The “Before” Trilogy
Martin Scorsese, David Fincher, Paul Thomas Anderson, Richard Linklater. Most of you recognize three out of four of these names. And I bet for most of you the person you do not know is Richard Linklater. After making his first feature, the plotless “It’s Impossible to Learn to Plow by Reading Books”, he stuck in this little genre he made for himself with the ultra-cheap indie flick, “Slacker.”
Told in various vignettes, Slacker is a free flowing narrative about the lives of various slackers within the Austin area (where Linklater hails from). The film was a moderate success, and helped inspire a young Kevin Smith to make “Clerks” (discussed in one of my first posts haha). Following up Slacker, Linklater made probably his best known film, “Dazed and Confused” an ensemble odyssey set in the ’70s of kids entering their first day of summer vacation. The film was a big cult hit for it’s soundtrack and very quotable dialogue.
Since then Linklater has gone on to make more indie (in genre) films such as “Waking Life”, “Tape”, the HIGHLY underrated “A Scanner Darkly”, and “Bernie”; but has also done more mainstream work with films such as “School of Rock”, “The Newton Boys”, and the remake of “Bad News Bears”.
Having given a little background on the man himself, I want to talk about what is my three favorite romance films of all time: “Before Sunrise”, “Before Sunset”, and “Before Midnight.”
In the beginning, Sunrise was based off an actual even that happened in Linklater’s life. While visiting his parents in Philadelphia, Linklater met a girl named Amy within a small toy store. They spent an entire day talking about various topics and walking around the city. In the end, however, after exchanging numbers and contact information the relationship sizzled out and Linklater and the girl grew apart due to distance. Linklater hoped she would appear at the primiere of the film, but found only only three years ago she died in a tragic accident at age 24, a month before Sunrise began shooting.
Sunrise is a beautiful film about two intelligent, well-versed people falling in love with each other over the course of a day. By pitching this idea that he is from the future sent to save her future failed marriage, Jesse (Hawke) is able to convince Selene (Delpy) to get off the train with him. They talk about their childhoods, their beliefs, and their formers loves & crushes. They have chance encounters with various unique & strange people such as an old fortune teller and a canal vagrant who doubles as a poet.
What makes Sunrise so great is its beauty in the subtle moments of two people falling in love. This is mostly in part by Ethan Hawke & Julie Delpy’s performances, but also Linklater’s stellar direction. During one particular scene within a record shop, the two continue to try and catch each other’s eye. Each time one of them looks down, the other looks up.
It’s the most heartbreaking yet endearing event to watch for an audience member and astounds you with Delpy and Hawk’s performances. Most of their conversations are taken with long takes which really make the dialogue and their body movements shine. Nothing comes off as ham-handed or cheesy, it all makes sense as to why these two people are meant for each other.
By the end of the film, they admit to one another this couldn’t just be a one night fling, and instead of taking numbers and information they meet back at the train station they met in exactly six months. The film ends uncertain as to whether or not either will show up. It’s “up for the viewer to decide.”
Nine years later, Hawke, Delpy, & Linklater shocked the movie kingdom by revealing they wrote the script for a sequel together and would film the second story within fifteen days. Before Sunset was set in Paris and takes place nine years after the events of the first film. Much like Sunrise, Sunset is shot mostly with long takes showing off the dialogue and performances, but this time stays more dedicated to the aspects of the plot taking place in “real-time” meaning the film is literally an hour and twenty minutes of real time conversation.
What makes Sunset so special is having grown close with Delpy & Hawke, Linklater brought them in to co-write the script with him; because of this much of Delpy & Hawke’s personal lives were channeled into their characters. Delpy discusses her brief time in New York while Hawke talks about how he and his wife were going through a very rough time (this was while Hawke was going through a divorce with Uma Thurman).
The result is that this film is just as, if not more, engaging than Before Sunrise. It handles many more heavy concepts and heartbreaking romance such as Jesse admitting he actually went to the train station while Selene was unable to. Jesse, much like Linklater, made the events of the film film into a narrative of his own in the form of a book. This is what caused Selene to go find him. One can estimate this may have been Linklater still calling out to Amy to find him after making Sunrise.
The subtlety of the performances are increased as both characters do their best to hide how they are both still attracted to one another. This all comes to a head at the climax within Jesse’s rented car when both characters attempt to touch and console one another. It tragically mirrors the scene from the first film within the record store reflecting what they once had with each other.
By the film’s end, Jesse contemplates staying in Paris with Selene, but if he does he would leave his son behind in America (something he has stated he does not wish to do). The film shows off one of the best ending of all time as Jesse watches Selene dancing. She says to him jokingly “Baby, you’re gonna miss that plane” to which Jesse can only smile at her and say “…I know”.
This ending left most fans of the trilogy arguing whether or not it was open-ended with the majority saying it wasn’t and that Jesse would stay with her. But Linklater yet again left the ending opened up to interpretation.
The film was a small success, resulting in an Oscar nomination for Linklater, Delpy, & Hawke for best original screenplay. Many felt it was a satisfying end for a two film series.
As the nine year mark crept closer and closer all three princples of the Before films were getting questioned all the time about a possible third film, and the three would always muse it as a possibility, but only if the others were on board.
Finally during the summer of 2012, Linklater revealed that they had written & shot the film in secret within Greece and that it would come out in 2013 yet again making the nine year mark, also now making the series a trilogy of sorts.
Before Midnight does a complete 180 on what one would expect from it. No one knew what could happen to the two characters within the story, or how far the trio of actors and director would take the characters.
Midnight is a film that goes right for the jugular of all mega-fans of the series. I being one of them myself can safely say, Midnight can stand shoulder to shoulder with the other two. The first half of the film is comprised of Jesse and Selene now married with two children, vacationing in Greece. Upon the opening we see Jesse’s much-talked-about son leaving for America while telling his father it was the best Summer of his life.
This tragic scene sets in motion the conflict of the film: Jesse is considering moving to America. This ideal pushes the couple to their absolute limits with each other. The subtleties of their romance are gone, they are now married people extremely used to each other. Because of this, Linklater chooses to put them in the first half with other couples: a young couple just starting a kindling romance, a slightly older couple who are extremely happy, and finally an older man (70s-80s) who recently lost his wife. The scene talks about the longevity of couples and gives us a sense of how Jesse & Celene have grown both together and apart from one another in this complicated situation.
The film then shifts back to classic “Before” style where Jesse and Celene walk the streets of Greece together with their “common” dialogue. They end up going to a fancy hotel room which was given as a gift in hopes to rekindle their romance. What starts off sweet ends up growing bitter as Jesse’s wanting to go to America comes to the fore-front.
Both characters show their flaws to one another: Jesse’s immaturity and Celene’s selfishness, and this results in them saying very hurtful things to one another. As a viewer it’s extremely painful to watch this occurring but that is what makes it so great, to see these characters you’ve grown up loving being pushed to their limits.
Their fight culminates in Celene admitting she thinks she no longer loves Jesse and storms out of the room. My heart plunged into my stomach. This was my epiphany. I had grown to love these characters and their relationship so much that if they couldn’t make how can any of us make it? How can any of us accept destiny or true love? They were it for me and now it was all going away!
Knowing the past two films I was growing fearful the film would end on this note of Selene walking out on Jesse, but as if Linklater heard my call we get one more scene on a beautiful seaside cafe.
Jesse sits down next to Selene and brings all three films full circle when he acts out as his “time traveling” character he talked about in the first film and how he is here to save Selene. She isn’t playing along anymore and sticks to her guns. Jesse reaches out and says how hard he is trying to stay with her, and how he still loves her, and can’t be with anyone else. Selene looks at him hopefully, and the film ends on this hopeful note that the two can possibly stick together.
Midnight ultimately explores the longevity of relationships and how even the truest of loves will be tested in the long haul. Delpy and Hawke bring their best performances of the trilogy to the last film, and Linklater shows that he is still in the midst of his prime directing.
These films are some of the most beautiful stories ever to be made. Each explores a different stage of a relationship, while at the same time expressing deeply personal stories from both the actors and director. It is one of the most collaborative productions ever performed by filmmakers and is a testament to the filmmaking process.
Linklater, Hawke, & Delpy have given us what could possibly be a series that can remain great after each chapter. That make you hope and pray that the cafe on the Greece seaside will not be the last time we see Jesse and Selene. We care about them almost as much as one would care about a close friend, they are so likable and their love is unmatched by any other story’s relationship (I know, argue away).
All in all the “Before” trilogy is one of many reasons that Linklater is one of the greatest modern-day writer/directors of his time. He tells extremely personal stories all while having it connect to us as an audience. I hope one day he can get his 80’s spiritual sequel to “Dazed & Confused” off the ground and look forward to nine more years of waiting for “Before Dawn” to be released.