Before Trilogy: Before Sunrise (1995), Before Sunset (2004), Before Midnight (2013)

Dir. Richard Linklater. Starring Ethan Hawke, Julie Delpy

“I know, because I’ve actually already lived through this night,” Jesse (Hawke) says to Celine (Delpy) eighteen years after his first night with her. “I’m a time traveler.” Jesse’s verbal play isn’t delivered with a grin but with more grim intensity, surely, than he means to let on; he has the same laconic body language as he did nearly two decades ago, which is stunning given the circumstances. The entire day it’s been obvious that the easy conversation and teasing humor which they shared in Vienna and Paris is not there in Greece, and the last time we saw them both together they were having an enormous, scything fight. Jesse does the only thing which he believes he can do now that Celine has told him she doesn’t love him anymore, now that she has just said she doesn’t have a lover. He goes back to the train.

“Think of this as time travel, from then to now,” Jesse says to Celine. Someday, he says, you’ll be married and you’re going to wonder about me and whether I would have been better than your husband. Come off the train with me and you’ll know “you’re not missing anything.” At this point they haven’t even exchanged names yet, have only spoken across a table on a train from Budapest to Paris for minutes, but there is one fact that both of them know: he’s got a flight out of Vienna back to the United States the next morning, which means that they have fifteen, sixteen hours to spend.

Nine years after the train and nine years before the vacation, time travel wasn’t mentioned once. Celine and Jesse are together ninety minutes or so between the time she appears at Shakespeare and Company and when Jesse goes back to her apartment to hear her sing an original song. The words themselves were superfluous; the two of them, after having been invisible to each other for nine years, reckon with what being apart has done to them. It’s made Celine distrustful of any relationship she gets into, while Jesse has seen her everywhere, even en route to his own wedding. (It turns out he probably did see her on the way to his wedding.) For nine years they have been time traveling separately to the same space-time destination.

Even the Criterion Collection calls it “the Before Trilogy” in its packaging. I fully expect that in 2022, nine years after Before Midnight, we will have another installment and we will have to reckon with these movies in a different way yet again. Hawke and Delpy will be in their early fifties, Linklater in his early sixties. There’s more to be said about Jesse and Celine (like her surname, just for example). The two sequels so far have been made mostly because Linklater, Hawke, and Delpy agreed that the story wasn’t over. I suppose it could be over now in Greece, but it could have been over in Vienna just as easily.

The first people we come to know at all in these movies are a couple who yell in German at one another. It’s a breaking point that they’ve met; surely the two of them never got on a train with other human beings on it and decided they wanted to have a fight in front of them. Celine moves spots and picks up her reading again: My Mother, Madame Edwarda, and the Dead Man, a collection of three novellas by Georges Bataille. Jesse, sitting across from her in a red sweater with a hole in the right shoulder, is reading All I Need is Love, Klaus Kinski’s basically fabricated autobiography. (Seeing that he was reading that book, of all things, gave me the only guffaw of the nearly five hours the Before Trilogy takes up.) It’s no surprise, then, that Jesse will spend most of Before Sunrise pawing at Celine even if he doesn’t always make contact. The two of them are not always touching, but when they’re walking together Jesse does not necessarily want to just hold hands. (Maybe I’m misreading the way he holds onto her while they’re walking? Maybe it’s a ’90s style that I missed.) And it’s no surprise that Celine, more sophisticated and thoughtful than her new friend, will plan out her post-coital expectations for Jesse. I’m not having sex with you, she says. I’m not going to be a male fantasy, nor am I going to make myself miss you because I’ll think about who else you’re sleeping with once you’re gone. (In Before Sunset, Jesse tells Celine that if today were their last day on earth, he’d like to talk with her about “magic and the universe” and also have sex basically the whole time.)

In Before Sunrise, we find out that Jesse is an essentially romantic person who, when he’s vulnerable, will hard-boil himself. He has his first kiss with Celine in a Riesenrad car, looking at one of Europe’s most beautiful cities at dusk. He decides he likes a stranger enough to talk her off the train. And he frequently talks about endings. He recalls a friend who saw his child born and whose first thought was, “That baby is going to die someday.” He dismisses “romantic projections.” In short, he embodies a premature wistfulness in the best of times which is accentuated by having been broken up with in Madrid and deciding he’s going to limit himself to one night with a French girl he’s smitten with. It comes out as the braggadocio of halfway-intelligent young men, who believe that an idea is new simply because it’s come into their heads. Meanwhile, Celine is full of pretty thoughts – a “phone call” to a friend she’s supposed to have lunch with comes to mind where she says, “I like to feel his eyes on me when I look away,” which is so elegant it took my breath away – which are mixed up with exaggerations and conclusions leapt to. Media is the new fascism, she says; I’m afraid feminism is just a way for men to have more sex, she says. She’s smarter than Jesse; at the very least she has a wider range of vision than the boy, who sees himself in an event or he doesn’t see it at all. But she’s also more prone to say something inflammatory because she’s more willing to run with a feeling. In practice, Jesse is more grating than Celine; watching them together, I felt that he was absolutely punching above his weight class to get a girl like her to fall for him. Yet Celine’s predilection for what she refers to as “neurotic” impulses and what Jesse will call “crazy” is more destructive.

Before Midnight is the story of how, eighteen years on and with two children together, Jesse and Celine become the couple who fight in public. It’s not as bad as the Sprecher des Deutschen in the train, but at a dinner it’s clear that the two of them are not seeing eye to eye. Celine solves a mystery that had been vexing me since I saw Before Sunrise (and which may well have been vexing movie lovers since 1995!); the reason she’s so bad at pinball is because she fudged her effort to make Jesse feel better about himself. She plays dumb for the benefit of the table, specifically for the edification of a younger woman a year into her own relationship. She makes the mistake of referencing the Holocaust during an argument with Jesse; she feels like she has the burden of all women on her shoulders when she picks up socks or packs clothes for a vacation or any number of household chores that Jesse lets alone. Meanwhile, Jesse spends most of the night, even after their fight which ends with those murderous words (“You know what’s going on here? It’s simple. I don’t think I love you anymore.”), trying to work Celine into sex. Maybe familiarity breeds comfort, but Before Midnight must talk about Celine’s butt more than its predecessors put together. Jesse has become more physical in his wants and more mentally withdrawn. In the beginning of the movie, Celine draws an incredible conclusion from Jesse’s concern that he’s not around for his son’s teenage years: We’re not moving to Chicago. It’s only incredible to the viewer; after all, Celine knows Jesse better than we do. And it turns out that Jesse does have it in his head that moving to Chicago to get every other weekend with his son would be the best thing, regardless of the life in Paris that Celine and his daughters have. Both of them have wondered if it’s possible for people to really, substantively change. If they have changed as people, it’s that they’ve become more like themselves. And if one of them has a new opinion in eighteen years, it’s Jesse. “Why do you think everybody thinks relationships have to last forever anyway?” he asks dismissively. “Yeah, why?” Celine says, forecasting her own thoughts two decades out. “It’s stupid.”

One more corollary (although there are a zillion that exist that I’m not touching on) that I find moving between Before Sunrise and Before Midnight is the use of churches. In Vienna, wondering if the cathedral is open, the two of them walk in. Celine is not religious, and the older she gets the more disparaging she becomes on the topic; she’ll call Jesse a “closet Christian” in Before Midnight. But she empathizes, as she always does, with the people who come to church looking for something. She can understand why someone hurting or confused would find themselves drawn to church. Fast forward, and Jesse is taking Celine to a chapel he’s visited before. Do you think it’s open? Can we go in? they say, and it’s one of the rare times they don’t seem aware that they’ve done this before. Celine does not remember what she’s said about guilty people, lost people coming to church; the empathy she had for those people appears to have dried up with the memory. In this scene we learn that the two of them never actually married. Jesse asks if Celine wants to get married in a church, since they’re there. “No,” she says flatly. Tally that up with her tracking of a sunset, with her observation that Jesse’s goatee no longer has any red in it, as oblique statements to the effect she doesn’t love Jesse anymore. It’s not merely that they’ve had a vicious, long argument that neither one of them tries to tamp down; Celine hasn’t loved Jesse for an entire movie. “This is how people start breaking up,” she says early on. It felt like the beginning of a self-fulfilling prophecy at first, but later on it seems like a hint, a clue for Jesse to unravel. Jesse should already know what she’s getting at; nine years before, he said, “There’s gotta be something more to love than commitment.”

Before Sunset is, for my money, the best movie of the three. (Do you believe in that stuff about birth order? Neither do I, but here I am, empathizing with the weird middle child.) It looks back with substantially more vigor than Before Midnight but is more powerful for the viewer because of the focus that vigor has. Before Midnight includes pop quizzes on which of Jesse’s books is This Time or That Time, what was happening to the twins in August 2009. Before Sunset drifts into the conversations that define Before Sunrise and which still happen in Before Midnight, albeit more infrequently and with more speakers, but those conversations circle back to a theme which really only has one interpretation. “What have you been doing since June 16, 1994?” is the basic idea. But “Do you still love me?” burdens that long conversation. It’s what they’re both getting at but can’t possibly ask one another: there’s too much time and distance and politeness and custom to cut to the chase.

The opening scene of Before Sunset drops a great line on us which, as we come to find out over the next seventy-five minutes or so, is absolute bosh. Jesse, who has turned his night with Celine into a bestselling book called This Time, is giving an interview to some reporters at Shakespeare and Company. One of them wants to know what happened to the lovers. As an author, Jesse seems coy. “Happiness is in the doing, not in getting what you want,” he says. It’s obviously not true; would he have been happy just asking a pretty French girl off the train and then being told, politely, “No, thanks, I don’t do with all the boys” ? And his own life is a testament to how the doing is not the same as the getting in terms of happiness. His first description of his wife – pretty, smart, elementary school teacher, good wife, good mother – is in complete contradiction to a more honest statement later on. He tells Celine, a little morosely, “I feel like if someone were to touch me, I would dissolve into molecules.” And, of course, after all the tsuris about the plane he has to catch to go back stateside, he stays in Celine’s apartment.

Jesse’s great mistake in Before Sunrise is that he never saw An Affair to Remember. If he had, he would know that asking a woman he’s just met to meet him again in six months to decide if this affair they’re having is real love is a sucker’s bet: she ain’t gonna show. The tragedy, at least, happens outside Celine’s body – it would have been a heck of a reveal if she were outside the bookstore in a wheelchair! – but the grandmother she was visiting in Budapest before Before Sunrise was buried on the same day she was supposed to be in Vienna. Without knowing how to contact Jesse, all she can do is let that simmer within her; she missed her chance. Jesse was in Vienna, we find out; of course he was. How couldn’t he come back to the scene of his greatest happiness? He missed his chance as well, and says as much while he and Celine are riding a boat to Quai Henry IV. Our lives are decided by the smallest increments of time, he says. If your grandmother had died a week before or a week after, our lives would be completely different. It is only chance meetings – “brief encounters,” as Celine calls them maybe a little too knowingly – which direct the flow of people’s lives. Jesse’s story about seeing someone who looked like Celine on the drive to his wedding is devastating, slipped into the story in the same way that other key details throughout all three movies are effortlessly hidden in the plot for maximum effect. Celine’s response – given when it happened and where it was, it probably was her – makes us wonder about what might have changed if Jesse had been driving, if he had been going to the rehearsal dinner instead of the wedding, if it had been a clearer day. And that forces us to wonder about a host of other details which led to Jesse and Celine talking on the train at all. A love affair, Before Sunset tells us, is like a miracle in itself. Even if the trilogy problematizes the idea of one partner for life, of a “soulmate,” that matters less than the incredible string of events which have to occur for Jesse and Celine to meet, and then meet again. If Before Sunrise and Before Midnight are the head and tail of an ouroboros, it seems that Before Sunset is actually somewhere outside the snake itself; it’s memory itself. “Memory is a wonderful thing if you don’t have to deal with the past,” Celine says. More than Jesse, she recognizes the double-edged way our minds work. Jesse, who has written it all down and turned it into fiction, has made a memory of a night in Vienna that he can push through and adapt. Celine, who made like the Virgin Mary and pondered these things in her heart, has pushed up against that memory for nine years and found it adamant and immovable.

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