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Retrospective: Richard Linklater Part Two: An Unlikely Trilogy

Julie Delpy and Ethan Hawke in Before Sunrise (Image © Columbia Pictures)

Julie Delpy and Ethan Hawke in Before Sunrise (Image © Columbia Pictures)

In terms of American films, “trilogy” and “franchise” are usually part of the same conversation. Of course, they’re not the same thing. Even though Richard Linklater now has three films depicting the chance encounter and subsequent relationship, between an American man named Jesse Wallace (Ethan Hawke) and a French woman named Celine, (Julie Delpy), franchise seems like a grossly inappropriate word. When we met these characters in 1995’s Before Sunrise, there was no guarantee that we would see them ever again. When we did in fact catch up to them in 2004’s Before Sunset, there was once again no guarantee that we might get to visit them a third time later on.

It’s fascinating to stand back, and look at what Linklater has accomplished over the course of nearly twenty years. Each individual chapter of his unlikely trilogy has examples of that unconventional storytelling style, but when you take all three films as a singular narrative, you get one of the most likable, interesting, and unique love stories ever committed to film. This story is sometimes overlooked by people making up lists of the great cinematic romances. I think I understand why that is. There is nothing powerfully dramatic about any of these movies. A giant boat isn’t sinking, no one’s addicted to heroin, the world isn’t about to end, and no one is being shipped off to fight the Nazis. At its most basic, this trilogy is an ongoing account of two people who met by providence, and everything that has so far happened since then.

And arguably, in spite of how much time has passed between Before Sunrise and Before Midnight (and each movie acknowledges how much time has passed), not a whole lot really happens. At least, it doesn’t seem like a lot, when compared to most of the romantic films that have come out over the past few decades. That’s a mistake people can make with something like this. Although each of these movies touch on a lot of the storytelling points we expect from a romantic story, it also has Linklater’s ability to make subtle changes to the expected ways of using film to explore romance, passion, sex, and everything else that goes along with a relationship between two people who connect in that particular way.

I’m a hard sell with romantic films. I don’t get any satisfaction out of that. My concept of amorous fidelity has been unintentionally weird, and kind of flawed, for a long time. I was the Kindergartener who responded to the Valentine’s Day assignment of drawing what I thought love was by turning in a picture of Batman and Vicki Vale hanging from the old church at the end of the 1989 Batman. I was told that my theory was stupid, wrong, and that I should try again.

Time went on. I crushed on girls, who didn’t have particularly strong feelings towards me. I fell in love with fictional characters from books and films, and they were usually a pretty memorable mix of crazy and mean. I got older, dated, had sex with someone I loved at 5:30 in the morning, watched more movies, and read more books. Movies certainly kicked in a few influencing ideas about love and sex, but I can’t say a lot of the movies I absorbed during my most impressionable years (which some might claim are ongoing) could be specifically categorized as romantic.

I often and actively resisted anything that even resembled something like Before Sunrise. For some really stupid reason, I usually felt like movies that screamed “Love! People kissing! That stuff actually works out sometimes!” to me were generally more blatantly manipulative than other genres. For someone who loves the horror genre as much as I do, that’s a flawed argument, on the level of a Conservative Christian arguing Creationism in public schools.

It’s not that love bothered me. I was already working hard at being one of those obnoxious types, who wanted to be extremely cynical about being a hopeless romantic. Love was fine, but more often than not, something like Before Sunrise struck me as extremely crass about the whole thing. So frequently, that it embarrasses me a little now, I would make that judgment call about a movie on the strength of nothing more than the title, or at best, a brief synopsis.

It wasn’t until I was nineteen, twenty, that I finally stopped being so ridiculous about staying away from those movies. That doesn’t just apply to romance, and it’s not even limited to film. I am constantly trying to take more chances on books, films, music, and so on.

Any one of, or all three parts of, Linklater’s trilogy doesn’t make for some great challenge. It’s not that I’m pushing myself into frightening, dramatic territory, watching Ethan Hawke and Julie Delpy fall in love with each other. It’s just that it seems pretty stupid to me that ten years ago, I would have avoided these movies like the plague. And there wouldn’t have been a single good reason for doing so.

Like other facets of my life, I’ve tried to be as careful as possible, about how much movies and other media influence me. That thought certainly applies to how I view and treat women, what I want from a relationship, how equipped I am for platonic relationships, and how equipped I am for any other type of relationship. Culture having something to say how I think and function is almost always going to be inevitable, but things like family, life experience, and simply observing the real world should be part of what builds up the personality, too.

In the end, at least in my case, movies can’t help but speak to my past, present, and future.

That even extends into how I choose movies. That part is ongoing, but I would probably say at this point that I’ll give just about anything a fair shake.

With romantic films, the more I started to watch, the more I realized I was open to a broader range of suggestion, than I would have guessed I was at fourteen or fifteen. By the time I made it to Before Sunrise, there wasn’t even a hint of a feeling that I was going against my preferences. It was as simple as thinking that I liked Linklater’s work, liked the leads well enough, and feeling that those things would be enough for a good movie. I can’t say now, if I was feeling more in the mood for romance than usual. Given the year I saw the movie though, which is a long story, I probably was.

I wasn’t surprised that I loved the movie. Nothing revolutionary occurred within me as a result of watching it, but I was surprised to find that it moved me a great deal more than I had guessed it would. Enough that although I was aware of the sequel, I initially figured I would just see it later.Before Sunset found its way to the top the Netflix queue about a minute after I finished Sunrise.

I should have known better. Even with all the reasons why I decided to see Before Sunrise in its favor, I never thought I would think anything of the movie beyond “Well, that was nice.” Armed with what’s really a very straightforward plot, Before Sunrise is still one of the best romantic films I’ve seen so far.

It didn’t change my world, and it didn’t assault my creative DNA in the dead of night, but it did a number of things that only really great movies can do. It appealed to everything that I believe is good about my romantic nature (and not just romantic, in the sense of meeting and falling in love with someone), and it did that without even a shred of arrogance. Much in the same way that the moments immediately preceding my first viewing of Slacker made me want to travel, Before Sunrisesent me into vivid daydreams and memories of travel, chance encounters with extraordinary strangers (again, not necessarily romantic), and spontaneity that didn’t or wouldn’t end in horrific disaster. Just as Dazed of Confused reeled me with reflections of my childhood, while wondering what the future had lined up, Sunrise reminded me of the people who had come out of nowhere to change something profound about me.

It also, as a great romantic movie is want to do, made me want to suddenly find myself sharing a day and night with someone. If it had that element of not knowing if we would ever see each other again, then that would have been all the better.

Is all of that a little silly? Sure. Do most of us feel self-conscious, over the way movies of all shapes and sizes can get certain gears going? I think so. Does either of those things really matter? No. If movies stir up your disorganized emotional and spiritual archives, then that’s pretty good. It doesn’t matter, if a thousand film scholars agree with you, if the people who know exactly what you’re talking about with that one movie consist of four people on Reddit, or even if you’re all alone in the world. If you’re like me with movies, one of the things that will send you back to them again and again is everything you get beyond the movie itself being great.

Before Sunrise is a great movie. It was time flawlessly spent, and I had high-yet-guarded expectations for Before Sunset. After all, one of the charms of the first film is the open ending. They might follow through on all those dreamy promises, but then again, things happen. People die, get busy with work, meet other people, go crazy, or get so wretchedly caught up with the mundane blur, stopping to remember that one person in that one place that one time is impossible. Some people hate those endings. I love them.

Of course, if Before Sunrise had been made this glorious age of smartphones and social media, they would just Facebook friended each other, and made their next move from there.

You could make that movie now, and I’m sure someone has (I can’t recall off the top of my head), but I like what Before Sunrise leaves us with. If they really want to find each other again, they will. It just might take a little more effort circa-1995 than it would in 2013.

…all the while, we can clearly see in how they move and talk that they’re trying to think of a way to steal moments that don’t exist.

With the first chapter of Jesse and Celine, circumstance brought them together on that train. Impulse compelled Jesse to ask Celine to spend the day with him, before he caught his plane back to States. Need kept them together for every last moment available to them (all the while, we can clearly see in how they move and talk that they’re trying to think of a way to steal moments that don’t exist). A similar shade of opportunity reunites them in Before Sunset. The beauty of Linklater waiting nine years for to continue the story is that because Hawke and Delpy are clearly different people than they were in 1995, Jesse and Celine are different people as well. That’s not to say that Ethan Hawke and Julie Delpy are not excellent actors. They prove that in this trilogy, and they have proven that in other films. There is still something interesting about the opportunity to play characters like Celine and Jesse in films like these over a period of nearly twenty years. Nine years have passed for both the characters and the actors, and both Delpy and Hawke take full advantage of the opportunity to combine those things. The result is two performances that not only utilize great acting talent, but also have the benefit of those nine years having actually gone by. They also have Linklater’s talent for dialog, along with Kim Krazan on the first two films, and story (Delpy and Hawke also get a screenwriting credit for the second and third films). All of this is largely whereBefore Sunset gets its personality and charming sincerity from. You can apply that thought to the other two movies as well.

Before Sunset goes about its story of Jesse and Celine finding each other once again in the same style as Before Sunrise. Linklater’s best work remains those films that relied heavily on seemingly routine interaction between characters to express the narrative, flesh out the characters, and keep us interested. What makes any superlative Linklater film unique is in the almost intense trust he places in his stories and actors to need absolutely nothing else to thrive. There are no high dramatics inSunrise or Sunset. No one is heading off to war, suffering from a terminal disease, or moonlighting as a homophobic serial killer. We become deeply invested in Jesse and Celine’s relationship, simply by watching what happens when they wander the streets, which they do in both Sunrise and Sunset, and talk to each other. They tell jokes, make observations, annoy us, impress us, confuse us, and fascinate us. What’s so funny about that is the very fact that neither one of them are even remotely unrealistic. Linklater will always be able to create something memorable out of the everyday. And even though the odds that Jesse and Celine would meet again in Before Sunset might strike us as a little unrealistic, we buy it anyway. That’s because those things really do happen once in a great while.

Before Sunset picks up nicely where its predecessor left off, but it’s not a retread. Right to the end, we still don’t know if they’re going to end up together. That’s one way the film keeps us going. The other way is in how Linklater shows us the ways in which they have changed. Nine years can make a person wiser, but they can also make a person wearier. In Sunset, we learn that Jesse has a son. Experiences like writing a book (based on his meeting with Celine, natch) and getting into a failed marriage have made him quieter, a little less cocky and self-assured than he was in Sunrise. Celine has had nine years to travel, narrow down her passions (of which there were many in Sunrise) to the absolutely essential, and wonder if her role in the universe is to make other people understand what love truly means to them, while getting nothing out of the exchange herself. As they walk the unmistakable, effortlessly romantic (as much of a cliché as it might be) streets of Paris, we learn about how they’ve changed at the same rate they have. Some of it is wonderful, some of it is pretty saddening but natural, and some of it is profoundly moving. Some of it is simply batting around topics in the same light, giddy way the two of them spoke to each other in Sunrise. Through all of it, they confirm what they had known about each other shortly after meeting for the first time, and they confirm what they had been wondering about each other in the nine year rest period: They were meant to be together.

And the fact that the movie almost certainly ends with them in this way (I thought this, much more than I thought they would see each other again after Sunrise) doesn’t feel contrived or forced. In the first two parts of this trilogy, Linklater put his trust in the characters and actors to cover every base, bring us in as an audience, and make it possible for us to accept anything the first two movies gave us. And we do. We don’t feel manipulated for a second.

Pulling this off in two films is an incredible achievement, but three movies?

We all know what the rule of three is for most trilogies, but it should be pretty obvious to anyone that Linklater’s films are by no means a traditional trilogy. Or it’s at least not a trilogy of films, as we understand the concept. What lends partial credibility to Linklater, Hawke, and Delpy collaborating on chapter three of Jesse and Celine’s story, is the fact that there is no financial necessity in making a third film. I can’t imagine any of them are hurting for money. That leaves only a sincere desire to continue exploring on the themes of Sunrise and Sunset.

Before Midnight does indeed continue to explore such concepts as self-discovery, and how that figures into the need for companionship, but just as Before Sunset added a few distinctive touches of its own, Before Midnight has a great deal to say of its own accord. Since another nine years have passed since Before Sunset, that just makes sense. It’s because of that sincere desire to continue this story that Before Midnight has a wealth of new ideas and themes to juggle. This is noticeable enough, when you compare Midnight to Sunset. Compare Midnight to Sunrise, and the differences in the characters, the actors, and what those things do when brought together, is astonishing.

Before Midnight confirms what most of us knew happened at the end of the second film. Jesse did indeed remain in Paris. In the time between then and now, he has continued to work as a successful writer (which is good for him, because it’s a hard to imagine Jesse being particularly skilled at anything else), while struggling to have a meaningful relationship with his son, now a teenager, back home in the States. As an actor, the 2013 version of Ethan Hawke isn’t a polar opposite of how he worked as an actor 2004 version, but he is certainly an older, more restrained performer. Since 2004, he has had the opportunity to work in a number of intriguing (although occasionally unfortunate) projects. As he did in Before Sunrise, he brings the additional years of experience to the 2013 version of Jesse. He is not unrecognizable from the character we met eighteen years ago, but they do strike us as two completely different people at times.

Delpy accomplishes the same marvelous feat as Hawke, but she goes about it in her own way. Once a woman with a thousand ideas pulling her in just as many different directions, Celine now finds herself in a position so many people with that kind of mindset eventually find themselves in. She doesn’t know what to do with herself, and although she clearly loves the twin children she and Jesse have conceived between movies, a person like her, someone with an intense, gnawing need to contribute something significant to the world, there’s a need for something more. This new aspect of her personality figures heavily into the 2013 version of Celine, and it influences a great deal of the movie’s story.

Although the movie does touch on serious subjects, such as that fear that life as it currently stands is the last place it’s truly going to stand, not to mention uncertainty and discontentment (in terms of how both characters view their lives, and even their marriage), this is not some kind of intensive drama. In the same vein that Before Sunset marked its soft-spoken humor and seamless banter with realistic, moving moments of drama, Before Midnight establishes and holds a similar kind of harmony. We assume, or would like to imagine, that Jesse and Celine will weather whatever life and shifting perspectives will throw at them, but we don’t get to take that idea for granted. For all the lightness and humor Before Midnight often displays, the film also repeatedly casts doubt on whether Jesse and Celine’s relationship can survive where they each find themselves in their individual lives.


From Before Midnight (Image © Sony)

Few sequels are truly “necessary”, so the inevitable question that we ask ourselves with Before Midnight, or even Before Sunset, is whether or not these sequels are crucial.

Crucial? No. Welcomed would be a more accurate word. None of these films are historically significant, and some would even say that calling them culturally significant is a bit of a stretch. Without making the argument for either of those cases, Linklater, Hawke, Delpy and Krazan have created something that is significant in its own way. Each film presents a different part of a love story that is told as plainly and honestly as possible. That still might be too much for some people, or it may in fact not be enough for them. Romance is like any other film type, and everyone has a different threshold for what they’ll watch, what they can accept, and which movies need to be taken out to the parking lot, and beaten to  death with a tire iron.

Expressing genuine love between people in film at least has always struck me as an extremely difficult endeavor for everyone involved. That might just be that my own perception of love in art, and in general, are still ongoing, developing things. There are dozens of romantic films that are hailed as classics, and I’m still baffled that some of them have that status. The Notebook is one of the worst things I’ve ever seen, and I will never understand the affection people have for Sleepless in Seattle.

In the same way that Jesse and Celine change in certain ways from one film to the next, I know that I don’t perceive romantic love in the same way that I did ten years ago.

And the way I look at movies like those may change, but it may not. I may become more varied in love stories I can dig, or I may become more cynical and annoyed. I won’t be exactly the same as I am now. In the same way that Jesse and Celine change in certain ways from one film to the next, I know that I don’t perceive romantic love in the same way that I did ten years ago. I’m aware of this. As much as I’m aware of the knowledge that in ten years, I will probably look at romantic love differently than I do now.  That may or may not extend into how I look at romance in film. It might.

Personally, I know I struggle to explain love, and not just the romantic kind, in my own writing. To say nothing of how big a pain in the ass it can be to express a love story that I can believe, and that others are willing to get on board for as well.

In my own life, it is occasionally fascinating to look back a certain number of years, and compare notes between then and now as best I can. It’s also fascinating to watch the story of Jesse and Celine over a period of three films and eighteen years. The world will do what it likes in terms of changing for the better or for the worse. What unfolds between Jesse and Celine between 1995 and 2013 largely exists away from that fact, and I think that’s another great aspect of these movies. Richard Linklater, and certainly the others, has created a small, but perfect film world through this trilogy. The accomplishments of these movies separately, and also as a single narrative, are many.

And it could keep going, if Linklater and the gang are willing. When you leave Before Midnight, you will have this thought. Visiting Jesse and Celine in another nine years is as possible, and at this point as reasonable, as anything. Perhaps, we shouldn’t call these movies a trilogy. It might be better, if we instead look at them as three parts of a series that may or may not be ongoing.

It could go either way. A lot of things could happen to Linklater, Delpy, Hawke, us, and the world at large. We all know that life is an ongoing deal, one that is subject to changes we can imagine, changes we can’t imagine, and things that leave us scarcely able to recognize the person we were beforehand, or the places we stood still in just the other day.

Richard Linklater’s best films are brilliant reflections of different aspects of life, so much so that we can’t help but respond to them in a very personal way. Yet they never lose that necessity to be entertaining and engaging cinema. It doesn’t surprise me at this point that Richard Linklater’s filmography is full of these types of movies. What surprises me is that more people don’t seem to appreciate it.