- Title: Before Sunrise
- Year: 1995
- Title: Before Sunset
- Year: 2004
- Title: Before Midnight
- Year: 2013
- Director: Richard Linklater
- Starring: Ethan Hawke, Julie Delpy
- Buy it on Amazon: $56.99
What I expected
I didn’t have any clear idea of what to expect. I knew that it was a trilogy before watching any of them; I was familiar with Ethan Hawke but have never considered him a particularly good actor, had never heard of Julie Delpy, and didn’t realize that Richard Linklater was the same guy who did Dazed and Confused and Boyhood.
What it was actually like
Quick overview of the three movies:
Before Sunrise starts on a train between Budapest and Paris. Jesse (Ethan Hawke) is a young American man who begins a conversation with Céline (Julie Delpy), a young French woman. They have a spark and he convinces her to get off the train in Vienna, where he is to catch a flight the following morning back home to the United States. They then proceed to spend the whole evening, night, and part of the next morning walking around the city, talking and falling for each other, before finally parting ways. At the end, they agree not to exchange contact information, but instead to meet each other at the same train platform six months later.
Before Sunset takes place nine years later, in Paris. Jesse, who is now married with a son, has written a novel that fictionalizes the night he spent with Céline in Paris, and is on the last leg of a book tour. Céline comes to his talk and they spend the rest of the evening together, walking around Paris and sitting in a café and riding in a boat and a black car, and finally reaching her apartment, where the movie ends with the realization that Jesse will intentionally miss his flight back to the United States to spend the night (and possibly more) with Céline.
Before Midnight takes place another nine years later, in Greece. Jesse and Céline have been together for the past nine years and have twin daughters, and now live in Paris. They have spent the summer in Greece as a family with Jesse’s son Hank, who departs at the beginning. Jesse and Céline and their daughters return to where they are staying and talk about their lives and Jesse’s desire to live closer to Hank, then interact for a while with the other people in their little writers’ resort community, then continue their conversation as they walk to a hotel where they plan to spend a night alone together. At the hotel, they get into a miserable fight about the future (and past) of their relationship, before finally reconciling.
Now that summaries have been dispensed, I’ll just mention some criticism.
First, I’ve never liked Ethan Hawke’s acting. I don’t know if it’s really just his skill as an actor or if his appearance bears any responsibility, but the worst thing by far about this trilogy is the van dyke (goatee plus mustache) worn by Jesse throughout the movies. I’ve often called this “the official facial hair style of the Young Republicans.” It was so grotesque that I had to keep looking away. The shocking thing is that he’s got a woman who loves him, yet for whatever reason doesn’t think to tell him that he looks absurd.
Second, in Before Sunrise, Jesse has been traveling in Europe by train on a Eurail Pass for the past two weeks, most recently from Budapest to Vienna, and yet he isn’t sure that the Danube is a river. Really? And he doesn’t know that “2130” means 9:30 pm? Is this serious?
For that matter, am I really supposed to believe that Céline, a 23 year old student at the Sorbonne, doesn’t know that spiders are not insects?
Ok, now that that is out of the way: I do think that Before Sunrise is a very special and rare movie, one of the few that is able to take multiple different enchanting experiences – solo travel, Vienna, meeting someone, knowing that time is running out – and puts them in a blender without producing a finished product that’s either ludicrous or totally cliched. The finished product instead is raw but polished.
That said, I wouldn’t consider Before Sunrise to be a singular masterpiece, but mainly that’s because the trilogy itself is a masterpiece in three parts, and because Before Sunset is actually the best of the three.
Why is Before Sunset the best? It’s mainly in the ending and in the message it sends about what the movie means overall. Before Sunrise and Before Midnight both ended ambiguously: at the end of Before Sunrise, we didn’t know if either or both of them would return to meet again six months later in Vienna, and in fact if they would ever see each other again at all. Similarly, at the end of Before Midnight, we didn’t know if the argument was truly resolved or whether they would argue again and break up permanently, or even whether this might have been one of those recurring arguments that couples sometimes have. But Before Sunset‘s ending – while leaving open a lot for the audience to wonder – introduced the crucial questions, do these characters love each other and do they hook up? And then proceeded to answer both affirmatively. And the very last moment of Before Sunset is pure gold: Céline says, “Baby, you are gonna miss that plane,” and Jesse replies, grinning, “I know.” So clearly, as soon as the cameras stop rolling, they’re going to do everything they’ve wanted to do for the past nine years.
And what they wanted to do for the past nine years is also a major part of the plot and dramatic tension of Before Sunset, and not so much of either Before Sunrise or Before Midnight: between 1995 and 2004, Jesse tried to find Céline in Vienna, but she wasn’t there; he then got into a loveless marriage and, motivated by the hope of seeing her again one day, spent years writing a novel about her – and even made sure that Paris would be the final stop on his book tour, in the expectation that it was the most likely place for her to find him. Meanwhile, Céline tried to get to Vienna to meet Jesse but couldn’t due to her grandmother’s death; she then moved to New York for a few years in the hope that he might find her there somehow. Returning to France, she wrote a waltz about Jesse and the night they spent together in Vienna in the hope of singing it to him one day, then found out about his book and went to his tour. All of this comes out over the course of the movie, but in a natural way, not all at once, and it’s made to seem almost as if these two people, separated by some unknown amount of space (though at times, like when they both lived in New York, not by much) and for an undetermined amount of time, managed almost to communicate silently, across a vast expanse, that each was out there looking for the other.
While Before Sunrise and Before Midnight give us some reasons to be optimistic and other reasons to be pessimistic – we’re left wondering at the end of both if these people really are meant for each other – Before Sunset leaves nothing to doubt.
Some more miscellaneous observations:
During their awful fight in Before Midnight, Céline storms back in and says, “You know what’s going on here? It’s simple. I don’t think I love you anymore,” and Jesse looks down at his cup of tea. In Before Sunset, Céline was making a cup of tea for Jesse at the very end, when it finally becomes clear that they’re going to stay together. (I wonder if any tea was consumed in Before Sunrise.)
And when she does storm out, she of course waits for him at the spot where she knows he’ll find her.
The reason that Céline first sits across from Jesse on the train in Before Sunrise is to escape a German couple who are having a loud fight. Something that bothers me about Before Midnight is that I do not know if they’ve turned into that bickering couple from the train, or whether this fight is the end of their relationship, or if it’s just a minor one that they keep having.
Their daughters have asked them to stop to explore some ancient ruins in the car in Before Midnight, but are asleep when they pass the ruins on the way back, so they skip it. The ruins seem to mean a lot – what they’ve buried, what they’ve uncovered, who they really are, what they really mean to each other, what’s enduring and what fades away. Maybe their daughters, the romantics who wish for them to be married, can sense this; maybe Jesse and Céline can sense it too, and maybe that’s why they drive right past the ruins without stopping. Maybe when they start their ugly fight later in the movie, we’re meant to recall how they didn’t want to engage with the past, and thought they could get by living only in the present.
If I’m accurately hearing their accusations to each other and their responses to those accusations, both Jesse and Céline have cheated on each other during the past nine years at the time of Before Midnight – and they both confront each other about it, and both lie about it. Characteristically, Jesse raises Céline’s infidelity with Lech Wałęsa (or Mikhail Gorbachev) but tries to play it cool, as if he doesn’t care, but it really does hurt him; and Céline later raises Jesse’s infidelity with a literary publicist in Washington just as a way to score some points against him in their fight, but she doesn’t seem all that concerned in the scheme of things. It’s pretty depressing that these characters who mean everything to each other are also cheating on each other, right?
More people should do more solo travel.
Finally, though it seems that there are no plans to make a fourth movie in the series, if Linklater, Hawke and Delpy ever do reunite to make one, shouldn’t we assume that Jesse and Céline will be living apart, maybe even broken up entirely? I think that’s what I’ll assume. And I’m not sure whether that’s a sad thing (in whole or in part) or whether this love affair just ran its course, and the characters accept it and retain some fond affection for each other after their romantic relationship dissolves. I hope they do eventually make another sequel.
Who should watch it
5/5: love it
|New York as a Schelling point for “meet me in America” has that power, but someone should have told both of these characters that the most New York Schelling point of all is that if you need to meet someone but don’t know when or where, then plan to meet at the clock in the middle of Grand Central Terminal at noon.