In many ways, Richard Linklater’s Before films get less suitable for cosy Valentine’s Day viewing as they progress, with Before Sunrise’s idyllic romantic swooning followed by Before Sunset’s impassioned reunion, tinged with regret, concluding in Before Midnight’s heartbreaking depiction of wavering passion and love on the brink. These three films form one of the greatest trilogies ever, due in part to their deft use of the trilogy format itself.
To the same effect as Linklater’s Boyhood, which followed a boy’s life over the span of 12 years, the Before films are each set and filmed roughly a decade apart, each covering a span of no more than a day in the lives of Julie Delpy’s Céline and Ethan Hawke’s Jesse. Sunrise sees them meeting on a train and falling in love during a leisurely stroll through Vienna, before departing with the intention of reconnecting six months on. Sunset shows that they never did catch up, revealed when their love is rekindled during a similarly aimless wander through Parisian cafés and riverside pathways. Finally, Midnight finds the couple holidaying in Greece, now married and raising two young daughters, before an almighty argument exposes the devastating cracks in their once fairytale relationship.
While the films initially paint a vivid portrait of the kind of romance that most fantasise about, later showcasing the harsh reality of love’s burden, this trilogy also explores the correlation between time, space and the ability to sustain a romantic relationship. During their first two meetings, Jesse and Céline serve as tour guides, leading us down winding back-alleys, through ancient architecture and into modern bars. The foundations of their love are built upon the act of perusing European cities, freely roaming open spaces as they inquisitively ponder the philosophies of life through dialogue-heavy screenplays. The camera scarcely leaves the pair, creating an intimate experience while we learn about the characters’ dreams at the same time as they do. This freedom of space allows their love to blossom. It’s impossible not to fall for the chemistry between Hawke and Delpy in two beautifully sensitive performances. However, the barrier that looms in the mind throughout Sunrise and Sunset is the limited time that they have together. When the sun rises (or sets), as it inevitably will, they know their time together may well come to an end.
Since these solar deadlines are what confine Céline and Jesse’s relationship, it should then flourish in Before Midnight, with all the time in the world to spend with each other? The time spent with the couple as they stroll through the cobbled streets of a small Greek village is evocative of their time in Vienna and Paris, a delight to watch as they once again flirtatiously tease each other while ruminating on life’s big questions. But, besides this nostalgia-tinged sequence, the expansive city walks and crushing time constraints have been replaced by lack of space and a wealth of time; due to adult responsibilities, they no longer have the freedom to carelessly meander.
Things reach fever pitch when a petty disagreement evolves into a potentially marriage-ending fight, taking place in a hotel room that for the first time in the series feels like a claustrophobic setting, suffocating the love they so clearly still have for each other. Linklater wants us to question the notion of everlasting love. The Before films express his belief that romance must be accepted and appreciated as and when it is present; love can still be overwhelmingly powerful and meaningful even if it can’t always last forever.
Watch the trailer for Before Midnight (2013) below: