The Daring Ambiguity of the “Before” Trilogy

Before Trilogy Julie Delpy and Ethan Hawke in Richard Linklater's "Before Sunrise."

Every month, we at The Spool select a filmmaker to explore in greater depth — their themes, their deeper concerns, how their works chart the history of cinema and the filmmaker’s own biography. This month, in honor of his latest film Where’d You Go, Bernadette? we turn our eye to Austin’s favored son, Richard Linklater. Read the rest of our coverage here.

The Before trilogy is the best kind of anomaly. After all, three-quells are usually reserved for fantasy epics and superhero stories, not stripped down, gentle explorations of a single relationship. Like Richard Linklater’s Boyhood, Before Sunrise (1995), Before Sunset (2004), and Before Midnight (2013) are experiments in elongated filmmaking, lovingly crafted by a pair of actors, a writer, and a director. They are three personal, beautiful, extraordinary movies, each packing so much into a single day. Where does one even begin?

We meet our star-crossed lovers in 1994, on a train to Vienna. She is Céline (Julie Delpy), a student at the Sorbonne in Paris, returning home after visiting her grandmother. He is Jesse (Ethan Hawke), the king of dejected romantics, a young American who is about to conclude his bumbling around Europe. An old couple argues, and Jesse and Céline make eye-contact.

Then they’re in the dining car, getting to know one another. From the start, the pair have an easy chemistry, with just enough in common. But what will it matter?  Suddenly, the train pulls into the station, and Jesse makes a crazy proposition to Céline: get off in Vienna and spend the day with him before heading back to Paris. She says yes.

I imagine a cackling uncertainty in the theater during Before Sunrise’s first run. As Jesse and Céline stroll through the streets, their mutual attraction gets clearer and clearer, even if their arrangement seems oh-so temporary. These were the days before Tinder – I cannot speak to the hook-up culture of the time (in part, because I was not alive), but I’d argue the film predicted a feeling that’s only become more prevalent in the quarter-century since it released – that of finding a meaningful connection in a world full of strangers, and desperately wanting to hold onto it.

There is no twist, no “plot” to get in the way. Instead, Linklater places his actors in a perfect two-shot and just lets them be. In long, winding takes, Hawke and Delpy discuss everything, bullshitting endlessly. Remember that video of David Lynch demanding why it matters how long a scene lasts? Well, Linklater and writer Kim Krizan got the same memo.

It doesn’t matter how long these scenes last – especially when just watching these people talk and dance around their feelings for one another is so entertaining. But the topic that just keeps coming up – throughout all three movies – is the way men and women interact, and the roles they’re expected to play. You get the sense that Céline and Jesse, like millions of young people before them, are trying to figure out how to do a relationship right, some kind of egalitarian arrangement that satisfies both.

Things end before they can crack it, on a perfectly open-ended note (spoilers for a twenty-four-year-old movie). Céline and Jesse promise to meet again in six months in Vienna, without exchanging any ways to contact each other. How would we remember Sunrise if that was the last we ever saw of the pair? Instead, this relationship would continue for another two movies; watching Sunrise this past June, I knew I was merely witnessing the start of their story. 

I resisted the urge to binge-watch the trilogy, spreading out my viewing across the rest of this summer. Still, I can’t quite imagine what it was like to revisit these people nine years later. The world was a little darker when Sunset released, and there’s a marked shift when Jesse and Céline meet again. They’re both a bit more cynical, they’re both wearing a few more regrets, but more than anything, they’re both a little disappointed. That’s understandable: it’s been nearly a decade since either felt the type of connection they share with each other.

We’re reintroduced to Jesse at the last stop of his book tour, where he’s promoting his obviously auto-fictional novel recapping his experience with Céline. It’s a meta-Hail Mary, a last, ditch attempt to find this person. He’s in Paris, and his efforts have paid-off: there’s Céline, standing in the corner of the bookstore.

Sunset is an eighty-minute tale of inevitability. While it withholds any truly crowd-pleasing moments depicting these characters making the choice to be together (now that they’ve reconnected), as the movie unspools, it becomes obvious Jesse and Céline will never let each other go again. Somebody may have missed that Vienna rendezvous a decade earlier, but it’s not a mistake either plan to repeat.

That two-shot is back, too, only this time it starts to faintly echo the final frame of The Graduate, with all of its implied regrets. The Before movies are set in a world where concepts like “true love” and “a soulmate” exist, but are constantly in jeopardy, where the most meaningful relationships take the most work. Jesse and Céline argue, constantly, disagreeing with varying degrees of frustration. It doesn’t matter if they end up staying together, forever. What matters is that they try.

And this brings us to Before Midnight. While Sunset ends on a note of faux-ambiguity Jesse and Céline are, as expected, together by the start of the next chapter. Now the stakes have evolved – they’ve carved out a cross-continental life with each other, but it’s been filled with compromises and even some hints of infidelity.

When Linklater’s camera pans up in the opening scene, we’re back in that trademark two-shot, but now we’re watching Jesse say goodbye to his son from his prior marriage, Hank. Jesse and Céline have kids of their own too, two twin daughters (although their screen time is minimal), and Céline has just been offered a government position that may or may not be her dream job.

Watching Midnight was a sobering experience: instead of sounding like me and my friends (as they had before), suddenly, Jesse and Céline sound like my parents. If Sunset inverted the ambiguity of Sunrise, Midnight is a snapshot of a relationship that isn’t as be as stable as it appears. Some problems cannot be solved over the course of one day. The couple has not magically become a hive-mind, and resentments can bubble when two people want different things.

I think it’s the ambiguity that makes these movies so infections, why Linklater, Hawke, and Delpy keep coming back to these characters. And yet, these filmmakers resist the urge to clarify the fates of these people. At the end of every movie, you can convince yourself that true love will conquer all, just as you can talk yourself into a cynical, “realist” reading that their differences will win out. I want to believe there’s a person out there as perfect of a match for me as Jesse is to Céline. Or maybe it doesn’t matter; maybe, in the long run, not even Jesse and Céline can make it work. 

So often our media boxes itself into extremes of optimism or pessimism, but reality is fluctuating in-between. The Before trilogy dares to operate in the same grey-area. Perhaps that’s why Jesse and Céline don’t decide to get married. If these movies have taught me anything, it’s that you never know. All we can do is take our lives one day at a time. 

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