“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.” So goes one line from about an hour into Before Sunrise (1995), and one which perhaps best describes the film’s (and the trilogy it inaugurates) central conceit: a brief encounter between two idealistic romantics, who after discussing politics, philosophy, religion and relationships finally admit their love for each other. However, they are forced, inevitably, to separate at the day’s end - only to reunite nearly a decade later, older and just as hopeless. These films don’t just depict a maturing relationship or an unrequited love, they occupy a space more often than not ignored in your typical romantic comedy or cinematic love story: the tension, the silence, the hesitance and the sheer ridiculousness of falling in love, and the almost spiritual connection inherent in discovering someone for the first time.
The Before trilogy chronicles over three parts and nearly two decades the beginning, rebirth and strain of lost love and the reality of a relationship. Sunrise sees the trilogy’s leads Jesse (Ethan Hawke) and Céline (Julie Delpy) experience a chance encounter on a train passing through Vienna, only to get off, wander the city, have some playful back-and-forth, and eventually fall in love before the inevitable morning train back to reality. Before Sunset (2004) finds Jesse as an established author, reuniting with Céline at a book signing in her native Paris and wondering if the girl in his story is her. If Sunset is about these two characters finding each other again in near-Hollywood fashion, Before Midnight (2013) is their reality check several years later, as we discover a forty-something Jesse and Céline as a family holidaying in Greece, and trying desperately to cling on to a relationship that was built on a kind of passion and youthful excitement that might not exist anymore.
This, of course, isn’t a new concept, but what writer-director Richard Linklater gets right is making the romance feel earned and true - not necessarily realistic, but written as-real, depressing, brilliant, mortifying and true. Quite literally, as Linklater based the first film on an experience meeting a similar woman whilst travelling between New York and Austin, Texas in the late ‘80s. Meeting in a toy shop, walking and conversing long into the night, the two never saw each other again, but the experience remained vivid, directly influencing the stream-of-consciousness dialogue and strong emphasis on character and dialogue over plot.
Sunset’s last fifteen minutes are perhaps his greatest work as a writer and director, as Linklater smoothly transitions from a confession in the back of a taxi to an impromptu song back in Céline’s apartment. As with all the great moments in this trilogy, Jesse and Céline inevitably unfold and reveal their hand simply because they know they might not have another chance. It’s also one of the most tantalising endings in all cinema; a proper cliffhanger that exchanges the first film’s ambiguous ‘will they, won’t they’ conclusion for pure uplift, leaving us begging for more as Linklater closes the blinds on Jesse and Céline until Midnight nine years later.
The trilogy marks his third use of a device that’s since become a staple of the Linklater brand: narrative time. Being Before a specific time of day, each film takes place within the space of about 12 hours and must end before the titular timeframe is over. As in Dazed and Confused (1993), last year’s Everybody Wants Some!! (2016) and his 2014 coming-of-age opus Boyhood, Linklater loves these kinds of narrative restrictions, making his oeuvre feel more like photos in an album than a biographical portrait of any one character’s life. It also forces his script to move towards the inevitable, and whether making it through the night, adolescence or one day in Vienna, it’s all about capturing a moment or a series of moments in the life of his characters.
These films are so much about male and female perspectives that there might have been the mistake of making each a male fantasy or wish fulfilment, which is why co-writer Kim Krizan is so important to bringing in Céline’s strong female perspective in this first film, making her combative against cynical Linklater-surrogate Jesse. The writing process is further complicated by Hawke and Delpy’s improvisations and additional material, later earning the two co-writing credit and adding a layer of realism which still today prompts questions of just how close their characters are to reality.
As much as the trilogy is about passionate romance, chance and destiny, it’s also, quite rightly, interested in what comes after: the mundanity and reality of not only a romantic life but eventually a married one. Midnight’s greatest achievement is developing these characters beyond stunted twenty-somethings and dealing with the baggage (and even burden) of realising “This is all there is.” It’s refreshing to see what happens after the end credits and The Big Kiss, something we’re denied even in Sunset’s cathartic finale. All that time alone wandering a new surrounding that’s become so familiar as a staple of the first two films is now an indulgence, kept for when the kids are asleep or out of sight.
The Before films succeed where many romance films fail - never sentimental or saccharine, they seem to articulate love in a way rarely put to film, treating their characters like real people in a way so many films refuse to. Honest, charming and uncannily truthful, it’s impossible not to spot even a little of yourself in one of Linklater’s wonderfully-painted days in the life of Jesse and Céline.