When director Richard Linklater’s Before Sunrise released in 1995, it changed not only the template for romance films but challenged a widely-accepted principle of storytelling: Show, don’t tell. The film unfolds as a 100-minute long conversation between Jesse (Ethan Hawke) and Celine (Julie Delpy) – two 20-something strangers who meet on the train and decide to spend a night in Vienna, talking about passing lovers and dreams, of death and reincarnation. There’s a kiss somewhere, but it feels unimportant; their intimacy is grounded in dialogue.
Before Sunrise was followed by two sequels, Before Sunset (1995) and Before Midnight (2013). All three films are snapshots of love over time – the once-young Jesse and Celine are in their 30s in the second film and in their 40s in the last one. As everything in their life seems to change, only one thing remains the same: Them, indulging in meandering debates, while lazily strolling through the lanes of different cities.
Linklater, Hawke and Delpy co-wrote all three films and have talked about spending 12-hour-a-day writing sessions in hotel rooms, working on everything from word choices to thematic decisions. Honesty was key – if a joke didn’t make the other two laugh, it got thrown out. If something didn’t work, it was rejected without decorum. “That’s the only way we were able to do these films,” said Delpy to Criterion Collection. Instead of resorting to escapism, romantic love met authenticity in these films.
Despite rigorously-scripted settings, the Before films give the impression of life unfolding on screen. Jesse and Celine are petty and make veiled digs. They sneak peeks at the other while they’re looking away. They imitate people from their lives and crack daft jokes. It takes no time for them to feel like people we know.
However, can two days, nine years apart from each other, offer an authentic portrait of love? In Before Sunset, nine years since he first met Celine, Jesse admits to thinking about her hours before getting married. Of dreaming of her vividly and waking up in sobs. Celine confesses to never feeling fully present in all her relationships – that their one night in Vienna had robbed her of her capacity to feel and practice robust romance. While this could be the films hinting at how Jesse and Celine are soulmates – that dusty yet ever-charming romance trope – it also comes dangerously close to the two romanticising each other.
The final film, Before Midnight, changes everything the first two films establish. After years of yearning for each other, Jesse and Celine are finally together. For the first time in the series, we see the larger world they occupy – they have two beautiful daughters and they’re on vacation in Greece with a community of artists. They have aged, gathering fat around their middle and lines around their eyes. We see them as people in their own right, free from the dreamy haze of their previous escapades.
While in Before Sunrise, Celine had only jokingly asked Jesse if he had checked out a passing woman, in Before Midnight we see him pointedly ogling at a younger woman. Where their combative discussion about feminism seemed like a blip in Before Sunrise, it threatened to take on real consequences in the final film. For the first time, we see Jesse and Celine as a couple in public, rather than being part of only their private moments. They’re no longer the only love story in the film – they must listen to tales of younger romances and watch displays of affection in relationships very different from theirs. They must grapple against their own idea of love.
The suspense of the unknown, of what they’re going to say next, which caused such an intoxicating excitement in the previous films only causes nervousness in Before Midnight. Jokes hide taunts and seemingly normal comments paper over what feels like years of resentment and guilt. At one point, Linklater creates a decisively ominous atmosphere as Celine talks about having a bad feeling about coming to Greece and we cut to her hands slicing tomatoes, the knife dangerously close to her fingers.
When Jesse and Celine are effectively forced to be together in a hotel room for a night, we see flashes of lust and beauty, of deep friendship and sweetness before they descend into a nasty fight. Years of suspicions, accusations and insecurities rise to take hideous shape. What’s worse is that the seeds of their regret can be traced back to the very beginning – they seem to be fighting about things that they had never agreed on from the start. In many ways, it feels like they were destined for this night of vileness from the moment they met.
There’s something terrifying about Before Midnight not only because it shows a relationship splintering, but also because of how it makes you rethink the indulgent romanticism of Before Sunrise and Before Sunset. Before Sunrise remains popular for the way it depicts a chance romantic encounter while Before Midnight systematically chips away at conventional notions of love. Jesse and Celine speak frequently about time in Before Midnight: Passing time, lost time and the time to come. They ask each other if they would be together when they’re 98. They speak about the friend who died of a terminal disease, about his relief at hearing that he’s only going to live for nine months because now he didn’t have to worry about money. They watch the sun dip behind a hill with melancholic eyes. They seem to live in the face of what poses the most danger to romantic love: Time. Unlike the previous films, they seem to have loads of it and nowhere to put it. It makes them uncomfortable because it brings the question of choice – of how to spend that time, doing what and with whom.
And that’s what makes Before Midnight so perfect a conclusion to the series. It’s a reminder that every rapturous love story is not about fate or escapism, but a tale of deliberate choices.