the before series

Daniel McFarlane observes the talkative cinematic marriage of Linklater, Delpy and Hawke

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LOVE: to command it is gargantuan, to demand it is task within itself. “All you need is love”, said four rich white men once. The theme of love is probably the largest single source of inspiration for all works of art - cinematic or otherwise. How we tackle such issues is up to ourselves. For Trier it’s perverse, for Luhrmann it’s manic and for Allen it continuously exists in the problematic mindscape of an urbane middle-aged man child. When it comes to love, the all-round productive slacker Richard Linklater asks all the questions but holds the answers, for decades at a time. Much is to be said for Before Sunrise (1995). It’s the reason many amateur screenplays just read as conversations and why so many quiet types yearn to go inter-railing and find that soft-souled mate. Before Sunrise proves to be the timely intersection of three sentimentalities which, when married together, set the foundations for one of Western cinema’s most popular trilogies. Linklater had a personal experience of walking around a strange city with a complete stranger. Hawke was a fresh faced rising star and Delpy sauntered into the production having worked with a slew of European auteurs. The rest is left to celluloid romanticism.

Before Sunrise was released when most of the readers of this piece, and admittedly this writer of the piece itself had not even been born. This powerful film was discovered when many of us were moody teenagers. The easy conversations between the attractive couple of Celine (Delpy) and Jesse (Hawke) set alight a multitude of fantasies for the bored adolescent viewer. It wasn’t just the old-world, pensive Vienna setting that encouraged the opinionated parlaying between this duo. The visual chemistry between the two actors alone hooked the audience. Their dualistic opinions on people, dreams and love not only had us rooting for the couple, but in an oddly personal way, rooting for ourselves. If Jesse and Celine could retain lofty ideals on life and still manage to couple up after a few hours walking around old Vienna, it could happen to me! All was so simple, so romantic. They listened to old records, drank wine and passed street poets. What’s not to love?

What happened? Life. Before Sunrise was popular with audiences and critics alike. It made over $5,535,405 worldwide which was impressive for its uber art-house aesthetic. Linklater, Delpy and Hawke let the work and the absence of a sequel speak for itself. Did they return and rekindle? Is it meant to be? In that All-American cinema style, the trio knew they’d always have Paris so to speak and chose to set Before Sunset (2004) in the aforementioned French capital.

We learn that Jesse wrote a book, returned to Vienna and Celine did not. While Jesse continues to get drunk off the literary romanticism of their encounter, Celine grows unsatisfied with life and holds onto that nice-for-what-it-was, night with a stranger. The couple exchange the constant “I think” phrasing for a much more union-based questioning, as their once personal options have shifted into the exploration defining their relationship. “We” becomes the new title.

As a viewer you get the sense of history and complication between the two. Jesse has a child, a wife and an unsatisfied marriage. Celine has a career in the humanitarian industry and is subsequently left devoid of hope for humanity. The sultry yellow and off-whites of Haussmann’s Parisienne architecture creates the perfect landscape for the visiting Jesse and city-native Celine to divulge the most deepest aspects of their personalities. Such visual iconography demands a level of pensive romanticism which by now is synonymous with the Before series.

Sunset still holds onto the optimism that shined in Sunrise, nine years previous. In unison Jesse, Celine, and the viewer want this couple to stay together, but each party is painfully aware that individual responsibilities interfere with a perfect union. This tension reveals itself as during an argument in a taxi, Celine allows her hand to hover over Jesse. Her feelings and thoughts hang along with her hand in this liminal space. Not touching, yet not, not touching. It is there that she and the viewer are safe, even as the minutes before Jesse’s imminent departure diminish. Celine invites him into her aptly bohemian apartment. He sits on her sofa drinking tea as she sways to the dulcet tones of Nina Simone. She warns him with the swing of her hips “baby, you are going to miss that plane.” Jesse gleams, “I know”. The credits rolls and we are treated to another deferral of union. The less seasoned and more traditional romantic viewer has given up. But this is not a film concerned with traditional romantic unions. Instead, Linklater wants to explore what must be given up in favour of the romantic, his answer, togetherness. Once again Linklater exhibits all the questions while purposefully withholding the answers.

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Last in the trilogy, Before Midnight is a tough watch. It still has an exotic location – this time, Greece – and the same visual and dialogue techniques give the impression of those constant conversations between Celine and Jesse. This time it’s what they talk about that has changed. Jesse lives within his own writing while Celine argues she only exists within the demanding role of motherhood. These problems are juxtaposed with other characters’ belief in the romantic mythology of love, marriage and children. Linklater works hard to shatter those hopes in his effort to present a “realistic relationship”.

In a climactic and exhausting argument everything from babysitters to living in America to falling out of love is aired. Younger viewers search for the optimistic couple, waltzing the streets of Vienna, while older members of the audience, who have aged along with the arguing couple, see their own issues being explored on screen. This generational divide reveals youthful ignorance surrounding love. Midnight alienated viewers who didn’t like to be told what hardships lie ahead. We’re happy to accept star-crossed train travellers or meeting a soulmate in a Paris bookstore. What we romantics won’t accept is a forty-minute argument in a Greek hotel room.

Before Midnight ends again with no concrete resolution of its problems. The romantic history Linklater has built propels not only the audience but also Jesse and Celine to keep talking into the night, to keep joking and to keep loving one another. The Before series has truly stood the test of time. It’s one that provides for pleasurable re-watching, and a post-cinematic self-revaluation. Linklater proves it is not the broad strokes but the subtle interactions that reveal intimacy and love between soul mates.