What to Watch this Valentine’s Day : The Before Trilogy

A case for why the "Before" trilogy is as romantic any melodramatic depiction of love on screen.

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In a world where romance on screen is sold to us from a young age, we are rarely offered anything but a mix of well-known clichés. A movie that escapes this pattern can teach us a lot more about relationships than dozens of Disney films, rom-coms, and melodramas. Richard Linklater’s Before trilogy stands apart because it is not only a story about falling in love – it is a story about loving.

It all starts in Before Sunrise (the first installment of the trilogy) with a young American (Ethan Hawke) spotting an alluring Frenchwoman (Julie Delpy) on a train. They enjoy their conversation so much that when the train stops in Vienna, they get off together so that they can continue it. Then every nine years (by way of a new Before film) we get another glimpse of their lives and observe how this conversation has evolved. As Roger Ebert put it, these movies prove that our minds are our most erotic organs. 

Before Sunrise (1995) delights us with its authenticity. The story of Jesse and Celine is romantic primarily because it feels real. When they stand in a music booth, casting uncertain glances at each other, we feel their nervousness as if we were there with our crush. When they talk about parents, death, their first time, God, or gender roles, we relate to them because we are reminded about our own ‘deep’ conversations. Their hesitant gestures of affection seem as if they had butterflies in their belly, partly wanting to have a try, partly being afraid of rejection. And when Celine and Jesse make their goodbyes, the intensity of the moment is tremendously overwhelming. As a simply shot film, Before Sunrise proves that ‘normal’ movies with no excessive means of expression can have much more profound impact than even the greatest melodramas. 

Before Sunset (2004) is just like its predecessor, but better. Jesse and Celine are no longer young, full of hope and naïvety, and their relationship is more psychologically complex. They meet in Paris during the promotion of Jesse’s book, which is about a night spent in Vienna with a pretty Frenchwoman (sound familiar?), nine years after they last saw each other. The pressure of their approaching farewell is even more tangible this time around because Jesse needs to catch a flight back to America in an hour. There is an underlying sense of bitterness and disappointment that colors their discussions of life experience, a sentiment which is reinforced when they realize that Celine studied in New York at the same time Jesse lived there. How many times could they have run into each other? The thing is, they didn’t– a fact that makes us painfully aware that, on the most basic level, our lives are ruled by coincidences. That’s why when you meet a person on a train with whom you have an instinctive connection, you’d better take a full advantage of it, because such things don’t happen often. 

Before Sunset teaches us that relationships aren’t perfect, but are rather full of hidden emotions, unspoken words, moments of uneasiness, and disappointments. It is only in Before Midnight (2013) that this message takes on a whole meaning. In Before Sunset, Jesse wasn’t satisfied with his marriage and Celine was deeply resigned when it came to her own romantic relations. At the end of the film, when Celine says, “Baby, you are gonna miss that plane”, and Jesse acknowledges it with a simple “I know”, audiences were left with a smile on their faces as wide as Jesse’s own. But by the end of Before Midnight, we question if there is such a thing as ‘the right person’. The ultimate point of the movie is that a relationship is not like a supermarket where you can find everything that you need to satisfy your needs. No matter how amazing the other person is and whatever you do, there will always be problems, and resentment, and tears. 

Although each part is an excellent piece on its own, Before Sunrise, Before Sunset, and Before Midnight work best as a whole. There is an elaborate interplay between the three films, and subtle cues take on  new meanings when examined through the lens of the entire trilogy. The story of Jesse and Celine touches us deeply because it makes us realize that even love stories that begin as wonderfully as theirs are subject to the wear and tear of daily life. Linklater pays tribute to a reality in which there is no ‘happily ever after’ only a hard continuous struggle to make things right. 

At this point, you might be wondering how someone could argue that this story is among the most romantic in existence. The trilogy doesn’t sell us another idealized fairytale about love– it offers us something better instead: raw emotions, authenticity, and relatable troubles. It challenges delusional images of love to show that a relationship is a living organism that needs attention and work. “If you want true love, then this is it,” Jesse tells Celine, “This is real life. It’s not perfect but it’s real, and if you can’t see it then you’re blind.” As demonstrated in all three movies, conversation is the key to building a true relationship, and conflict – its inescapable element – can serve as a means for reassessment and  betterment. The Before trilogy is romantic because Linklater reaffirms our belief in true feeling and makes the case that real love is worth the effort. The three movies are embodiments of three different components of love – passion, intimacy, and commitment – and they ultimately show us that love is a constant process, as changeable as evolution.