In the beginning of Before Sunrise, we see a middle aged couple arguing on a train in Europe. The couple is very loud, and most of the folks on the train can’t help but take notice and be bothered by them. Two people in particular are reacting to them as if the couple is crazy. These two people are a man and a woman in their early 20’s, one is American the other is French. They soon start talking to each other because of a mutual attraction. Thus begins a romance that unbeknownst to the audience who are watching Before Sunrise for the first time in a 1995 theater, would revisit these two for the next 20 years of their lives.
I saw Before Sunrise and Before Sunset pretty close to each other nearly a decade ago, and watched Before Midnight when it arrived on home video. I knew at some point I was gonna watch all three in a marathon session at some point, I just didn’t know when. Sometimes, it’s best to not plan such things and I soon found myself having a free Saturday night. Its funny, I wasn’t sure why I was in the mood to watch Before Sunrise, but it felt like the exact film I wanted to revisit. When the film was over, I knew immediately that the rest of my night was going to be spend watching the rest of Jess and Celine’s story.
The fascinating thing about revisiting them in one sitting is the feeling that director Linklater,Before Sunrise co-writer Kim Krizan, stars Ethan Hawke and Julie Delpy planned on doing all three films, which is of course not the case. But the films flow to each other so perfectly, each movie feeling like an organic continuation from the last film. Each film somehow also captures the realistic feeling of romance and how each part of their journey is reflected perfectly based on the age of the characters.
Before Sunrise is the most idealistic of the three, and it’s the one that could be argued to be the most rewatchable. Yes, it’s boy “cute meets” girl, but the general connection we see between the two somehow feels more real than any studio romantic comedy could ever be. The key element with Before Sunrise is that both characters are fully formed and real in the film. While Ethan Hawke’s Jess is great, I wanna focus on Delpy’s character for a bit, simply because I feel women in bad romantic films (especially in the early ‘90s) feel the most one dimensional. Delpy’s characters is not conventional. Julie Delpy’s Celine is not a perky, silly girl who dreams of love, instead she’s a passionate, smart, driven, witty and angry young woman.
I also love the world of Vienna that Linklater has created. It’s like Linklater saw what he recognized in his hometown of Austin, Tx and integrated that into his vision of Vienna. Much like his film Slacker, he peppers into the film fascinating side characters of artist and dreamers, but unlike Slacker, we have a pair of characters that have a narrative to allow us a singular viewpoint. What I love about these side characters is that they don’t feel like random add ons, they too are part of the experience of this day. It isn’t just the locate of the city, it’s the people they’ve encountered too.
Before Sunrise has ability to feel spontaneous. There is no conflict or drama in the normal sense, because it’s all about the idea of a perfect day. It’s two young people wanting to maintain this perfect feeling of romance, connection, and the ideal of this one day. The ending is almost too perfect. It’s not so important that “will they or won’t they” see each other again, but the idea of being that incredibly connected that you need to see each other again is just as powerful. I can understand the feeling of never really wanting to know the answer of will they see each other again. That’s part of my argument as to why the first film is so rewatchable. It’s still intensely romantic film that feels both like a dream, yet also real obtainable. You can make your own mind up about that ending. It’s a delicate ending that you don’t want to ruin, which makes Before Sunset a truly remarkable accomplishment.
Before Sunset carefully continues the story of Jess and Celine. To say that the film’s opening is meta is putting things mildy. We find out that Jess is now a novelist, and he is on a book tour in Paris. His book? It turns out he wrote a fictionalized version of that eventful day between him and Celine and the audience of that book basically have the same questions that we had after the first film. It’s a canny way to get us back to speed with the last film, but also even creates a structure that Sunset could follow. During the course of the film, would Before Sunset actually answer these questions? Did Jess and Celine meet again like they planned? Did they have sex that night? Was it truly just a fleeting youthful summer romance, or was it something real?
That’s the beauty of Before Sunset. Before Sunrise perfectly captures that youthful energetic love that you can have in your early 20s, and Before Sunset perfectly captures that kind of love with more matured and older eyes. They both are affected by that perfect day, and the worry that they messed up something real. It recounts the last film as a real memory that you could have and be worried if it’s all just something you just exaggerated in your mind. It’s incredible to see how much the characters evolved. It isn’t so much that they grew and changed but instead feel like the logical extensions of the people we meet in the first film.
We now get to Before Midnight. We start the new film addressing a character that was brought up quite a bit in Before Sunset, that character being Jess’s child from his first marriage, Hank. We see Jess at the airport dropping Hank off as he says goodbye to his son. We find out that Jess, and Hank were on a trip together in Greece…a trip that also included Celine and Jess’s and Celine’s two children, Ella and Nina. We as the audience is kinda relieved to see that Celine and Jess are finally a couple, but this introduction sets up the films tension and slowly builds throughout the movie.
If Before Sunset is the most rewatchable, Before Midnight is the hardest one to watch. That doesn’t mean that it’s a bad film…far from it. Like I said, Before Sunset is energetic and hopeful, but Before Midnight is tough, rough and even scary. Now, when I say scary, I’m not talking about horror movie levels of scares, but more like scared to realize what dark parts of Celine and Jess’s lives have taken them. Now don’t get me wrong, we still see the couple that have sparked interest with each other when they were young, and more importantly, we see the two completely comfortable with themselves. We do see that they are very happy with each other, but it is also a long term relationship in which we also see the hardships and the conflicts.
It’s watching Before Midnight that makes watching the other two films so close to each other this incredibly jarring experience. I saw their how relationship, from the extreme highs of ideal romance, to the hope that the person meets their expectations and to the realities of keeping their relationship going. It’s almost funny to see how Jess and Celine treat the events of the first two movies. They no longer romanticize how they got together, even if other people think it’s very romantic.
What got me the most in terms of rewatching the films so close to each other? In the middle of the third act of Before Midnight it hit me…Jess and Celine are now that angry middle aged couple from the first film. It makes you wonder what their younger selves would have thought of them.(thankfully, the film never asks that question out loud.) But when Before Midnight ends, you don’t feel bad for Celine and Jess, you again, feel hopeful for their future. In a way, it almost re-contextualizes the couple from the first film. That argument is not their whole story. What if we only caught them at a very rough part of their time. What if after that argument in the train, that couple found a way to make amends and even say sorry about their behavior. Because that is how a relationship really is. Staying together, figuring things out because you know you still want to be together.
Again, it all feels planned. Thanks to his incredible film Boyhood, one can make the argument that Linklater DID plan the films out to be this way. I personally don’t think that’s the case…but I guess I wouldn’t be surprised to learn if it was.