Richard Linklater’s Timeless “Before” Trilogy


Boyhood is my favorite film of the year and that doesn’t seem likely to change. The inspiring experimental film was, in many ways, a diary for Richard Linklater as a writer and director, the movie equivalent of a hand-scribbled height chart in your child’s room. Boyhood may be about Mason’s coming-of-age, but it’s also a portrait of Linklater’s growth as a director (and Patricia Arquette and Ethan Hawke’s maturation as actors). While it’s certainly a more ambitious undertaking, Boyhood encapsulates what Richard Linklater has done his entire career: exploring the vast notion of time and what it does to people and relationships (do people really change?).

Early in his career, Linklater made “A Day in the Life Of” his own sub-genre thanks to Slacker and Dazed and Confused. After that, came Before Sunrise, a film that serves as an ideological prequel to Boyhood.

This is precisely why I desperately needed to see Before Sunrise and its two follow ups, chronicling the lives of Jesse (Ethan Hawke) and Celine (Julie Delpy). And so, over the course of one day, with a break for Oktoberfest beer, I watched them all with a friend I made in Munich. If he had a vagina, we might’ve actually lived out Before Sunrise, but instead we settled for traipsing through the snow en route to the Neuschwanstein Castle, each wishing we were falling in love with a German chick rather than making a dorky friend who shared career aspirations and the heart of a hopeless romantic.


Within seconds, Before Sunrise became THE movie I desperately wished I had seen before I backpacked around Europe. Of course, maybe it would’ve had me wandering listlessly, hoping for a movie romance to happen to me on a train, or make me try too hard whenever on public transportation, and gotten me arrested. Not everybody can be like Ethan Hawke. Scratch that: nobody is like Ethan Hawke, Richard Linklater’s frequent collaborator. When Jesse traveled through Europe, he “wanted to be a ghost. Anonymous.” Instead, he met Julie Delpy. Pretty good for a ghost.

Before Sunrise is the ultimate fantasy, at least for a romantic who loves to travel: meeting the man or woman of your dreams on a train during your last day of Europe. Celine is en route back home to Paris; Jesse is heading to Vienna to fly back to the States. After an absorbing conversation, it was time for Jesse to say goodbye. It’s not the only time Celine and Jesse will have to say goodbye…but it’s the first time they refuse to say it. While most of us would’ve come off as a serial killer, Jesse’s charming pitch wins Celine and EVERYONE over:

From there, the two explore Vienna, chatting and getting to know each other. Before Sunrise is 105 minutes of conversational bliss. It’s a series of philosophical questions and observations that it’s clear Linklater, Hawke and/or Delpy were grappling with at the time. They discuss reincarnation, their parents, dreams, love, sex, everything important.


Much of it is the kind of snobby talk you’d have at dinner tables with your professor (do people actually do that?), or are the kind of conclusions one would make after smoking a blunt. But I was a rapt audience, finding myself compelled by every diatribe these characters went on:

OK, well this was my thought: 50,000 years ago, there are not even a million people on the planet. 10,000 years ago, there’s, like, two million people on the planet. Now there’s between five and six billion people on the planet, right? Now, if we all have our own, like, individual, unique soul, right, where do they all come from? You know, are modern souls only a fraction of the original souls? ‘Cause if they are, that represents a 5,000 to 1 split of each soul in the last 50,000 years, which is, like, a blip in the Earth’s time. You know, so at best we’re like these tiny fractions of people, you know, walking… I mean, is that why we’re so scattered? You know, is that why we’re all so specialized?

All the while, I kept thinking to myself: I didn’t do justice to Vienna. I was only there for a couple days, and spent it sick, coughing through Mozart’s Le nozze di Figaro. Before Sunrise is what I wanted Europe to be. There’s an alternate universe where I’m married to a French girl and live in Paris.

Of course, Celine and Jesse could’ve been anywhere. Vienna was just the (picturesque) backdrop of their connection. Linklater paints a dreamy picture of Vienna, to be sure: locals invite you out, bartenders give you free wine, and the Viennese variation of a bum only asks for money in exchange for on-demand poetry if it has any value. They’re hipsters, with talent.

While you can forgive Celine and Jesse because…sex/wine, they violated a primary tenet of foreign travel. When they arrive, strangers to the city as well as to each other, unsure what to do now that they’ve both made the leap (“This is a nice bridge.”), they ask a couple of Viennese locals what they should do. These two courteous, funny gentlemen reveal that they’ll be performing in a play, in which one of them PLAYS A COW. And they don’t go. This would be a travesty, except Ethan Hawke finagles a bottle of wine as foreplay instead during the appropriate hour.


Over three movies spanning eighteen years, no chemistry has felt more genuine, no relationship felt more real. It causes me physical pain and much consternation that Julie Delpy and Ethan Hawke somehow aren’t lovers in real life. This can’t be acting, can it?

Both Jesse and Celine are kind of annoying in the way self-absorbed teenagers with a lot of things to say and a soap box to stand on would be. There’s a preachy element to their speech; they’re each selling themselves to each other, to the audience, and most importantly, to thine own self. They don’t know what the fuck they’re saying, and they’ll probably regret or change their mind about most of it, but there’s truth in that. Before Sunrise is an unvarnished look at adolescence. They don’t hold anything back from one another, or us.

It’s a story that’s been done so many times in film, but maybe never better than here. It’s a film about two people who just want to be kissed. It makes you think of everyone you’ve ever met, or should’ve met, or almost met. Or didn’t ask out; didn’t try to kiss.


In many ways, it’s a filmic intellectual precursor to Dawson’s Creek. These characters talk about sex way more than they actually have it. They consistently try to rationalize their situation (is love ever rational?), their relationship and argue whether sex would make it all easier, or harder, or how they should say goodbye the next morning. Celine wonders aloud: Why do we make things so complicated? You know you’ve caught onto some universal truth when you’re speaking in Avril Lavigne lyrics before they happen. When Jesse and Celine finally succumb to their overwhelming carnal desires, Linklater cuts away. We don’t even know for sure if they do it. If we don’t see it, it’s easier to rationalize the whole night away like a dream: “But then the morning comes, and we turn back into pumpkins, right?” The film and its characters are fully aware of the fairy tale-like proceedings they’re living through. Except it doesn’t end happily ever after. Before Sunrise ends how these things tend to: too soon, with an awkward goodbye and false promises. It hurt, but feels right, and possibly even more romantic.

Before Sunrise is what Garden State was like when you were fourteen, except it’s still that good. Jesse doesn’t run back off the train and stay in Vienna with Celine. The movie doesn’t pick up at the Charles de Gaulle airport in Paris, with Jesse surprising Celine.

Instead, their story ends…until nine years later in Before Sunrise. Now in 2004, Castle Rock Entertainment has a real logo, and Celeste and Jesse are shocked to be 32 years old. Jesse’s visiting Paris, on the last stop on his book tour, promoting a novel that fictionalizes Jesse and Celeste’s eternal encounter. It’s the kind of fuzzy meta stuff that could collapse a lesser movie or inferior director. Instead, it’s mined for conflict and trauma in Before Midnight.

[Sidenote: I just realized that Rashida Jones and Andy Samberg’s Celeste & Jesse Forever HAD to be influenced by the Before series. They’re names are way too similar. Of course, its themes are more in line with Before Midnight than any other, a film coming after its 2012 release.]


Before Sunset takes place in Hawke’s meth addict looking phase, and like last time, Jesse has to go to the airport again, his last day in Europe before returning home. Celine is in a long term relationship, and Jesse is married with a kid. They smoke cigarettes. The actors have aged, but they’re more assured of themselves, badge-wearing adults thanks to bitterness and a shared sense of “how the fuck did we get HERE?”

The two strike up another movie-length conversation, this time tinged with regret, nine years after the world’s greatest one night stand. Life has gone past, and it’s clear neither of them are as happy as they used to be. Jesse and Celine had planned to meet in Vienna, and they never did. Or at least, Celine never did.


They’re older, more vulgar and immediate. At one point, Celine references “getting high and sucking cock,” in a sexual conversation that wouldn’t feel out of place in Clerks. (Linklater, Smith and Tarantino are the Mount Rushmore of independent filmmakers that treat dialogue as plot). Celine claims not to even remember that they had sex, adding another level to the dream-like quality of their encounter in Before Sunrise. But she’s just lying to herself, and Jesse and Celine stop lying to each other in this one. Jesse sees their second kismet meeting as an opportunity to change their sad ending, to reboot their existence.

This movie isn’t as magical or special as Before Sunrise, but that makes sense. This time it’s more purposeful and no less truthful. Celine remarks, “I guess when you’re young, you just believe there’ll be many people with whom you’ll connect with. Later in life, you realize it only happens a few times.” They learned that the hard way.

“Baby, you are gonna miss that plane.” Mmm-hmm.


While Before Sunset has the happiest ending, it’s probably the least effective film, the drawbridge from first kiss to not-so eternal bliss. Nothing trumps falling in love, and that’s what makes Before Sunrise so memorable and magical. The harsh reality of falling out of love is what makes Before Midnight so hard and tortured, particularly after seeing Celine and Jesse grow old together (and apart). Before Midnight is the most realistic movie, maybe even the best one, but the Dawson Leery in me will always prefer Before Sunrise. There’s a timeless nature that is lost in the sequels. There were no photos or selfies taken of any kind while Celine and Jesse wandered Vienna, whereas Before Midnight has Celine and Jesse taking photos on their phone and driving their Toyota RAV 4 (each Before movie has a bickering car conversation; the films are littered with self-referential moments).


Before Midnight takes place in 2013, when Celine and Jesse are both 41, living in Greece. They have two kids of their own; Hawke’s Jesse looks haggard from trying to look young and not really succeeding. He’s drained by dropping his son off at the airport, flying back home to the states to his Mom. He can’t keep doing this (but you get the sense that Linklater, Hawke and Delpy could keep doing this the rest of their lives).

What we learn, heartrendingly, is that Celine and Jesse can’t keep doing this. Their vacation on the Peloponnese is ending, and the honeymoon phase of their relationship has long since finished.


During their stay, Celine and Jesse found themselves opposite parts of three couples. One is a young and handsy couple, like how they were with each other in Before Sunrise, except they Skype one another to keep in touch. The other is a bickering and working relationship much like Celine and Jesse, except their lives aren’t fractured by the two impossible to live up to touchstones of Celine and Jesse’s lives. Then there’s the older Natalia, a widow, talking of the transience of life, a summation of the Before trilogy’s thesis:

In 30 years, Natalia would be the one surviving member of Jesse and Celine, living out her life without the other, in the super sad 2042 Best Picture nominee Before Death. Each couple we see in Before Midnight are a glimpse of the past, present and future of Jesse and Celine.


Before Midnight shows how soulmates can fuck us up, positing that friendship and work is more important than love. In a precursor to a vitriolic argument that tears at the viewer like a Sarah McLachlan puppy commercial, Celine baits Jesse: “Would you pick me up on a train now?” And from there, everything turns to shit (“I fucked up my life because of the way you sing.”). After all, the red in Jesse’s beard is gone, and it’s what made her fall for him in the first place. Is there anything else left in the other to fall in love with?

Before Sunrise opens with a loud, blustery, bickering couple on a train. Celine, trying to read a book, moves away to another compartment, fated to sit nearby Jesse. Now Celine and Jesse are that argumentative couple, shaming any other guests staying at their hotel. It gets ugly, from passive-aggressive to abruptly final, like the climax from an Edward Albee play.

Before Midnight (2013)Julie Delpy and Ethan Hawke ON SET

“I know what’s going on here. It’s simple. I don’t think I love you any more.”

Maybe she knew what Ethan Hawke would look like at the Before Midnight premiere:

Julie Delpy, Ethan Hawke

But thankfully, it’s not that simple.

Jesse joins Celine with a letter from a time traveler, a reference to Jesse’s infamous romantic plea on the train in Before Sunrise:

Think of it like this: jump ahead, ten, twenty years, okay, and you’re married. Only your marriage doesn’t have that same energy that it used to have, y’know. You start to blame your husband. You start to think about all those guys you’ve met in your life and what might have happened if you’d picked up with one of them, right? Well, I’m one of those guys. That’s me y’know, so think of this as time travel, from then, to now, to find out what you’re missing out on. See, what this really could be is a gigantic favor to both you and your future husband to find out that you’re not missing out on anything. I’m just as big a loser as he is, totally unmotivated, totally boring, and, uh, you made the right choice, and you’re really happy.


Jesse and Celine had become that couple lacking the same energy it used to have. But, perhaps, their self-awareness can save them, a glimmer of hope in a gut-punch of a classic. Richard Linklater’s Before trilogy is like time travel, especially if you absorb them over the course of a single day, from sunrise to midnight. We transport from 1995 to 2013 in a flash, and see how the world and people changes, if they ever really do. Celine and Jesse are the same immature, idealistic people who met on the train, but now they’re getting tired of the act.

As I wrote in my Boyhood review, “Linklater has dedicated his career to exploring the maxims of the coming of age genre, to subverting it and relishing the fact that no matter where we’re from, when we’re from or how old we are, we’re all perpetually coming of age. We’re all looking for meaning and direction in a world that lacks it. Growing up doesn’t have a universal scale, or barometer, and never stops.” To a boy like me, that’s inspiring.


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