Director: Richard Linklater
Writers: Richard Linklater, Ethan Hawke, Julie Delpy
Cast: Ethan Hawke, Julie Delpy.
I tend to not watch many sequels. I used to, but a couple of years I really grew tired of keeping up with the storylines and found that the films tended to rehash the same things over and over again, and I grew restless and increasingly frustrated. I have only seen a handful this year and those that I have seen, for the most part, left me cold and unimpressed. Next year, as of this moment, I plan on seeing even less and the only one I am planning on definitely seeing is the sequel to My Big Fat Greek Wedding. It might not be good, but I really loved the original, so I will give it a go in spite of myself. That said, not all sequels are created equal. I just reviewed The Look of Silence, which is more of a companion piece than a sequel (and it’s also a documentary), but it was easily amongst the best things I saw this year. Amongst the exceptions to the way sequels are usually constructed are the films that make up the (for now) trilogy, known as the Before films. Michael Apted has is Up documentary series, which revisits the same people every seven years and sees what its subjects are up to at various stages of life (the director began the project with 14 year olds, he didn’t direct the first one, and his latest 2012 film followed them at 56). In similar fashion, but with fictional characters, is Richard Linklater’s series that follows Jesse and Céline.
Every nine years a window into the lives of these two people is reopened and we catch up with these two souls who met by chance on a train back in 1995. In the first film, Before Sunrise, the two characters, played expertly by Ethan Hawke and Julie Delpy, played two people barely out of their teens who were traveling by train through Europe and struck up a conversation. Sparks flew and they decided to get off in Vienna and spend the night talking, engaging with each other, questioning one another in the way only perfect strangers who are young and feel they have all the answers could. Nine years later, in Before Sunset, the thirty year olds meet up in Paris and immediately the connection is palpable. Old and nearly forgotten memories bubble back up and even though Jesse is now married the film ambiguously ended with him choosing to miss his flight so that he and Céline can have more time together.
I discovered the first film at the perfect time. I was 20 years old and about to take a year off from college and spend it in Europe. Over the course of that year I saw the film multiple times and identified so deeply with the two characters, unable to choose a favorite, their experienced encapsulated so perfectly all my feelings of the transition towards independence and adulthood that I was on the cusp of. The movie spoke to me on a level no other work had before or had since. The sequel I think I saw too early (at 31 I am just now the age of the characters). I still loved the film, but their life experiences and conversations were not yet my own. So while the films are, in my opinion, the best series of films out there (yes, better than The Godfather) I was apprehensive about the newest one, Before Midnight, which came out two years ago. I am still single and childless and knowing that the film would meet up with the couple as they were still together and with a couple of kids in tow I was worried that I would experience what I did in the previous film, which was feel alienated by the couple that had passed me by and lived a different life from the direction my life had gone in. So I put it off, but I finally have given in and I shouldn’t have been worried because the movie is perfection, regardless if I see myself in these characters anymore.
Céline and Jesse have now been together for nine years and in the interim had twin girls. We find them spending their summer in Greece on the cusp of returning home to Paris. The winning formula has not changed: the film is once again a long dialogue between the two characters, as they go back and forth and not always are heard or understood, but they still force each other to question motivations, get underneath each others’ skin, lovingly connect and angrily disconnect. After the first film both Hawke and Delpy became screenwriters on the projects, giving them not just a voice, but actually allowing them to drive the lives of their characters. It’s no wonder that after 18 years, the two actors inhabit these characters so fully that sometimes I think of their real world counterparts as the fictitious ones. Their connection, even when not the most amiable, is beyond credible, their domesticity is absolute. Not a note rings false, not a moment feels forced or over the top. If I didn’t know that each line is scripted to the minute detail and every action is choreographed to perfection I would think the film was entirely improvised on the spot, that is how real these characters feel.
One doesn’t have to be in a relationship or be a parent to appreciate what this little project that could achieves. These stories are universal and yet absolutely individual at the same time. I really hope that the series continues and that 7 years from now we revisit these two people no matter their station in life. Hopefully the window into their lives will be opened once more, because I, for one, am the better for it.