Before Sunrise (1995)
I was too young to watch this movie at any time close to its release, but it still was able to place its hooks on my heart and not let go. We first meet Jesse (Ethan Hawke) and Celine (Julie Delpy) on a train bound for Vienna. They meet, talk briefly, and somehow develop an attraction to each other that neither one can really explain. They spend the entire night in deep conversation, learning the most intimate details about one another and their thoughts on the world, all leading up an early morning checkpoint when they must part ways. Every moment of the film is authentic and somehow exhilarating. Maybe that is just my obsession with dialogue-heavy scripts, but these characters are just so real. Jesse is sort of an asshole. Celine is extremely bitchy. Together, they are perfect and they would not take it any other way. Neither would we.
What is most interesting about this film is how the film was able to speak to a generation. The back of the DVD says that it is “a valentine to young love forever”, which is something that has always stuck with me. It is messy, frustrating, naïve, and yet incredibly beautiful. There is a time when they are in the play room at a record store listening to a Nina Simone song and there are no words spoken. The camera just shows their faces, their expressions, and their reactions. If you watch this scene alone, you will know what these characters are all about. The performances are so indelible and genuine. If I didn’t know better, I would think that they are playing themselves and they were in love. They become these characters, and they never let me completely stop thinking about them.
The film ends in a way where their fate is somewhat unknown. We ache for a film to check in with them six months later. We need to know whether they continue the romance, whether they did the deed, whether they truly were as inseparable as they were for those fleeting hours in Vienna. Luckily enough, Linklater felt the same way.
Before Sunset (2004)
Now, it was after this film came out that I caught up on the series. I watched them back-to-back, which some will think may have ruined or skewed the experience, but I wouldn’t have traded it for anything. Sunrise can stand alone as its own film, and if I did not know that there was going to be a look-in on Jesse and Celine every nine years, then I could have stood the pain of the uncertainty. I could not have done that for almost a decade knowing that there was more to the story.
Sunset takes place in Paris nine years after the original encounter. Jesse is on a book tour promoting the story of his chance encounter with a French girl and how they fell in love under the stars in Vienna. Celine hears about it and shows up at the bookstore just an hour or so before Jesse has to catch a flight back to New York. They use that brief time to talk, explain, commiserate, and again engage in deep conversation. The two characters are made for each other, and the actors (both co-writers on the film with Linklater) have lived with the characters for almost a decade and perfected their back stories and made this film, shot in real-time, an absolutely beautiful blur. The dialogue is just as poignant and insightful. The story is even more believable and sound. This movie is some kind of miracle.
What makes this film so interesting is that it would not exist without the first film. It seems almost impossible for this film to make any sense without viewing Sunrise first. Yet somehow, this may be the best of the trilogy. Maybe it is the real time. Maybe it is the fact that this movie is both heartbreaking and hopeful. Maybe it is because the actors finally show some real emotion. Maybe it is the romantic backdrop of Paris. Maybe it is the current situations of the Jesse and Celine that cause the conflict. Maybe it is just admiration and fulfillment of our thirst for wanting to know what happened to them. No, it is every one of these things and more.
The film ends in a way that is impossible to describe without ruining it. It is the ends of the films that really make the series so astounding and hard to let go. This film in particular has one of the best endings in film history. It fades out right before something is about to happen, leaving the audience to create their own ideas. Is Jesse a romantic? Are we romantics? This film will make you decide.
Before Midnight (2013)
The movie has a slightly different format than the previous two. In those, Jesse and Celine were essentially the only characters with more than a line or two in the film. This one starts out differently, and one of those deep conversations they typically engage in actually takes place at a dinner table with six other people. This is the crucial scene in the movie. We see how they interact with other people. We see their past experiences have shaped them and how they have grown since. We see in their performances everything we need to know to catch up with their story. It is a remarkable scene that I can only describe as being Sideways-esque, which if you don’t know, is about the best compliment I can give a film.
The format eventually focuses in on the characters and we get those details we wanted. We also see these characters really open up for maybe the first time. They are so self-deprecating and personal when they fight. We see how unhappy with life Celine is and how sarcastic Jesse is. We see glimpses of the couple that met 18 years prior in Vienna, but that spark and the ambition of the characters has almost completely faded out. The fights are excruciating to watch and easy to relate to. It is like watching The Puffy Chair or Your Sister's Sister. We feel the pain that they do, and so many harbored feelings are revealed that have been haunting them for years. The audience is frustrated, the characters are furious. The final half hour or so of this film, taking place almost solely in a hotel room, is drama at its finest. Sorry if this is corny, but Judd Apatow…THIS is 40.
The performances in this film are even better than the previous two. In those, Delpy basically stole the show. In this film, though, the emotional ante is upped in a major way. Delpy breaks our hearts as the seemingly coldhearted and paranoid Celine. Hawke continues use his passive aggressive comments to come off like the good guy but making it clear that he is has ulterior motives in his statements. Hawke should do more movies like this. He is the absolute best with dialogue-based movies (see Linklater’s Tape if you aren’t simply convinced by these three films).
I have never really been haunted by a movie quite like I was after watching this movie. I was thinking about it the rest of the day. It probably ruined the next movie I watched because it was still in my head. It takes so much more out of the audience to watch this. The true feelings are shown. The first two films were romantic and brief. This film is gut-wrenching and frustrating. Somehow, Linklater, Hawke, and Delpy are able to make another near-flawless ending. Again, it happens right before something is about to happen, but if you know as much about these characters as I do, you can almost figure what their fate is. All three films have an ending that could stand as the end of the series, but I cannot help but selfishly hope for more. They have done a remarkable job at not making any of these films seem forced or overly cinematic. They are almost like documentaries, dropping in on their lives and revealing details in ways that are not obvious or trite. Looking at the trilogy, for me it stands as the second best ever. I do not think it is over, though. Come 2022, I am sure that we will be seeing the quick development of another flawless masterpiece checking in on Jesse and Celine at age 50. I know I say things like this a lot, but I honestly cannot wait to see where it goes from here. I will be first in line.
Rating: 4 stars