Trilogy fever has extended to indie film romances with director Richard Linklater’s “Before Midnight,” the sequel to 2004’s “Before Sunset” and its 1995 predecessor “Before Sunrise.” I should probably describe it as a presumed trilogy because I wouldn’t put it past Linklater and the stars of the three films – Ethan Hawke and Julie Delpy – to come back to us in another nine years with another installment. I seem to recall reading that Linklater said it was a possibility, although I’m not sure what they would call it because they’ve run out of times of day; e.g., “Before Dawn” is essentially the same as “Before Sunrise.”
Linklater’s modern take on the fabled boy meets girl story works well because he tells it over the three films. He created the characters and co-wrote the original story with Kim Krizan. With “Before Sunset,” he enlisted his leading actors Delpy and Hawke to join him in writing the screenplay, and he did the same with this new film. I’m sure most film critics and fans of the first two films watched “Before Sunrise” and “Before Sunset” in order to assess the new film in context – see how their story unfolds in one fell swoop. Even though each segment is separated by nine years, the characters fill you in on all that transpired in the interim, and you feel as if you haven’t missed a beat with them because of the earnestness of the characters laid out in their sincere and passionate dialogue.
Because the audience has been able to go on the journey of their relationship through the three films (and one appearance in a scene in Linklater's 2001 animated meditation on dreams, "Waking Life"), I thought it would be fun to assess the progression of their journey in the three films.
LOCATION: Vienna in 1995
SET UP: Twenty-something-year-old strangers on a train. American Jesse (Hawke) is cute and charming enough to convince Parisian Celine (Delpy) to get off the train and walk around Vienna with him until his flight back to the U.S. leaves the next morning. Not a good idea if you’re in a horror movie, but a fantastic idea if you’re in a romance.
CONVERSATIONS: By necessity, the conversations in “Before Sunrise” are the conversations of two people who are very attracted to each other and excited about getting to know each other. It’s that warm, fuzzy, butterflies-in-the-stomach sensation that is perhaps the purest natural high. They’re wandering around a beautiful European city with their whole lives before them and the possibilities seem endless. They are nothing if not intellectuals, so their conversations run the gamut of politics, dreams, literature, childhoods, relationships, and so on. And they meet a few characters along the way who fuel their discussions, including a pair of actors, a psychic, and a derelict poet. They come closest to conflict after the psychic reads their palms and when the poet writes their impromptu poem because both incidents reveal Jesse’s cynicism and Celine’s openness to the good people have to offer. But even though they stand their ground with their opinions, neither of them wants it to escalate into a real argument because they know they only have the one night together. They end up in a park staring up at a starry sky with wine and glasses they procured from a kindly bartender. Well, the glasses were stolen, but that’s part of the adventure. It’s all impossibly romantic, providing unrealistic expectations for yet another generation of movie-goers.
CONCLUSION: After the most romantic night of their lives, Jesse puts Celine on her train to Paris, and they agree to meet there again in six months to try to pick up where they left off. For some reason, they think it would be folly to try to keep in touch in the meantime, so they agree not to exchange contact info. Perhaps telling each other their last names would’ve been nice, but what can you do with youth?
LOCATION: Paris in 2004
SET UP: Nine years after their first encounter, Celine works for a human rights group in Paris and Jesse is a writer. He’s in Paris on the final stop of a book tour for his first novel, which happens to be all about the night he spent with Celine in Vienna (with the names changed to protect the innocent of course). Celine comes to his appearance at the famed Shakespeare and Company bookstore, and the sparks fly. They haven’t spoken to each other since their Vienna adventure, so they spend the day walking around Paris catching up.
CONVERSATIONS: My favorite in the trilogy, they begin by discussing politics, religion and their work, but the conversations focus principally on how much they regret not having exchanged contact info when they left each other in Vienna nine years earlier. Their plan to meet again in six months fell through, and they had no way to reach each other. Jesse’s frustration over losing touch with Celine is most evident when he describes the weeks leading up to his wedding – how all he kept thinking about was Celine. And clearly the book was an attempt to find her somehow, even though he was now unhappily married with a kid. They walk through the city from a coffee shop to a brief boat ride down the Seine eventually getting around to what might have been. Celine takes it all in stride until the cab ride back to her apartment when she verbally attacks Jesse for coming back into her life all wonderful and married. She has a boyfriend, but it’s clear that she’d drop him in one terse phone call for Jesse. He placates her by telling her how miserable he is in his marriage and shares a beautiful story of a recurring dream he has about her, which she’s smart enough to know could be a line, but she’s willing to take that chance.
CONCLUSION: A stellar ending! Jesse drops Celine at her apartment, but he begs her to play one of her songs for him before he leaves. She relents and invites him upstairs, where she plays a sweet waltz on her guitar and sings lyrics that are clearly about Jesse and their night together in Vienna. After the song, she fixes him some tea, and he puts on a CD of Nina Simone singing “Just in Time.” Celine moves to the music and acts out parts of a Nina Simone performance she saw years before. As she jiggles and gestures, she looks over at Jesse and says, “Baby, you are gonna miss that plane.” And he happily admits the same.
LOCATION: Greece in 2013
SET UP: Nine more years later and Jesse and Celine are finally together with twin daughters and occasional visits from Jesse’s son from his now-defunct marriage. They are vacationing in Greece and coming to terms with all the “serious long-term relationship with responsibilities” stuff. Jesse is feeling guiltier and guiltier about the limited time he gets to spend with his son, who lives in the U.S. with Jesse’s still-angry ex-wife. Celine senses that Jesse’s guilt will soon give way to the action of moving her and their daughters from Paris to Chicago, which she is not willing to do.
CONVERSATIONS: This is the first film in the series that includes in-depth conversations with characters beyond Jesse and Celine. Over dinner with their host and his neighbors and family, they go over the big, commonly discussed issues like the differences between men and women, what keeps couples together, trying to define love and loss. But the director has to continue the cycle of walking and talking in these films, and we get that after the dinner when Jesse and Celine walk to a hotel room offered as a gift by their new Grecian friends. The couple’s reluctance to accept the gift while at dinner signals the firestorm about to come. Since the twins arrived, they haven’t spent a ton of time alone together, and all the tensions, fears and anxieties of the previous nine years collide in a big blowout fight in the hotel room. Writers Hawke, Delpy and Linklater captured the patterns of couple arguments that I’ve seen throughout the years – everything from passive-aggressive evasions to vicious accusations, the storming out and coming back in … repeatedly, the calm that flows back into another storm. It’s all there.
CONCLUSION: Celine storms out saying the one thing that people in love say as a death blow, even when they know they don’t mean it. Jesse waits a while for her to return, but then decides to go after her. He comes up with a hokey device to abate her anger and win her back to reason, and it isn’t clear whether it will work. But as astute audiences, we know the movie has to wrap up soon and that after all they’ve been through, they’re not likely to end up apart. At times I felt like I’d grown tired of the characters, but I think it’s more like how we sometimes get tired of our friends or family because there are always things that get on our nerves about each other. I’d say it’s a tribute to the film’s realism, even if this one seems a bit more pretentious than the other movies. I like hearing Jesse and Celine bat around ideas and anxieties because they are not unlike my own. It’s been fun getting to know them. Bring on “Before Dawn!” OK, I know dawn is the same as sunrise, but I wouldn't mind another entry in this impossibly romantic series - even if we have to create another time of day to make it work.