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The Before Trilogy (Criterion)
Released in January of 1995, Richard Linklater’s fourth feature film, Before Sunrise, depicts an eventful 24 hours in the life of a young American man named Jesse (Ethan Hawke) and a French woman named Celine (Julie Delpy). They meet while sharing a train. Jesse convinces Celine to disembark with him in Vienna. They walk the city, take in the sights, and talk about where their lives have brought them so far and where they’d like them to go from there. They part the next morning and exchanging no personal information but agreeing to meet in the same spot exactly six months later. The film received positive reviews but performed only modestly at the box office. Like Dazed and Confused, Linklater’s first film after making the game-changing indie hit Slacker, it wouldn’t pick up a wider audience until later, when appreciative viewers found it on home video.
That easily could have been the end of the story and it wouldn’t have been a terrible ending, either. What happened next for Jesse and Celine could have been unresolved, a lady-or-the-tiger-like unwritten ending that viewers could fill in for themselves — and ponder what their conclusions said about them — or just leave unanswered. But then something unexpected happened: First Jesse and Celine made a cameo appearance in Linklater’s animated dream piece Waking Life, then Linklater, Hawke, and Delpy reunited for the 2004 film Before Sunset, a sequel set nine years later that saw the lovers reunite in Paris. The 2013 film Before Midnight, set in Greece, completed the cycle, which has now been collected in an essential three-disc set, The Before Trilogy.
Each is an extraordinary film in its own right, but viewed together they look even more remarkable. Not only is each sequel informed by what’s come before, they deepen the previous films. What’s said in one movie — and these are extremely, pleasurably talky films — takes on new meaning when we know what’s going to happen. Celine and Jesse change while remaining recognizably the same characters. Idealism gives way to disappointment and anger. As several observe on the set’s supplementary features, Before Sunrise sees Celine and Jesse amused by a testy German couple on the train. In the final film, they’ve become their own version of that couple. But if the films treat those sorts of changes as inevitable, it doesn’t treat it as tragic. Jesse and Celine’s age in each film creates restrictions for them — youth blinds them to the compromises they’ll have to make as adults, middle age responsibilities rob them of the freedoms they used to know — but they also push back against those restrictions. They interrogate the world around them. They challenge each other, sometimes hurting each other in the process, sometimes confirming their bond.
Linklater directed each film when he was just a few years older than the characters, which seems like a wise choice. They play like the work of someone with just enough distance from the phases in life they depict to have some perspective but still fresh enough to feel the ache of what it’s like to be in one’s twenties, or thirties, or forties, and the distinct pleasures and frustrations that come with each decade. (That Hawke and Delpy collaborated with him on the sequels’ screenplay no doubt helped that ache seem even more real.) Time brings an added poignance to these movies, too. The choices Jesse and Celine make in one film revisit them in the next and the people they once were haunt the people they become. We watch as they age together and what Hawke and Delpy do with body language alone tells a story. In Before Sunrise, they seem coiled with attraction. In Before Midnight, they have the ease of an old couple, but it’s an ease that melts away at an alarming pace.
Yet, a romantic sensibility informs even the films’ most clear-eyed moments. It’s ridiculous to think a chance meeting could produce love at first sight in Before Sunrise, and yet, how else to explain what happens? And how to explain what happens when they reconnect in the next film? Or even the final moments of the final entry, a moment when all might be lost, when Jesse’s vision of a world in which time has become fluid helps the couple reconnect and, maybe, rebuild. And, as much as time defines The Before Trilogy, letting us watch as the world shifts and our protagonists grow older, the film also defies time, preserving what it was like to be this age at this moment — and pressing those moments against each other to reveal how much has changed, and how much as stayed the same.
Fittingly, the set doesn’t skimp on the bonus features. Highlights include a conversation between Linklater, Delpy, Hawke and critic Kent Jones and Richard Linklater: Dream is Destiny, a full-length documentary about the director’s career that first aired as an entry of PBS’ American Masters series.