Illustration by Everett Collection
The story of a two-decade-long relationship told in snapshots of three discrete days, Richard Linklater’s Before Sunrise, Before Sunset, and the new Before Midnight defy linear discussion. As French activist Céline and young aspiring American writer Jesse, Julie Delpy and Ethan Hawke meet in the first film (from 1995) on a train to Vienna and talk their way through the most romantic night in the history of romantic nights; when their brief, irresistible connection is overwhelmed by the tyranny of plane schedules, they promise to rendezvous in the same place at the same time six months later. In the second film (2004), those six months have turned into nine years when the two cross paths again in Paris, where Jesse is on a book tour for his debut novel (called This Time), about that long-ago liaison and the appointment that one of them kept and the other didn’t. Married and unhappy, half suspecting he wrote the novel to find Céline again, Jesse has lost faith in everything but the god of second chances and the son he’s fathered along the way. In Before Midnight another nine years have passed, during which Céline and Jesse have become parents of their own twin daughters. By now the couple’s ongoing conversations in all three movies circle back on one another, like the time traveler Jesse evokes to lure Céline off the train in Vienna their first night and whom he recalls 18 years later to try and salvage their bond.
“I think,” the young Céline surmises in Before Sunrise as the sky finally pales to morning, “that I can really fall in love when I know everything about someone”—a conviction she finds dubious by the second film, ruefully concluding that maybe familiarity just breeds contempt, and which is put to its greatest test in the trilogy’s latest chapter. When their affair resumes in Paris in Before Sunset, it’s haunted by what might have been during the intervening years, Jesse remembering the drive to his wedding and the sight of someone who not only reminded him of Céline but probably was, and Céline having become less idealistic because she can’t stand the disillusion. Passive about life in so many respects, Jesse nonetheless disputes the inevitability of trains that are bound to only pass in the night while she, ready to challenge the world’s very weather, resigns herself to the caprices of the wrong fate that part of her wants to relive. As a summer family vacation in Greece wanes in Before Midnight, she finds herself at the crossroads that many women often do, her work as an environmentalist tenuous at the same time that Jesse is hinting he wants to return to his native country, stricken as he is by having sent his teenage son back to a still-unforgiving ex in Chicago. The first nine years that he lost with the love of his life have been swallowed up by another nine that he’s lost as a dad. Meanwhile he’s written a sequel, That Time.
In their early forties, both Jesse and Céline are at life’s existential hinge. All the trade-offs have become apparent and irrevocable, all the choices that weren’t made over the previous 18 years looming larger than those that were. In Before Midnight Jesse’s cynicism has just become more glib, missing the innocence of youthful cynicism; he’s not quite mature enough, however, to have learned that in ferocious arguments between men and women, sarcasm is invariably the guy’s worst move. For Céline the indignation and fury we hear momentarily in the backseat of a car toward the end of the second film—as if she’s gotten a glimpse of the future—are metastasizing into bitterness. A tightness has crept into her face that is never visible in the first film, only fleetingly apparent in the second, and in the third never entirely leaves. In Before Sunset the couple is living with a romantic dream that didn’t come true; in Before Midnight they live with a romantic dream that has, which is harder. They’re engaged in a lot of the same exchanges from the other side of what once swept them up, taking each other’s hand during a dinner conversation about how even memory betrays love sooner or later and conveying a palpable desperation, the tension between them broached if not broken. Jesse and Céline frustrate us sometimes, but they also command our sympathy because, though they’ve been naive, they haven’t been shallow. Instrumental in the writing of the series, Hawke and Delpy know the characters so well (or maybe it’s the characters who know their actors) that virtually every shift in discourse and behavior rings true; the talk is so ruthlessly real that it’s hard to believe it’s written. By skill or intuition, Hawke has mastered how men often try too hard with women or not hard enough, while Delpy is the series’ continuing revelation, her emotional notes and psychological nuances gathering force, her capacity for weary insight and raging wisdom leaving her younger self, never mind Jesse, farther behind on the station platform.
Since 1991’s Slacker, Linklater has amassed a résumé that is disparate on its face, from indie landmarks like Dazed and Confused to mainstream successes like School of Rock to nearly experimental pictures like Waking Life. Both his best and most personal work, the Hawke-Delpy movies are partly inspired by François Truffaut’s films with Jean-Pierre Léaud as Antoine Doinel; but despite a scope that feels so focused, sometimes they more resemble the domestic epic that Ing-mar Bergman might have filmed had he been younger, American, and smoked a little more dope. For all of the appeal and moonlight resonance of the original Before Sunrise, the fact is—as will be proved by the DVD collection someone puts together a year from now—that the movies become successively better because what began as a trilogy about romance has evolved into one about love, and the stakes of love are greater, though that may be more impossible to comprehend the more in love you are. Delpy has joked in the press that should the trilogy turn into a quartet and then a quintet or sextet or octet, the final installment will be Michael Haneke’s Amour; if so, it seems likelier that Céline will do in Jesse with the pillow rather than the other way around. “Memory is a wonderful thing,” she realizes sometime in the course of Linklater’s rolling masterpiece, “if you don’t have to deal with the past,” to which Jesse replies, “A memory is never finished, as long as you’re alive.” It’s not a spoiler to note that before midnight, what hangs in the balance is whether what Céline and Jesse feel for each other finally outdistances what they remember.