It is by no means a simple feat to create art out of two people talking to each other. But Richard Linklater, Ethan Hawke and Julie Delpy have done it 3 times now. In doing so, they have created a living, breathing entity, aided by actors who were in the writers’ room, cities that paint postcard backgrounds, a time gap that is never a gimmick and two characters who refuse to be anything but alive.
It is not merely a question of brilliant screenwriting or authentic performances or masterful direction. It is a whole composite of continuous elements that flow together to tell a story. It is the art of cinema, come alive in a trilogy across Europe.
Jesse, the ‘crude American’, found an unshakeable place amongst my favourite characters with his earnest, honest attempt at living his life. He has cracked no code. He has not discovered the secrets of the universe and if the greatest thing in his life has been his love story, he embraces that with grace. Ethan Hawke does not so much play the part perfectly as infuse himself into a character who is too specific to be artificial. It is like Céline says: every person is made up of such specific, intricate details. Jesse is certainly that in his graph from young to middle-aged, from a guy on a train, to an author and father whose romantic love still holds centrestage.
It is not hard to understand this love. Not after the first moment Céline charms the camera, on a train, reading. This French woman, with her humour, fierce bravery and passion for being alive on this Earth, is so real it is frightening. Frightening because she wears her irrationality behind no cloak. She will not pretend, even in the midst of all the second film’s pretending. She cannot help but love the way humans so often do. Loud, confused, fearless, and also fearful in those irrational moments. She inspires two of Jesse’s books and, really, how could she not? In her growth through the films, Julie Delpy unravels Céline into cynicism and anger, but also shows us the relentless compassion amidst her rage.
The central spine of the trilogy, which holds the narrative, is the conversation. Jesse and Céline talk. And when they talk, the only parts of the outside world that matter are the bits they enliven. A listening booth, a park bench, a guitar in an apartment and the train where it all starts. At the end of the first film, Linklater shows us the same places the couple talked through, now empty. It is not the places that lent the poetry but the conversation that wrapped around each spot. The conversations are engaging, poetic, specific, and there is a lot of philosophy. Pretentious, some people would call it. And I suppose it is so. ‘Pretending’ to be real in a world where so much isn’t.
The MCU may be the reigning royalty of laying Easter eggs along their ventures. But the Before Trilogy continues, expands, lays callbacks and repeated gestures not for a plot point, but because they are the same people; just 9 years later. While it is easy to be distracted by the romance of the cities in each movie, the real backdrop of the films is time. It is not just the films that released 9 years apart, it has been that much time for the characters as well. We see their 20s, 30s and 40s. We see what time has done. We are shown how love has changed, how love has remained, how the family grows beyond the two of them; but Jesse and Céline are still a story all their own.
In Before Sunrise, I saw them find and fall into each other. In Before Sunset, I watched with bated breath and a lump in my throat, hoping for a seemingly impossible reunion. But in one of my favourite endings from any film ever, Linklater shows us that is oh-so-simple. In Before Midnight, you may want to look away from the acidity of their argument. But we cannot. How could we? Not now. Not when we have come so far.
In these films, Linklater has given me another definition for love.
What if love is the freedom to be devastatingly pretentious with another, and yet know exactly what the subtext is?
What if this trait labelled as pretentiousness is that part of you that can be uncloaked only in love. What if?
And if so, if love really is finding a language all your own and creating a finite world within this infinite one, then Jesse and Céline found it from their first moment on the train to Vienna.
Disclaimer: This article has not been written by Film Companion’s editorial team.