The ‘Before’ Trilogy — Film Review

Originally published on my website and accompanying Instagram account.

Before Sunrise felt wonderfully comforting. In depicting what was essentially a long conversation between two strangers with a unique connection, the director and co-writer, Richard Linklater, made a movie that was totally assured in what it wanted to convey. I admire his trust in audiences enjoying the simplicity of the storyline and the on-screen chemistry of Jesse and Céline, played by Ethan Hawke and Julie Delpy respectively. (The characters were co-created with Kim Krizan.)

Considering the movie was released in 1995 (more than 20 years ago!), watching and reviewing this now in 2020 made some scenes feel weirdly surreal — when was the last time you had a meaningful conversation with a stranger, on a train or otherwise? Nonetheless, the appeal of Jesse and Céline certainly hasn’t diminished over time as the ability to be vulnerable with another person remains cherished today. My favourite scene was them in the diner, mock calling their friends to tell each other they liked each other — so sweet and cute! 😊

Before Sunset seemed to pick up right where Jesse and Céline left off. Maybe it’s because I watched the two movies with only a day between them that it felt only natural that they would continue share the same chemistry as before. In reality, I know that nine years had actually passed between the movies being released (and in the story) so perhaps the emotional payoff would be more earned if the uncertainty of whether they met in Vienna six months later was still present. Being of the ‘binge-watching’ era, I honestly can’t imagine having to wait nine whole years for this movie — the fans must have been ecstatic (as I would’ve been) which in turn amped up the tension in addition to the plot’s ‘ticking clock’.

The conversations between Jesse and Céline felt as organic as always, though suitably more grounded in their actual experiences. The characters (and actors) had grown up, matured and with them carried more baggage — literally and figuratively — than in Before Sunrise. Their Oscar-nominated best adapted screenplay clearly demonstrated the positive influence of a powerful female voice (Julie Delpy). The breakdown of Céline’s façade in the car was truly masterfully crafted — her exposed vulnerability felt so real it hurt. My favourite scene was them in her house, him brimming with joy, watching her dance and imitate Nina Simone😊

Before Midnight was wow, just wow. I have never encountered two romantic leads portrayed as such equals in terms of personality, intellect, passion, and flaws. Céline’s headstrong nature, previously alluring and inspiring, became an instigating factor in their fight. Jesse’s tendency to make jokes about everything used to be humorous and charming but it grew to grate on some nerves.

Whether it was about Céline’s neuroses, her overthinking things, making everything about her, or about Jesse not being there for her, the fact that he will never understand a mother’s guilt, her resentment towards his job being his creative passion, the fight was skilfully executed. It was an exemplary depiction of brutal honesty that comes with knowing someone for as long as they’ve known each other and for once, I didn’t feel any less for one character than the other.

It was mentioned during the Beyond the Screenplay podcast (by Michael I think), that the explosiveness of the fight scene was built upon Jesse and Céline being together alone for the first time in a long time, not having to deal with the day-to-day-life issues of their dinner arrangements, problems at their work or relating to their kids.

I’ve never been in such a long-term relationship, let alone started my own family, and I still felt in my gut every punch delivered during their fight.

I like that the movie implied the overall importance of “it takes two to clap” — Jesse went after Céline, tried to mollify her; Céline rebuffed him; He told it to her straight; She registered the truth in his words and he could see it happening; She responded by playing along with his story; He continued in kind. I also felt the compassionate ending that left Jesse and Céline at least open to resolving their conflicts hit my sweet spot for ‘happy’ endings.

In an article for The Guardian about the making of The ‘Before’ Trilogy, Julie Delpy shared that these films were “really a study of time”. I was (and continue to be) amazed these movies even exist — two actors playing the same characters over a span of eighteen years in total, where real time had passed between the movies and real-life events were experienced by the actors themselves. It’s a blessing we, as the audience, get to see these two characters we love, get older (together) and live through the consequences of their decisions. This trilogy is a rare success in which the sequels were as solid, if not more solid, than each preceding movie and altogether, profoundly special to me.

Since watching all three movies, I’ve rewatched the Lessons from the Screenplay video about the hidden structure in Before Sunset which brought my attention to the timing at which events occur/ information is revealed in movies. I usually try my best to ignore where I am in the timelines of movies because I want to live in them for as long as possible but I’m happy the LFTS team does the analysis for me😉 I’ve also read the Roger Ebert reviews for the movies and would like to recommend the one for Before Midnight. It touched on a couple of points I wouldn’t have noticed on my own, probably due to my lack of life experience. The LFTS podcast (Beyond the Screenplay; briefly mentioned previously) that covered the three films is worth checking out as well.

I have a few final thoughts.

All the films were stellar in their own right. Before Sunrise was dreamy and romantic, and its positive reception was what led to the creation of the whole trilogy. Before Sunset was an impressive technical feat — a testament to the actors’ skill, the hard work of the whole production team and especially its effective screenplay that was duly recognised with an Oscar nomination. But my favourite of the three is Before Midnight. Perhaps in part due to me watching it mere hours after the second film, it left me reeling in my thoughts and emotions even after sleeping on it and writing this review the next day. I love that it had the playful, endearing banter between Jesse and Céline — reminiscent of the first two movies — and the dramatic fight scene — reflective of real life — which appealed to the cynic/ realist in me. Concluding on a hopeful note, it encouraged me that despite the bruises one’s heart might endure and the subsequent efforts required, there’s always a chance that things will work out eventually😊

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