note: When I use Before I want to indicate this is true of all 3 films. When I use Sunrise, Sunset, or Midnight, I am addressing that particular film. too, I think this is a fairly spoiler-free post, considering the 3rd film gives us some outcome from the first and second, but there are plenty of mysteries left to each.
Before Sunrise (1995): After spending hours talking on the train where they meet, French University student Celine agrees to accompany 20-something American Jesse as he waits out his early next day flight back home by passing the night touring Vienna.
Before Sunset (2004): On the last leg of his book tour, Jesse and Celine have a few hours to spend before he must leave Paris for home. We catch up on what has happened since and attempt to imagine what the future has in store for two whose lives can never be the same after that unforgettable night 9 years earlier.
Before Midnight (2013): Another 9 years have passed, Jesse and Celine are married, have twin girls (aged 7), and are vacationing in Greece. It is their last evening before heading home to Paris and what should have been a romantic night away together turns into passionate exchanges of another sort.
Is there anything more riveting on screen than 105 running minutes of two people conversing? Okay, to be fair Before Sunrise (Richard Linklater 1995) does allow for breathing and movement, moments of quiet appreciation during the touring of Vienna and, you know,
sex laughing. Just as the film captures those memories of up-all-night talking with the most fascinating human you’ve ever met, Before Sunrise itself enthralls the viewer. Jesse (Ethan Hawke) and Celine (Julie Delpy) carry off the sincerity the film demands, and they only get better with time. True, the quality of the films have matured in time, but Before Midnight gives us a Jesse and Celine who are hypnotic. Their fight in the hotel room is incredible (one my film prof, who is also a film critic, swears is the best he’s seen rendered on screen). Before is signature in how it films the characters walking toward the audience as they converse, the lens catching every wordless exchange, but the audience is drawn from voyeurism into experiencing both Jesse and Celine’s perception of the other. These are not one-sided stories. Mind the body language, the expressions on their faces when the other isn’t even looking at them, where their eyes travel—or don’t mind it consciously, because I guarantee your less conscious self is reading the protagonists quite deeply. The films’ success relies on Hawke and Delpy and these actors do not disappoint.
In Sunrise, Jesse and Celine haven’t the luxury of a drawn-out dating relationship over which one may or may not get to really know the person they are with. As is the premise of all three films, understanding that time with one another is short, why would you talk about the weather? Jesse and Celine cut the “social niceties” and converse on those subjects we are taught to avoid, especially on first meeting: sex, politics, religion, philosophy, death, family difficulties, fears… It is fun to observe when each subject is revisited in subsequent films how they’ve changed or remained the same as time passes. There is a certain level of envy Before invites: the lack of inhibition, the invigoration of being in the company of a passionate thinker, the ability to be vulnerable and it being a rewarding experience, the connections made between people that lack superficiality and foster a sense of more authentic living… Sean and I admitted after Midnight that we would love to have a setting at the table of a dinner like theirs.
Time, as a major character in Before, is present in various forms. In Sunrise there is ever the consulting of a watch. In Sunset, the film opens with their itinerary in reverse: one can mark the time by the landmarks the film sets forth. Midnight, marks a shift in intensity when the sun disappears behind the ridge and we feel the weight of an ending looming but never certain. Time exists in memory and thus suffers multiple personality disorder; there is a preoccupation in the films about how we all remember moments/people differently, some perceptions of which are reconcilable, others are not. Futures are anticipated, obscured, but there is always a very real present happening on the screen. In hand with the sincerity of the narratives, there is always are rawness of existing in a moment, the past to be temporarily forgotten, the future to wait for regret or reward.
Before explores notions of romanticism versus the real by placing 2 bold, mostly articulate, and well-read young people together for an evening as they exchange passionate ideas, snorts of disbelief, flights of fancy and a sincere desire to know the other’s thoughts. We experience the enchantment of the idea of them as well as the reality they represent, i.e. contradictions: Celine is at times terribly afraid (flying), yet otherwise fearless (social justice); Jesse is one of the most jaded optimists to whom I’ve been introduced, he is at moments irrepressibly cocksure and in the next complete uncertain as to what to do. The films retain a wonderful consistency of character, something knowable we can carry into the next. And yet each Before offers revelations and ultimately leaves us with some uncertainty. I really need for there to be another Before… Before Dawn, anyone?
Before offers unexpected treats. Despite a desire to capture a realness, the film eschews the mockumentary style. No shaky hand held camera, no cutting to finesse an exchange between characters, and it lacks a self-consciousness in the characters being watched. Despite the gorgeous setting of Vienna/Paris/Greece, a fair number of close and mediums shots bring the narrative into a more intimate space, denying the travel narrative type film a foothold. Sunrise is a 1990s film about two young people, yet it has no trendy pop culture soundtrack and neither is the delivery of dialog clever and smooth. In an effort to maintain the sincere, Sunrise favors folk music and blushes, stumbles, and hesitations in the exchange of lines. Before never acquires the flawless or popular, but there is a wit and humor that shine and we are left with a timeless quality.
I mentioned how Before is not singular in perspective. In Sunrise , Jesse wants to get laid by this attractive French girl. She wants to get laid by this amusing American boy. Before is not bashful about sex. If it feels like it always comes down to sex—well, you can think of it in terms of intimacy: which is great conversation to have when looking at each of the films change in perspective on/depiction of the sexual intimacy between the characters. In Before, there is always a mutual intention to seduce. And it is not without awkward interactions as one is occasionally offended by the other; especially when they have to clarify cultural and/or gender differences. They have to come to agree that there are issues that cannot be solved due to the constraints of time and energy or purpose. Their goal is to remove the obstacles, not reinforce or erect them. The intent is to bring them closer and the arrival of such intimacy is not without conflicts, in fact, it can be heart-breaking.
a bit of an aside….
A question Sean and I debated was whether Before could have been done, if Celine had been an American. Yes, we get the European adventure and the catching the flight, even the foreign quality supporting the narrative. The question is: is Celine able to be both sexual and intellectual, yielding and unyielding, because she is French (not American) in this American film? There is an aspect to Midnight especially, wherein Celine expresses the success of her social and familial responsibilities, the vulnerability of motherhood, her career aspirations, her sexual appeal, her ability to have time for her art. Relationships are shown to play out differently in Midnight with the decision to bring in conversations that do not involve Jesse and Celine physically together in situ. In these conversations, Jesse is the only American. It is an affecting dynamic, of course, but I still wonder about the Celine of all the films, and especially with Sunrise. Is she more accessible, more convincing as the woman as a foreigner? Would her having been American erected more barriers than anyone really has time for? Yes, I realize that having a French Celine allows for the cultural exchange…nevertheless, I wonder. The American Jesse is viewed as logical, intellectual and highly sexual as well; but Midnight remarks on a difference when Jesse jokingly plays a “hairy Spaniard”… There are certainly cultural perceptions of gender at work, and I wonder at where the American woman lies… If we have Jesse’s ex-wife to go on…
recommendations: If you think Jerry Bruckheimer or Michael bay is the height of cinematic experiences, you may want to give Before a pass. Please do not watch these with someone you care about if you will only resort to snark—for the sake of your relationship—unless, of course, you are both find snarkiness best suits your intimate exchanges, please verify this is actually so beforehand. This is a good movie to see with friends as it really is about meaningful relationships and living as well as just being human.
You don’t have to see Sunrise, Sunset, and Midnight in order, but they are their best in order. Of course, Midnight is experiencing a small release and short run—so frustrating!! So if it is still where you are, go. If not, you should have time to enjoy them in order (ala Netflix or the like).
Before Sunrise (1995). Director Richard Linklater; written by Linklater & Kim Krizan; cinematography: Lee Daniel; editing: Sandra Adair; produced by John Sloss, Anne Walker-McBay; original music by Fred Frith; Columbia Pictures. Starring: Ethan Hawke (Jesse), Julie Delpy (Celine). running time 105 minutes. rated R for some strong language
Before Sunset (2004). Director Richard Linklater; screenplay by Linklater, Julie Delpy, & Ethan Hawke; cinematography: Lee Daniel; editing: Sandra Adair; produced by John Sloss, Linklater, Anne Walker-McBay; Warner Independent Pictures. Starring: Ethan Hawke (Jesse), Julie Delpy (Celine), Vernon Dobtcheff (bookstore manager). running time 80 minutes. rated R for language and sexual references
Before Sunset (2004). Director Richard Linklater; screenplay by Linklater, Julie Delpy, & Ethan Hawke; cinematography: Christos Voudouris; editing: Sandra Adair; produced by John Sloss, Linklater, Christos V. Konstantakopoulos, Sara Woodhatch; Sony Picture Classics. Starring: Ethan Hawke (Jesse), Julie Delpy (Celine), Seamus Davey-Fitzpatrick (Hank), Xenia Kalogeropoulou (Natalia), Walter Lassally (Patrick), Ariane Labed (Anna), Yiannis Papadopoulos (Achilleas), Athina Rachel Tsangari (Ariadni), Panos Koronis (Sefanos). running time 109 minutes. rated R for sexual content/nudity and language