawke, and Delpy didn’t know at the time that they were going to make a third one—we meet the characters nine years later, only this time in Paris. Their love affair picks up where it left off, with a few exceptions. Jesse, while still obviously enchanted by Celine when he sees her at his book signing in Paris, is married, but not happily, and has a son. Celine is also in a relationship, and equally dissatisfied. They have a date that they don’t quite call a date, which pretty much sums up how they interact throughout the series. By the time Jesse needs to go to catch his flight back to New York, they end up in Celine’s apartment. Here, Linklater leaves us on a somewhat optimistic, although more complicated note, as Celine hums Nina Simone’s “Just in Time” and Jesse, with a huge grin on his face, decides to miss his flight.

The last movie, Before Midnight, explores Jesse and Celine’s relationship nine years later after that as they’ve reached middle age and married. They have started a family of their own and find their love and relationship unexpectedly challenged on a trip to Greece. Their relationship has become somewhat strained, because Jesse’s son is back in the states and he wants his “European” family to move there so that he can be closer to him. We know that there are arguments to come. By the end of the movie, the reality of their love for each other brings them back together, closer than ever.

Is this the sunset of middle age?
While there’s a certain schematic and generic quality to the films, they are anything but. What makes the trilogy feel so authentic and down to earth is the way Celine and Jesse talk to each other. Conversation is crucial to relationships and the fact that Linklater focuses on the way they communicate makes the films a revelation—this is how love actually works.

In Before Sunrise, there is a scene when Jesse and Celine are in a record store, and they are both inside a booth listening to music. The camera focuses closely on the two of them, never moving the entire scene. We can see every expression they make. Linklater is expert at keeping his camera on what others might consider insignificant or un-dramatic. The attraction that we witness between Jesse and Celine is a slow, detailed one. It shows the shyness and uncertainty they both feel about acting on an obvious connection. We rarely get to see this type of gradual development in movies, novels, poems, songs, etc.

In another tricky scene in Before Sunrise, they come across a poet by the riverside. He writes them something based off a word they give him. When they get the poem from him, it is a fairly accurate depiction of their situation and seems like the most conventional of Hollywood tropes: riverside poet says your love is forever. Linklater makes this scene problematic by highlighting Jesse’s skepticism of psychics or soothsayers or poets with a glint of the future in their eye, in contrast to Celine’s utter willingness to believe.

Linklater's Before films are tricky to watch
This is what is so interesting and what distinguishes Linklater’s “love” films from typical romance stories. Physical attraction is what gets someone to notice another person, but the commonalities between people are what move them past shallow admiration. They share interests, and even when interests aren’t shared, they have similar sensibilities. Linklater shows that a relationship, a long-term one, is the product of more than “love,” but of a sense of how love makes us behave, act, and grow.

In another instance in Before Sunset, as the two catch up on what’s been going on in their lives for the past nine years, Linklater does something quite interesting. In most movies, the couple, if ever separated, pines away for each other. It is a cliché of the genre that lovers, if true, will wait, and wait, and wait, and certainly not marry or even date anyone else.

This isn’t the case for Jesse and Celine, though. They lived their lives because they had to. When that day came for them to meet up again and Celine didn’t come, Jesse had to move on with his life. While Celine felt guilty for not showing up, she also knew she had to move on with her life. This is the way the real world works. Life goes on. Part of what makes Linklater’s view of love so compelling is that it recognizes limits rather than pretending that love will conquer every obstacle in its way.

Listen and watch
While watching each film in the Before series, you have to really listen to what the characters are saying to each other. Before Midnight has a scene where the two of them are in a group talking to other people, mostly couples, almost all middle-aged. Their conversations cover a multitude of topics, but hover around relationships and love.

During that scene, while poking fun at Jesse that his ultimate goal is to have a bimbo for a wife, Celine pretends to be one. Jesse jumps in to the game and it is obvious how well these two work together as a couple, if not a comedy team. They’re able to laugh and be serious with each other, as couples should. At that moment, they seem to be a model for everyone else in the room, young and old alike.

As they walk to their hotel, where they are going to have a huge argument, Linklater just lets them talk about little things. This is what will ultimately save their relationship, not the fact that they will have or will work through a serious argument, but that they enjoy being with each other and engaging in the little things that ultimately add up to a marriage that lasts. It is almost as if Linklater is saying, “Here is the medicine that you need for what’s inevitably going to follow.”

©Angelynne Jose and the CCA Arts Review

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