The Romantic Realism of Linklater’s Before Movies

Richard Linklater’s three Before movies depict the evolution of a relationship over time by showing us just three days of Jesse and Celine’s life, each day nine years apart from the others. Through the long, winding conversations the two have, we are easily able to fill in the years in between. Though they’re smarter, better looking, and more charming than we are, and though their conversations are probably more clever and philosophical than our own, we can still see ourselves and our relationships in them – they feel so real. Trying to articulate exactly what I love so much about these movies is hard as my fondness for them ultimately comes down to a feeling more than anything else, but I’m going to try anyways, so let’s start with Before Sunrise.

The movie is an almost ethereal love story between Jesse and Celine in their early twenties, when they are still brimming with optimism and hope about the future. The two meet on the train and hit it off so that when the time comes for Jesse to get off, he asks Celine to get off the train with him to continue their conversation. As they walk around Vienna, they wax philosophical about love, life, and religion reminding us of the 2 am dorm-room conversations we had in college. They are still young and innocent enough to not get bogged down in the daily problems that working adults deal with, allowing their conversations to wind from one abstract concept to another. The scenes in the movie are wonderfully shot – the scene in the music booth was fantastic, the fake-calling was hilarious, the homeless guy was incredibly endearing, and Jesse convincing the bartender to give him a bottle of wine was the thing that only young people in love would try. But what resonated with me the most was their utter infatuation with one another; it reminded me of a special time in my life, of the unique rollercoaster of emotions that you only get with your first love. Though it’s a boy-meets-girl love story at heart, what makes this movie special to me is that there is no traditional conflict; there’s no other romantic interest or terrible event that can tear the relationship apart. It’s simply about two people falling in love with each other, walking around Vienna in long takes, having wonderful conversation; Jesse and Celine’s chemistry is so great that we do not need anything else. The movie has a great ambiguous ending, leaving us to wonder whether the two meet up again in six months. And though Linklater could’ve left it there, nine years later, he gives us Before Sunset.

Before Sunset is my favorite of the three. After nine years, Jesse and Celine are finally brought back together in Paris by Jesse’s book about their magical night together. We quickly learn that the two did not meet up in six months; Jesse flew to Vienna but left heartbroken as Celine, unbeknownst to Jesse, had to attend her grandmother’s funeral instead. The two are now seasoned adults who have grown jaded by their years in the workforce and, as we later learn, their inability to find another person who they connect with as deep as they did with each other. Though their conversations remain philosophical, they are no longer the college-dorm musings of the first movie, but instead remain grounded in the reality of their own experiences. Both characters lie throughout the movie and try and pretend that everything is okay in their lives as they try and get a feel for the other person, but slowly, as the movie progresses and they dig deeper into each other’s lives, we learn the truth. Their lies are layered like onions; with the removal of one lie, comes another lie, until ultimately the character breaks down with the truth. Jesse for example, starts by lying about whether he showed up in Vienna eight and a half years ago, then neglects to mention that he is married with children, and finally does not confess that he is in a deeply unhappy marriage until he breaks down. Celine goes through a similar process where she first presents herself as a careerist, then as an independent person who is okay with a rarely-present boyfriend, before finally revealing the truth. Both still haven’t gotten over their night in Vienna nine years ago and all their relationships since have failed to live up to the ideal of that night. Their lies, through commission and omission, kept their conversation cordial, but as they walk around Paris and talk, they both realize that the chemistry they felt nine years ago is still there. They had become so jaded that they were used to shrouding themselves with lies but now, the walls slowly start to come down and the emotions come flooding out. Those emotions feel so true to the human experience, feelings of everyone else living such wonderful lives while their own is falling apart, of aimlessness, of regrets over what could’ve been and what is. The movie is a concise 80 minutes and though it’s over in the blink of an eye, we feel like we know Jesse and Celine deeply; the movie feels as if we’re catching up with close friends that we haven’t seen in a while. The two scenes where Jesse and Celine break down are master-classes in acting and the movie ends perfectly, with two characters knowing exactly where they belong and experiencing pure bliss. Once again, Linklater could’ve left it there, but instead he plays with our expectations of love by giving us Before Midnight.

Before Midnight is an entirely different kind of love story than the previous two movies. Celine and Jesse are no longer meeting for the first time, or reuniting after daydreaming about each other for years, but have instead been living together for nine years. Their love no longer revolves around infatuation but is instead a deeper, more mundane love, the type of love that all love eventually becomes, which is not to say that it’s a worse kind of love, just different (I’d argue that it’s actually a better kind of love). We spend the first half of the movie seeing them interact with other characters such as their children or their friends in Greece, but when we finally get them alone together, we can quickly see that their conversations are still witty and enthralling. Throughout the first half of the movie though, we can feel an argument simmering in the background and it’s not until they get into their hotel room that tensions erupt. The fight hits close to home because it feels so much like ones that I have. It starts over a rather insignificant thing, but quickly escalates into something else entirely with both sides trying to score points while using unfair, though true, attacks. The argument seems to fade multiple times, but comes back stronger each time until the climax when Celine tells Jesse that she doesn’t love him anymore and leaves the hotel room for the third time. I’ve never had a fight escalate that far (and hope that I never do), but it’s so effective in the movie. We don’t believe Celine because we’ve seen the first half of the movie and the other two movies, but still, it disabuses us of the notion of a perfect love. Movies usually end at happily ever after, but here, we see what’s really after. The trilogy comes full circle, as Jesse and Celine fight like the older couple on the train in the first movie. There’s no such thing as true love, or at least not the true love that movies typically sell us. But what’s left is an enduring love, a love that can withstand withering arguments, one where the other person truly understands the other, a genuine life-long partnership. And so, the movie once again ends beautifully ambiguous, with us left to imbue the ending with our own thoughts and imagine the future in store for the two.

Hopefully at the next nine year mark, Linklater blesses us with yet another sequel. The series feels complete, but it felt complete the previous two times as well. Narratively, it probably makes the most sense for Celine and Jesse to be divorced in the next movie, but, since I’m a romantic at heart, I hope that’s not the case. Regardless, I trust Linklater to do the characters justice and it would definitely be cool to revisit the characters every nine years, like a fictional 7 Up series.

Photo by Timi Keszthelyi from Pexels