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Love in Real Time
Over the last twenty years, director Richard Linklater released three films in the Before... trilogy, a series of films following a couple over several periods in their lives together. Each film takes place over the course of a day, showing us how Jesse (Ethan Hawke) and Céline (Julie Delpy) fare over the years. The first film, Before Sunrise (1995), has the two meet on a train and spend the day walking around Vienna. The second film, Before Sunset (2004), finds Jesse and Céline reuniting in Paris in their thirties, showing what has happened since their one day together nine years earlier. The last film, Before Midnight, was released in 2013 and showed the couple, now in their early forties, as they have settled into a life of domesticity and on a family vacation to the Southern Peloponnese in Greece.
The first film was inspired by a night Linklater had when he and a woman spent an evening walking around Philadelphia in 1989. Each film is basically that: Jesse and Céline walking and talking, with occasional stops along the way. Their conversations are about anything that comes to mind. The two can talk about philosophy, politics, love, and more, depending on where they are and what comes up. The dialogue in these movies feels completely natural, part of which can be attributed to the screenplay. Before Sunset and Before Midnight had Hawke and Delpy as co-writers, suggesting that time had allowed the actors to reach such an understanding of their characters that they could figure out exactly how Jesse and Céline would act in any given situation.
The series is fascinating because of how each film is framed. Before Sunrise is the typical romance film. Jesse and Céline have a “meet cute” on a train. After they have lunch together, Jesse is to get off at Vienna while Céline continues on to Paris. Before Jesse disembarks, he convinces Céline to spend the day with him. In this scene, he intentionally calls tropes common to romantic tales: What would Céline think many years later if she never got off the train with him? Would she feel regret, or would she feel she made the right choice? Céline joins him for the day, and this decision affects the two over the next two movies.
Their day in Vienna is a charming day. They walk down cobblestone streets, ride the Wiener Riesenrad, and drink wine in cafes. They talk about various parts of their lives, particularly their romantic life, and part when Jesse has to take a train to the airport. The two, having grown very attached in the short time they spend together, arrange to meet in Vienna six months later. In this movie, the two are young and at hazy periods in their lives. They're both looking for adventure, something to shake up their mundane lives. Both of them are hoping to have this fantastic tale and hope that it leads to something great.
Before Sunset destroys the illusion. The movie begins nine years later, with Jesse at a book signing in Paris. He published a novel based on the first movie, and when Céline shows up at the book signing, he spends the afternoon walking around Paris with her before he has to fly back to America. We learn early on that the two didn't make their appointment because Céline's grandmother died around the time they were supposed to reconnect. The two, now in their thirties and more mature, realize how careless they were in their youth, as they didn't exchange contact information nor did they know any other basic details about the other.
Before Sunset, which plays out as taking place over ninety minutes, shows how far Jesse and Céline have come since their idealistic youthful days in Vienna. Jesse is in an unhappy marriage, worried that his unhappiness with his wife might hurt his son. Céline has been unable to commit, claiming she used up all her romanticism back in Vienna. The two have had their illusions shattered, but still have a connection with one another and a desire to hopefully be able to resume what they never finished.
Last year, Linklater released Before Midnight, expanding on Before Sunset's ambiguous ending. We learn that Jesse and Céline did get together, conceiving twin daughters the day Before Sunset was set and ending Jesse's marriage. The two are on a vacation to Greece to spend time with some of Jesse's writer friends. In this movie, the two aren't able to walk and talk as much as they used to, something they both admit to missing. Now most of their scenes together are shared with other people. Their first conversation is in a car with their twins sleeping in the backseat. They have a dinner with several other people and have to share more ideas and perspectives. It's when the two go to an arranged evening in a hotel that we see the real growth of Jesse and Céline's relationship.
It's not okay. While Before Sunset showed the issues that came from losing their idealism, Before Midnight demonstrates what happens when they regain their idealism, only to have the crushing banality of domestic life conflict with their desires. Jesse wants to be closer to his son, but Céline doesn't want to give up her life in Paris. What should have been a romantic night to escape from their daily lives became a night where the two completely unload every single weight they've carried over the last eighteen years. For once, the way Jesse and Céline talk to each other becomes tools to fight each other, and there's no real victor in this fight.
However, the series, no matter how dark things get, does always have things work out in the end. Jesse and Céline are ruled by nostalgia—Céline's waltz from Before Sunset being a great example of how they look back on their time together. They both have ideals and dreams, but life never really works the way they hope it would. Despite this, what does always work is that they do work for each other. Jesse and Céline have a fundamental understanding of one another, and even if that gets buried by work or parenting, there's still that connection they felt on that train back in 1994.
This series is one of the best trilogies ever made. It's a bold experiment to make a series of films where each installment is set so far apart, but it works because you see the growth and change with the characters in the film and from the way the film is made. You can watch all three films and see Hawke and Delpy age, you can see how they evolve over time, but they're still the same people you came to love in the first movie. Linklater's directing has gotten better with each installment, and each film is ultimately better than the last. It's a series of movies that shows natural progress. If they decide to make another movie in 2022, it would be fascinating to see how Jesse and Céline are in their fifties because we know there's a chance for so much growth and to see if anything would remain the same.
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