Before Before Before

If anything ramps up in February, it’s a focus on romance with Valentine’s hearts popping up like early crocuses and a focus on high-end movies as the Academy Awards season is in full swing.

With those things percolating around my brain, I’ve been thinking about one of the better films I saw last year, Before Midnight. I was disappointed to see that it didn’t make the Best Picture list, but there you go. (I’ll admit the only BP films I’ve seen so far are Gravity and Philomena, both of which I really enjoyed.)

Anyway, in case you don’t know, Before Midnight is the third film in a series (Before Sunrise and Before Sunset) that follow the relationship of an American man, Jesse (played by Ethan Hawke) and a French woman, Celine (played by Julie Delpy). Each film is set nine years apart, giving a view into the characters in their 20s, 30s, and 40s. Delpy and Hawke helped write the last two, and all were written and directed by Richard Linklater.

Over the course of the several months last year, The Beloved and I watched all three of these films — hardly binge-watching by today’s standards, I suppose. I think they’re very good — arguably the best film trilogy out there (sorry Peter Jackson) and easily the best set of films about relationships around. They can hardly be called action-packed. The entire series revolves around Jesse and Celine walking and talking — about relationships, about themselves, about choices, about life.

sunriseIn Before Sunrise, Jesse is a 20-something, single American guy who meets Celine on a train to Vienna. Like any 20-something, single, American guy traveling alone in Europe, Jesse tries to get in her pants (or dress, I suppose) and convinces Celine to spend the evening walking around Vienna as he has a plane to catch early the next morning. As they walk, they talk about the “big” things 20-year olds talk about — being true to yourself, never settling, not being like older generations. Jesse’s sort of a douche and she’s got her head in the clouds. They have a perfect night, maybe fall in love, and agree in a moment of bewildering and sleep-deprived romance that rather than exchange information, they’ll return to Vienna in six months if they choose to be together. The audience is left to wonder if they find each other again.

before-sunset-boatNine years go by before Before Sunset opens with Jesse — now a successful author in his 30s doing a book signing in Paris. His best-seller is a roman a clef focused on his night in Vienna with Celine. Celine arrives and it’s clear that they didn’t reunite eight and a half years ago. Again, they walk and talk – this time before his flight leaves at sunset. The changes in them are remarkable. They’ve shed much of their 20-something idealism for pragmatism. Jesse’s less douchey. Celine works for the environment. They talk about their lives and their dissatisfactions — he’s unhappily married with a son, she’s never settled down. Grown up stuff. But the night in Vienna is still there in their minds and the film ebbs and flows around the idea of The One That Got Away — a concept you can’t really think about until your 30s. Their future is again left ambiguous.

cn_image.size.before-midnight-sundance-filmAnother almost-decade rolls by and Celine and Jesse are together in Before Midnight. They are vacationing in Greece and friends there give them a “night off” from their kids (who look to be about 8, if you’re doing the math). As you might guess, Celine and Jesse walk and talk to the hotel. There is less energy. They’re obviously working to make the evening “fun”, but the night in Vienna and an afternoon in Paris seem a long way away. They’re consumed with career decisions, life choices, and the “compromises” they’ve made for one another. Instead of snappy banter, they’re snappish. Are they happy? Is this what true commitment looks like? Is real romance only momentary? And then there’s the hotel room. As with the other films, the viewer is once again asked “Will they be together afterwards?”, but this time the overhanging question is “Should they?”

I think these films are a remarkable achievement by Linklater, Hawke, and Delpy. They’ve created characters, not caricatures, and allowed them to age and change. At times over the course of the three films you find yourself liking and disliking both Jesse and Celine — rooting for them, and occasionally against them. Though I’m older now than Jesse and Celine in Before Midnight, I can remember being a 20-something walking the streets of Vienna with a girl. I can remember creating idylls of The One That Got Away in my 30s. I can remember seeing the writing on the wall in hotel rooms.

The unusual thing about this series is that I think each one is better than the one before it. Maybe that makes me happy because I think each of my decades has been better than the one before it.

Will we see Jesse and Celine again in their late 40s/early 50s? I guess we’ll have to wait until 2022. Until then, we can walk and talk about them.

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12 thoughts on “Before Before Before

  1. We watched Before Sunrise over and over when it came out and some years later. It was a fave.

    When I heard about a 2nd one, I avoided it like the plague. Years had passed but I didn’t want to sully my feelings for the 1st.

    Interesting that you say they’re all good! Maybe I should give the latter 2 a try.

    • MT — I had no such expectations, coming late to the party. I really do think they get better, though The Beloved claims the first one is SO romantic, so there you go.

      • We watched it as much as the Holy Grail, Sid and Nancy, Bladerunner…we didn’t own may vhs tapes between us but we agreed on rewatching what we had, so they were in heavy rotation, like weekly or twice a month for YEARS.

  2. I watched Before Sunrise again recently, I think I’d originally seen it after my 2 months in Europe in 1995 (could have been a year or 2 after) so I knew that feeling of meeting people while traveling and all that and I really enjoyed it. I watched it again after I got home from my trip to Europe in October which ended in Vienna (I didn’t really recognize anything in the film except the amusement park Prater) and I still liked it, with the perspective of someone older and a little less idealistic too I guess. I think I only saw bits of Before Sunset, I don’t think I saw the whole thing, or if I did it was long enough ago that I’ve forgotten it already. But I want to see that again and Before Midnight. They were available on demand but for $$ and I was too cheap to pony up but I’ll have to check again (and pony up if it’s still not free for subscribers, if available at all).
    Really good review! Thanks!

    • cranky — I didn’t really recognize much of Vienna either, but I didn’t know whether that was because of where they shot the film or my faded memory… ;) I remember reading something where someone with too much time on their hands went back to Before Sunset (the Paris one) and concluded they must’ve walked like 15 miles or something ridiculous like that.

      I really thought they were good. Worth a not-too-expensive stream. :)

  3. Such a lovely “romantic” post. My original plan for tomorrow was braving weather conditions to see Winter’s Tale. If any or all of these are available on Netflix, this will be a much better option. Thanks!

    • Karen — it’s odd on a week that contains Penny’s birthday (she’s 5!) that I focus on movies and such, but there you go. Nothing like bad weather to make a movie marathon just the thing — and these movies are (mostly) pretty coziness-inducing. :)

  4. I saw the first two films, largely because I love Julie Delpy. (Ethan Hawke, not so much. I thought he was a jerk in both movies, though less jerk-y in the second.) Like Catherine Deneuve, she lights up the screen, even if she never cracks a smile once. Oddly, I saw Before Sunrise at a very unromantic period of my life, when I was a single mother of young teens and feeling a bit resentful of young people and their silly idealism. Which, looking back at it, was probably envy as much as it was due to fatigue and premature old-fogeyism. Before Sunset was a more satisfying movie for me, as I understood the sense of longing for what could have been and the possibilities of making a fantasy come true. Now I’m looking forward to seeing Before Midnight. I want to see what Linklater has to say about the maturing of a relationship, especially as I’ve recently seen several longtime marriages among friends collapse following the departure of their children. Maybe it’s expecting too much for a romance to endure after so many years. And yet seeing an older couple hold hands while walking down the street still makes me smile. I hope Linklater will make another movie about Jesse and Celine in their late 40, hopefully happy at having rediscovered one another.

    • HG — I agree with you about Delpy > Hawke, but I think the diminishment of his jerkiness is part of the arc and something that I think makes this series so interesting. She becomes more shrill and difficult, he less douche-y.

      After watching the first one, I thought “I like the open ended feeling of this movie, it doesn’t need a sequel”. I didn’t want the second one to spoil anything about the first for me, but I ended up liking it more and then thought the same “they don’t need a sequel”. This last film is rawer (more real, less romantic?) but again I was more satisfied with it than I thought I’d be and again think I’m perfectly happy without a sequel. Of course, if they make one in 8 years, I’ll probably be pretty happy with that too! :)

  5. Beautifully written review. It’s an imaginative plot – although it sounds pretty realistic, based on how real life treats us. I’ve had at least one (maybe two) male friends who I dated in college, and who I see every few years. Amazing how much does change, sometimes to the point where we don’t have much to say to each other. I think being single makes for easier banter between young idealistic girls and gals. ;)

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