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If Not Now, When? Richard Linklater (Part 3)

Where to begin?

The Before Trilogy, as it has been named, is considered to be one of Richard Linklater’s crowning achievements (together with co-writers—on parts two and three—Ethan Hawke and Julie Delpy). A small release back in 1995, Before Sunrise was not typical of the twenty-somethings-get-together type of pictures that played to a multiplex audience. This was slow, romantic, bereft of obligatory (overt) sex scenes, filled with outstanding natural performances, and dialogue touching on subjects from early experiences involving Playboy’s Miss July (1978) through to the meaning of God outside of traditional religious thought. In short, it was a surprisingly deep exploration of a connection being made between two strangers, randomly meeting on a train in Europe.

The ending of that movie was left vague, open to the interpretation of its audience—if you were a realist, they never met up six months later. A romantic? Then surely they did because the time they shared together was too meaningful, too impactful for them not to. Approximately nine years later, a sequel arrived to answer our questions and open up new possibilities. Before Sunset was widely regarded as a perfect continuation of Celine and Jesse’s story—in some ways, for some critics, even better than the first movie. Capitalising on knowing the characters so well from the first time around, it spared no wasted moments in reintroducing them to each other, as they only spend a precious 90 minutes (before Jesse’s flight back to the US) in Paris, discovering who they had become and what their relationship was now (and could be).

Fast forward another nine years to Before Midnight. Jesse had indeed missed his plane (curse Celine’s Nina Simone impression), and marriage—with children—has taken place in the intervening years. The intensity of the brief connections of the past are now replaced with the day-to-day complications of a life side by side; dreams and desires contending with responsibilities and realities. The hints of adulthood complications explored in Before Sunrise and Before Sunset are given more heft, as choices are examined and increasingly contrasting tacit concerns are made known.

What a roller coaster ride these films turned out to be. My personal investment (and likely for any fan of the trilogy) in the relationship between Ethan Hawke’s Jesse and Julie Delpy’s Celine was absolute. Is absolute, I meant. Actually, that change of wording probably gives away how I feel about the films and, especially, the characters that I have believed in and with whom I have sympathised across the intervening years. Heart-on-sleeve time? For me, the first two films captured something so real, so immediate and refreshing, that the final half hour of Before Midnight absolutely crushed me. So much so that, as I revealed in Part 1 of these articles, I could not bear to watch the third instalment after my initial experience of it in the cinema several years ago. Which probably discloses which side of the fence I was on with Before Sunrise—I had hoped that the two would meet six months later as planned. I’m an apprehensive romantic, at least I definitely was (and deep down, I think I still am). Much like both Jesse and Celine, I have come to terms with idealism versus actuality. That there are stages to all things, purposeful and accidental influences on all things, and that we (along with our spouses, partners, friends and family) are all a work in progress. Given all of that, the breathing room necessary for relationships to work is likely one of the tougher challenges, as alluded to in Before Midnight. 


The power that Linklater and his collaborators bring to these films is undeniable. There’s very little artifice or artificial in these productions. They are like stage plays—two-handers that rely on the strength of the words, the dynamism and subtly of performances, and the belief in a connection that is as real onstage as in the viewer’s mind, invoking feelings as much as intellectual thoughts. It’s a credit to his direction that the beautiful cinematography at play, the subtle use of music (until Before Midnight used a score), and the staging of scenes and conversations are cleverly woven into the DNA to a degree that nothing is out of place. A lingering camera shot at the airport between Jesse and his son; the use of Nina Simone’s music so intrinsic to the ending of Sunset; the passing of time and physical associations suggested via still shots of places visited at the end of Sunrise—these are all poetically interwoven into a strong, time-sensitive narrative. And it’s here that Linklater’s central preoccupation becomes so evident.

The majority of the films written and directed by Linklater himself (with no history of being a book or a previous movie for instance) concern themselves with time, its importance and its inevitable, irrevocable passing. Whether it be condensing 24 hours into a movie’s 90 minute running time with Slacker, or 12 years of vignettes from a growing boy’s life into 165 minutes in Boyhood, he is fascinated with how we view time and how we spend it. The fact that we denote the usage of time as ‘spending’ should give us some clue as to how precious it can be—a valuable resource that is finite, perhaps unappreciated by many but priceless for others.

“If cinema was a painting, time would be the paint itself,” says the director. [1]

How Linklater presents this to us differs in each part of the trilogy. The real-time urgency in Sunset is prefaced by a similar but more unhurried pace in Sunrise and bookended with snapshots of continual time within Celine and Jesse’s daily life together in Midnight. All of them have their reasons to be delineated in such a fashion, as dictated by the tempo of the storylines themselves. His message? Ultimately, it’s a continuation of what he has been saying all along—that all moments can be important whether we are fully attentive or not. And, in fact, he encourages us to be more aware by directing his, and therefore, our attention on these moments—a heated, destructive argument (from a costly suppression of feelings and resultant, unknown repercussions); unedited hopes and dreams (building intimacy and connection early in a relationship); admissions of depth of emotion and regret (exposing vulnerability and achieving symbiosis of thought/reality as a result); interactions with friends (awareness of subtext and conscious, substantive one-line quips). The smallest and the most commonplace moments are there to be experienced in real-time, consciously, with as much awareness as can be mustered. Because most never come again, at least, never in the same way.

The relationship between our two protagonists is one we can empathise with, and their personalities are fraught with both positive and negative aspects. We connect with them as we understand them (and at times, both like and dislike them, depending on the scene). They are real people, infused with the director’s, and the actor’s, life experiences. It’s fairly easy to read an interview or check a website to see just what they bring to the table in terms of their own happiness, fulfilment, bumps and bruises. It’s a brave act to expose these on the screen in a raw but accessible way. It’s as interesting to see Celine and Jesse as it is the actors who portray them, as they have become so synonymous with their roles and their chemistry appears incredibly effortless. And, it’s a genuine motivation that brings them to the table each time to write the screenplays—a desire to portray the real stages in a relationship from the initial, unfettered buzz of connection to the workmanlike management of family life.

Those stages are easily categorised but defy expectation. What is real (experienced) for some is not so for others. We all bring our own unique filters to bear on the finished product, and in doing so, will take away with us key points that hit home or allow us to consider something in a different way; perhaps something that we would not accept or listen to from someone close to us, but that we can experience on the big screen and find truth in it for ourselves (which I guess is one of the things that good art can do). With respect to this trilogy and Linklater’s power as a director, it’s a journey where we can see for ourselves how we all begin with expectations and personal hopes for what will come. We believe certain depictions of how this could/will be: from our parents, from movies or TV, our friends and their friends. Society and politics tells us how these things work, and what is/isn’t acceptable; religion specifies the do’s and don’ts; our culture adapts to technology and new ways of connecting; we have to find our way amidst all of these influences, traditions or requirements, and figure things out for ourselves.

Jesse and Celine in Before Sunrise

Linklater himself is not married. He’s been in a long-term relationship that has produced three children, and he lives with their mother most of the time (he admits that he has a few properties and they move around). It’s interesting in terms of his input into these three films. He has co-written them all and they benefit from both a male and female perspective. In the documentary, Dream Is Destiny, Julie Delpy admits that Linklater’s ideas of a relationship do differ from the ‘norm’, so the movies again benefit from different outlooks being brought into the final mix. Ethan Hawke is also a father, has been divorced and remarried; Julie Delpy has been in long-term relationships and has a child. The observations throughout the trilogy are deeply established in the real world with a mixture of experiences.

From my perspective, the first two films revel in the kind of individuality that Linklater brings to his other work, as the characters are a work in progress, and admit to being so. They are both comfortable and open about themselves and they feel like people I could know. I feel a little different about the final part. They come across as stereotypes for the first time; not completely, but that there are elements to their story and their attitudes that are, for me, less open (more in terms of “I’ve seen this before, I know where it’s going”). The whole film feels like it is building to its final act (confrontation) and it’s uncomfortable in that sense of climatic denouement. There’s a traditional musical score in the film which is not a feature of the first two pictures (as though, with a gentle, lyrical guitar we are lulled into a false sense of security). But perhaps this is all deliberate? Perhaps the reluctant romantic in me is disappointed, but also faces some truths I don’t want to see? Do we all become stereotypes to some degree as we get older? Are we less inclined to challenge ourselves or talk about/take on the bigger questions in life because there is less time to do so? I am unsure. Linklater again has made me debate my own ideas. He’s made me both curious and concerned. Is that questioning where change begins—a barometer for our own circumstances—encouraging real-time awareness, so that we don’t fall into the same trap into which Celine and Jesse appear to have fallen?

In Before Sunrise, romance is at the forefront of the narrative underpinnings. After the initial connection, with resonant stories and truths shared and reciprocated by one another, their attraction becomes mutual and romance follows. Each contributes their ideas on love, on sharing themselves with another, with their histories shaping their points of view (a parents divorce etc). The timeframe they are constricted by may mean that the day/night is all they have to get to know one another; but also, unencumbered by expectations, they are strangers, and after this day they will return to their corners of the world and do not have to interact again (pre-internet!) This allows a certain freedom from judgement, perhaps, or assumptions. Linklater shows that breathing room in his wide shots and sun-filled daytime work in Vienna, as our couple walk around expansive public areas, which makes the enforced intimacy of the record booth (where they have to cram themselves next to each other to hear the track “Come Here” by Kath Bloom) that much more electric. It’s a beautiful experience to be with them as they traverse the history-laden city whilst sharing “real human moments,” (Waking Life). What’s interesting to note is that in those moments, they both volunteer views that change with the passage of time, and they are to forget these ideals when perhaps they are needed the most. For instance, Jesse states that:

“I kind of see love as this escape for two people who don’t know how to be alone. People always talk about how love is this totally unselfish, giving thing, but if you think about it, there’s nothing more selfish.” 

The actions of Jesse in the next two movies do not reflect his position in the first. He’s changed, matured, and experienced things for himself. By Sunset, he’s in a marriage that isn’t working, but he has a child that means the world to him. His decision at the end of that movie to miss his plane and therefore make a huge, life-altering choice based on…love? Can that be seen as progress for him? After all, he turned up six months after meeting Celine, hoping to pick up where they left off. And here he is, sacrificing what would be an awkward life with his wife, but one that guarantees his son is a complete part in it. Or is it still a selfish decision to cause the pain of separation and divorce to both his wife and child? By Midnight, we know how difficult that has made things—the distance with Henry, and the antagonistic relationship with his ex-wife. And then, when his marriage to Celine looks to be heading towards irreparable failure, he exclaims “I am giving you my whole life, OK? I got nothing larger to give, I’m not giving it to anybody else.”

We are left to wonder if this admission is a purely unselfish action, but his development (and foibles) as a person are not shied away from. Is love a continual cycle of risk—to be vulnerable, to give all you can with no certainty? Is that really a selfish act? It doesn’t seem so. In Midnight, Celine almost seems to become the very embodiment of what Jesse worried about all those years ago, “I vaguely remember someone sweet and romantic, who made me feel I wasn’t alone anymore.” So, Celine didn’t want to be alone? Was the younger Jesse so spot on with his pessimistic outlook? Both have somehow stopped listening to themselves, their internal needs, and have stopped sharing them with each other. Linklater’s preoccupation with time is again a through-line here. The lack of time is mentioned so much in this final film—that time is speeding up and that they never have enough of it whilst navigating the world of their jobs, their daughters, and their commitments. How can we make space for ourselves outside of prearranged ‘date nights’ like this one, which they both needed, but not for the reasons they originally thought they did?

In Before Sunset, Celine bemoans the fact that people, “…move on like they would have changed brands of cereals,” and there’s little commitment to a person, a relationship. She has a point, especially in the current climate of websites and apps—there is not necessarily the need for that kind of commitment, and it’s not expected either. Love and sex are almost exclusive. She admits to placing all of her romantic projections back in Vienna when they were younger when life was less complicated. His progression through the movies suggests a weakening of romance as we move forward in age, responsibility and careers etc. How do we avoid that or is it inevitable? How can a couple be together beyond the intoxicating, initial moments in a relationship? What can we glean from the couple up there on the screen?

Julie Delpy and Ethan Hawke in Before Midnight

Did Before Midnight hint at this within the destructive and almost heartbreaking last act? Where is the middle ground? Is the central message within the accusations and recriminations that compromise is the answer? A respectful compromise where everything is said, understood, considered? The sort of connection that they shared in Before Sunset, where all moments are important in building trust, empathy, and seeing the other person (I recall the quote from Waking Life again here). Have they just lost that balance through a temporary blindness made permanent through unspoken needs? Has Jesse been doing the very thing that his younger self was concerned about? “It’s just, people have these romantic projections they put on everything that’s not based on any kind of reality.” Jesse is certainly one of those people. His romantic streak used to be a mile wide. Both forget that those projections are part of what destabilises them later on in Midnight. Celine remarks that Jesse is almost still a sex-obsessed American teenager; she could be right. He says she is the mayor of crazy town; he could be right. He admits though, “…I accept the whole package, the crazy and the brilliant…I know you’re not gonna change and I don’t want you to. It’s called accepting you for being you.”

There are such big questions in these movies. It’s clever of Linklater and his co-writers to both overtly and subliminally challenge our notions of what love is, of what companionship can be, where we as individuals begin and end, and how we can be with someone else and still be ourselves. Can we do that? Jesse once said “No one really knows anyone. That’s the thing about relationships—people are always saying, ‘I want to know you, I want to know who you are.’ But it is so hard for anyone to even know themselves. Who I am is always changing, so how can anyone else share in that?” A valid question. But is the answer to be found in the very first movie, as shared by Celine? “I believe if there’s any kind of God it wouldn’t be in any of us, not you or me but just this little space in between. If there’s any kind of magic in this world it must be in the attempt of understanding someone sharing something. I know, it’s almost impossible to succeed but who cares really? The answer must be in the attempt.”

Is romance inseparable from love? Is intimacy closer to respect and honesty than physical contact? I realise I am throwing out a lot of questions and that’s because I still do not have any answers, only guesswork. I think that what the final film has done—if not the whole trilogy as a piece—is to hold up a mirror to my own life, values and beliefs, especially concerning my romantic relationships, both past and present. Both Before Sunrise and Before Sunset gave me so much to reflect upon, and there were some parallels there that I cannot escape from. I credit them with giving me some answers, but more than that, a comfort that some questions, some thoughts, doubts and desires are, whilst deeply personal, also universal.

It’s kind of easy to see that the Before Trilogy could be seen as completely emblematic of Linklater’s oeuvre. It is a wordy, overly-intellectual, occasionally demonstrative experiment for Linklater. It’s both easily accessible and densely complicated at the same time. It gives rise to feelings that are commonplace but engages with them in a tightly-spun conversational manner that is expansive in Before Sunrise (rightfully so at the initial romantic stage) and punishingly claustrophobic in Before Midnight’s last act. What the movies tell us about our lives, about the idea and actuality of love, and of a relationship with another person is deftly shown in all of its lyrical and sometimes hard-to-get-a-handle-on reality.

Richard Linklater is one of us. He’s a guy who has found something that he is passionate about (cinema), and has delivered his own poetic, intelligent, heartfelt and philosophical moving pictures. The ordinariness that he seems to project on the big screen is made special by the fact that he speaks to, and for, us all. He has more questions than answers. Time moves inescapably forward. Our lives are created and recreated through our choices, why we go this way instead of that, what we value, who we love and how we connect. In a world filled with the noise of instant and incessant communication and the immensity of decisions and events larger than any one person, he brings us back to the realisation that the world of one person is filled with more quiet drama, supposedly insignificant moments, and the exploration of authenticity than popular cinema generally indulges.


Written by Paul Billington

25YL site Business Strategist, dabbling in Marketing and also a writer here too!

Lover of 'Twin Peaks', all things David Lynch, a big believer that 'Big Trouble in Little China' may possibly be better than 'Bill & Ted's Bogus Journey'.

Oh, and bacon is awesome and I miss Sherbet Dib Dabs.

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