Director Richard Linklater is the unsung giant of American cinema.
In 1994 two young people were awkwardly pacing across a bridge in Vienna. They had only just met moments ago on a train from Budapest. After spotting the young Parisian Celine on the train, Jesse, a swashbuckling American, convinces her to hop off and spend the day in Vienna with him before his flight back home. They happened to meet two locals on that bridge who invited them to a play. They never made it to the play, but would fall in love by the end of that day. They wouldn’t reunite for almost a decade. With Ethan Hawke and Julie Delpy in leading roles, Before Sunrise is the first installment of an artful and brilliant trilogy. Together with Before Sunset (2004) and Before Midnight (2013), the three films are understated masterpieces. The chance meeting of two young and idealistic people is extended into what is essentially a single conversation spanning three decades as their relationship evolves from strangers to lovers, to reunited ex-lovers, to spouses.
Director Richard Linklater is the unsung giant of American cinema. He is a self-taught filmmaker who after honing his craft away from Hollywood in his creative enclave of Austin, became one of the frontrunners of independent film in the 1990’s. Before Sunrise was his third effort after Slacker and Dazed and Confused, classic films in their own right. From his earliest work he developed and introduced multi-dimensional, fully formed characters, often emphasizing varied conversations that mined numerous topics through extensive dialogue. For the Before series he would take this premise to the extreme, eschewing any machinations of a plot and basing the films almost wholly on one long, extended exchange between two people. It’s audacious, risking the narrative on an idea this seemingly banal, but Linklater made it intensely engaging enough to extend it into a series, with a loyal audience anticipating a possible fourth installment in the next decade to round out a possible tetralogy.
The films are dependent on the synergy between Hawke and Delpy. They simply walk and talk, and their unique chemistry is strong enough to tether the audience’s interest through every nuance of their lengthy discussions. It starts as an awkward feeling out process between strangers in Sunrise, ripens into a tête-à-tête of the sexes in Sunset, and matures into an analysis of monogamy in Midnight. Similar to Boyhood, we watch the actors age in each film, which renders a sense of realism and endearing familiarity — it prompts the audience to take ownership of Jesse and Celine and follow the arc of their relationship. In the sequels, all the details of the previous decade in the lives of both characters are cleverly incorporated into their conversations, requiring your attention and encouraging multiple viewings to piece together the minutiae. The action takes place off screen through anecdotes they relate to one another and the myriad stories, personal philosophies and differences they share.
In Sunrise, Celine is a thoughtful young woman, who strives to be an independent ‘icon of womanhood’ while seeking the love and companionship of a man. Jesse is torn between convention and risk, contemplating being a family man or pursuing his dreams. They walk around aimlessly. They stop to watch a street performance, visit a church, observe a live set by a guitarist in a bar, interact with a poet and a palm reader while exploring the city like two birds caught in the same gust and negotiating the passage between them — they walk together, apart, clasp hands, kiss. The beatific backdrop of Vienna — like Paris and Greece in the sequels — is a strong supporting character, the canal, cobblestones and dated architecture adding a painterly texture to their literary conversations. They are full of sprawling language and digressions, and make youthful attempts at interpreting the various complicated dimensions of life, as yet unspoiled by it but with a touch of bruises that inform some budding wisdom. Lacking experience, they recall the losses and triumphs of the adults in their lives to foreshadow their own future, voicing their hopes and aspirations in moments of strange intimacy in corners of the city. They fall in love.
In one charmed moment, Jesse and Celine are huddled in a kiosk in a record shop, silent and listening to a folk ballad, nervously shifting and attempting eye contact in close proximity in one long, extended shot. In another, they are sitting in the front pew of an empty church at night. In whispers, Jesse tells Celine about Quaker wedding rituals, explaining how the couple simply stare at each other in silence for an hour before they are declared married, and that no-one in the ceremony speaks unless moved to do so. Various topics are curated into their talks and delicately conveyed by Hawke and Delpy. Their ruminations include reflections on their upbringings, ambitions, spirituality, love, children, and work among many stories pulled from their own lives.
The ebb and flow of the realistic conversations is the earmark of the Before franchise. Remarkably, no scene is improvised. The naturalism is achieved through a rigorous collaborative process between director and actors — all three films were written by Linklater, Hawke and Delpy, though the latter two didn’t receive official credit for Sunrise. Sunrise was also written and developed with screenwriter Kim Krizan, who Linklater worked with to accurately voice a woman’s perspective. He originally sought to base the film in San Antonio, before transplanting it overseas after a film festival trip to Europe, where he went on inspired solitary walks in Berlin and Vienna. Linklater arrived at the film by one of his own personal encounters. After wrapping the shoot on Slacker in 1989, he visited a sibling in Philadelphia, where he met a woman in a toy store who he spent the whole night walking the city with, and who he never saw again. He has been quoted as saying that even during that liaison, he had it in mind to make a film about the experience.
At the end of Sunrise Jesse and Celine fall asleep on the lawn of a park with a bottle of red wine. Then Linklater cuts to the next morning, where they soon part ways with a hasty and urgent goodbye at the train station. We don’t find out yet what happened between them that night. She is headed to Paris, he back to the States. They have just enough time to agree to meet at the same platform in six months. When they see each other again, it is in a small bookshop in Paris on Jesse’s book tour nearly ten years later in Before Sunset, itself released nine years after the first film. This is before social media, when finding someone across a continent might have required writing a book to get their attention. Celine never made the six months appointment, and their lives drifted apart. The faint appearance of creases on foreheads is visible, as is the weight of life on their eyes. Like Boyhood, which also features Hawke, Linklater is committed to documenting the impermanence of youth, using the same actors to play characters across decades. They continue their conversation, walking and talking, this time in another city.
Jesse is an author, and unhappily married with child. Celine is a cynical environmental activist frustrated by lack of progress in her work. They are by now in their 30’s and slightly disillusioned. With a lot of their idealism having been eroded, they lament their wounds, and deliberate the convergence of coincidences and missed connections that have so far made up their lives. They find out they both lived in New York at the same time. They’ve evolved, yet there are still embers of their younger selves who fell in love one night in Vienna. At the end Celine, while singing along to a Nina Simone record in her apartment, reminds Jesse that it is once again time for him to catch his flight. It is another affecting and evocative scene from the Linklater cache, wholly ordinary but sentimentally recognizable as if drawn from your own memory.
Again, the audience is left wondering about the couple, until we find them nearly a decade later in Before Midnight. They are now on a visit in Greece, in the southern Peloponnese, married to each other and with two children of their own. It is a new dynamic, with family responsibility and spousal conflict. Midnight composes a jarring and truthful depiction of marriage in a climactic argument that defines the film. The fading beauty is beautiful to observe — the maturation of Hawke and Delpy mirrors that of Jesse and Celine, producing nostalgia for the characters’ lives, both on the screen and off. They are superimposed against their younger selves, and the through-line between what they projected of their hopes and dreams in Sunrise and Sunset is given some sense of closure in Midnight. We last eavesdrop on them at a table in a moonlit restaurant by the water. They reconcile, still in love.