In 1995’s Before Sunrise, an American man riding across Europe by train comes across a French woman in Vienna, with whom he spends the day with before returning to America. In 2004’s Before Sunset, nine years have passed in the lives of Jesse (Ethan Hawke) and Celine (Julie Delpy), and they meet again in Paris where Jesse is concluding a book tour for his novel based on the events of the first film.
The newest entry in the lowest grossing trilogy of all time, Before Midnight explores what nine years of living with each other would do. They loved each other in their brief encounters, seeming to be foils for one another, but how would they last in the long-run? The answer is up to debate.
The film begins with Jesse dropping off his son from his previous marriage at an airport in Greece, where they were vacationing. He then drives back to an author friend’s home with Celine and their twin daughters. There are other authors with their families staying there, and they have dinner, and they buy Jesse and Celine a hotel room so they can spend some time alone.
Simple? Yes, remarkably simple. Similar to an Eric Rohmer film of the French New Wave, the plot is not as important as the topics the characters talk about, like relationships between men and women, philosophical outlooks on life, and ideas for different things (in Before Midnight’s case, an idea for a novel Jesse considers writing). The conversations are long. The dinner scene goes on for about 30 minutes, and follows more of Rohmer’s stylistic choices. The characters are all intelligent, all talking about the usual Rohmer-esque topics (relationships, literature, etc.), most are young, and it almost seems like Linklater is attempting to make his own type of homage to him.
Having said that, it never seems like Linklater, who is the director known for A Scanner Darkly, Dazed and Confused, and Slacker, is copying Rohmer. It feels like he is mixing their styles together for maximum effect. As usual for a Linklater film, the shots are incredibly long. There is a 10-20 minute shot near the beginning where Jesse and Celine drive their car to their friend’s home. It is static, on the hood of the car, pointed at the two of them, Jesse driving, Celine in the passenger seat. This forces the actors to act more, making everything seem and feel all the more realistic and the performances more realistic.
After viewing this film, I had to ask myself why this trilogy works so well. I, along with many others, probably, would call this the greatest trilogy ever made. Why is that? Why does each film seem to flow into the next one so uniquely? In most franchises, when the first film ends, the second one takes place not too long afterwards, increases the stakes of whatever danger lurks, and the third one also typically takes place not long after the second, cleaning everything up. In this series, nine years after Before Sunrise is Before Sunset, and nine years after that is Before Midnight. The characters change. Their situations change. Their views on life change, similarly to the writers, cast members Ethan Hawke and Julie Delpy as well as the director Richard Linklater. The ridiculously organic writing in the film is clearly pulled out of some of their life experiences. Them having experienced things similar to what happens in the film make it clear that the outstanding acting and mature direction is because of this. Seeing young, cynical Jesse grow up to be a father, deeply caring for his son and hating the fact he does not see him as often as he could, is an incredible, incredible thing. The same thing happens with Celine, in an almost opposite way. She started off so optimistic and cheerful, but as she grows older she seems to become darker and more cynical.
In Before Sunset, Linklater gave a glimpse (okay, maybe more than a glimpse) of the struggles their relationship would have. In a car scene, Celine blames Jesse for all of the failed relationships she has had since meeting him in Vienna. He claims in that scene that the only time he is happy is when he is with his son, never with his wife. The struggles continue in the new film. Jesse hates that he lives in Paris, unable to see his son as much as he wants. He blames Celine (although never admitting it) for not letting them move to Chicago to be closer. She realizes this and calls him out on it.
This problem of theirs, like many others in the film, is seemingly unsolvable. They both have good arguments as to why they should do their particular thing. Nothing is black and white. This is part of the point of the film. This gray area they enter with their problems is not easy to work through, but they have to make it work. They know they love each other, although reminding each other now and again helps, and they need to keep that in mind as they tackle their problems. They need to work together as opposed to opposite forces, which they do in a 45-minute long hotel scene.
Before Sunrise is about making a connection with someone that you think might last. Before Sunset is about realizing that the connection made was not a one time thing or a mistake, but rather a genuine thing. Before Midnight is about keeping the spark alive, getting through the rough parts, making the love worth it. In Linklater’s latest, we see the characters at their most vulnerable and most honest, making it the great film it is, easily one of the best romance films in the history of film, right up there with Before Sunrise and Before Sunset.