For a while, Richard Linklater’s Before trilogy had been sitting on my Letterboxd watchlist, but I’d never quite gotten around to watching it. That was until a few weeks ago when I put the first one on, on a whim. Then the second. Then the third. Quickly all three ended up on my list of all-time favourite films (even if my housemate doesn’t entirely share my opinion on them all).
The trilogy follows the relationship between Jesse and Celine, who meet on a train to Vienna. What, to them, seems like it’s only going to be one romantic night (with vague promises to meet again) turns into something more, something life-changing, as they reconnect nine years later at a book signing in Paris. These two chance encounters lead us to the trilogy’s conclusion, Before Midnight, where we re-join Jesse and Celine nine years later once again, as they holiday in Greece with their children.
Fair warning to anyone going into this film expecting the seemingly perfect romanticism of the first two: you will be sorely disappointed. Perhaps the greatest description of how these films differ comes from Ethan Hawke himself, who plays Jesse and was Oscar-nominated for his writing alongside Linklater and Julie Delpy for the last two films. According to Hawke, “the first film is about what could be, the second is about what should have been. Before Midnight is about what it is.”
And, I will admit, it is easy to see why this could be people’s least favourite of the trilogy. It lacks the same level of romantic escapism as the first two, and for the first half contains a much bigger cast of characters than expected; as a result, much of the film lacks the level of intimacy felt in the first two. Not to mention that a large proportion of the film is based around the growing tension between Jesse and Celine, as they grapple with the difficulties of divorce and parenthood. Furthermore, some of the choices made in how the characters are written in Before Midnight can also feel somewhat jarring, or even downright odd. The problems in their marriage seem to almost be reduced down to the question of gender; such as Jesse’s perceived disinterest in much of the everyday aspects of raising a family, being expected of him as a man. And that certainly feels very old-fashioned to say the least. Furthermore, Celine’s characterisation definitely feels like a downgrade – she seems less self-assured than in the first two.
However, I think the film still holds up, and works as an excellent conclusion to the trilogy – even if we hope that maybe one day, the characters will re-join for a fourth film. Because this is what the film’s strength is; as the closing act of a wider piece of cinema that serves as a reflection on love and the passage of time. The decision not to have a typical fairytale ending may seem frustrating, and even surprising, but it fits. After all, Linklater has never really tried to present them as a picture-perfect relationship, especially in Before Sunset where we find out not only that they didn’t meet in Vienna again as they had promised, but that both were in relationships of their own.
And sure, maybe some of the points that are put forward by Jesse and Celine in their arguments don’t necessarily sit quite right with us; it can even feel as if they have tried to simplify the concept of marriage down into a few nice soundbites. Yet is that not part of the magic of Linklater’s films? The appeal, at least to me, of this film is how it reflects on the development of their relationship over time. We get to see them change, from the slight naivety of the first night to them raising a family together. No one is making any ground-breaking statements about marriage, nor particularly exciting declarations of their feelings towards each other. It’s an argument that has probably been replicated in countless relationships. Because this is what makes Linklater such a fantastic writer and director. It’s his ability to capture so perfectly the dynamics between people and how time changes these; how people are changed by their experiences, and how this shapes the way in which they move through their lives.
The choice to have the film, and the trilogy as a whole, end in a messy, ambiguous way, is I think a great choice. It’s very easy for a film about romance to have a happy ending, or one devastatingly sad. And I’m certainly not disparaging films that do end in those ways. However, life doesn’t necessarily work in such a dichotomy. As much as we might like to dream about meeting our own Jesse or Celine on the train somewhere, this idealised version of love cannot last. And, really, there’s nothing wrong with that. Linklater manages to paint a picture of love that feels real, without sacrificing any sense of beauty or magic. It’s not rooted in the grand gestures, it’s in the little things (cliché, I know, but that doesn’t mean it isn’t true). It’s in the way both of them, from early on, feel at ease around each other; they virtually skip the small talk in favour of deeper conversations. It’s in the way that it’s Celine singing that confirms Jesse’s desire to stay. And it’s even in how they fight, and how Jesse tries to make things better, remarking that “if you want true love, this is it.” Watching their relationship blossom over the trilogy, it’s difficult to argue otherwise.
Thinking about the Before trilogy naturally brings my mind to Boyhood, another Linklater and Hawke collaboration. An epic coming-of-age filmed over the span of twelve years, at its heart it’s telling us the same things explored in these films. Boyhood doesn’t meander through major milestones, dwelling on birthdays, and new school years. It explores growing up through different vignettes over the years. Those big moments are important, sure, but they’re not what makes a person, they’re what makes a life. Sometimes it’s so easy to focus on what we think are going to be life-changing events, that we miss the little things. Linklater reminds us otherwise.
Before Midnight, then, beautifully and honestly draws Linklater’s Before trilogy to a fitting conclusion. As a meditation on love and relationships it reminds us that it’s not always plain sailing, but that this doesn’t erase or dampen our past experiences. One of the trilogy’s moments that has stayed with us the most is Celine’s monologue on when she’ll know she’s in love: “I think I can fall in love when I know everything about him”. This is what is at the heart of Linklater’s work; that to love someone is to know them. After all, is that not what we’re all looking for?