Tuesday, September 16, 2014

Why Richard Linklater's "Before" Films Are In My Top Ten Films of All Time

When your passion is film, people often ask you what your favorite movie is.  For me, that is like asking a parent to pick their favorite child.  Choosing a favorite is nearly impossible, but I do have a top ten list.  In college, my friends joked that Richard Linklater's Before Sunrise (1995) and Before Sunset (2004) were my litmus test for choosing boyfriends (they must have enjoyed or at least appreciated them). All kidding aside, these films, along with Before Midnight (2013), are superb enough to stand on their own; together, they masterfully explore time, aging, and relationships like few, if any, other films have.

I was too young to fully appreciate Before Sunrise when I first saw it, yet the film left a lasting impression.  At ten I was swept up in the romance more than anything else, but as I grew up, I realized the film was brilliant in its basic yet poignant point of view about love and life. Sunrise is about Jesse (Ethan Hawke) and Celine (Julie Delpy), who meet on a train in Europe and spend a night in Vienna talking, laughing, and falling in love.

The film follows the trajectory of an entire relationship: the initial awkwardness, an eager first kiss, conflict, romantic declarations, and the prospect of good-bye as Celine must return home to Paris and Jesse heads back to Texas.  Sunrise captures the joy and excitement of new love and it manages to express what it feels like to be young and full of hope and potential.    

At the Cemetery of the Nameless, Celine shows Jesse the gravestone marked Elisabeth that she remembers from years ago.  "She was only thirteen when she died. That meant something to me, you know, I was her age when I first saw this.  Now I'm ten years older and she's still... thirteen I guess." Time gradually becomes a third character in Sunrise.  Jesse recites a piece from W. H. Auden's poem As I Walked Out One Evening: "O let not Time deceive you, You cannot conquer Time."  The poem ends with Time marching on but its lovers departing.  Linklater explores how ephemeral life can feel through the eyes of Jesse and Celine.  Just like the young lovers in the poem, their enemy is time.

Sunrise ends ambiguously, as Jesse and Celine part ways but decide to meet back in Vienna six months later to resume their love affair since they don't want to keep in touch and let their romance fizzle over time; it is an impulsive agreement that could only be made by the very young.

If Before Sunrise celebrates the joy of meeting and connecting to someone, then Before Sunset is about regrets and second chances.  Jesse and Celine are now in their early thirties and their lives are not where they would like them to be; they are both unhappy.  Jesse has written a novel about his time in Vienna with Celine and is promoting the work at a Parisian bookstore.  When Celine comes to the signing, the two decide to walk around Paris together until Jesse must leave for the airport.  Their time together is finite, which adds a sense of urgency to the film.  That they are older now, also seems to raise the stakes.

We discover that because Celine's grandmother's funeral occurred on the day that she was supposed to meet Jesse, Celine regrettably never made it to Vienna.  Jesse did.  As the two catch up, it is as if no time has passed.  Jesse bemoans the fact that Celine was unable to meet him all those years ago because he believes their lives could have been very different.  Again, time was their enemy.  If Celine's grandmother had died a week earlier or later, days even, they may have been able to meet all those years ago.  Since the pair never exchanged phone numbers or last names, there was no way for them to get in touch.  Celine explains "...when you're young you just believe they'll be many people with whom you connect with.  Later in life you realize that it only happens a few times."

Sunset wonderfully expresses how Jesse and Celine have still retained much of who they were when we first met them, but that they have grown-up as well.  Both believed in true love once upon a time, but Jesse gave up on that kind of love when Celine didn't show up in Vienna and Celine hardened herself to other romantic possibilities when she lost her chance to reunite with Jesse.  Sunset is a more somber film than Sunrise, but it is still romantic.  By the time the couple end up back at Celine's apartment, they are willing to let their emotional walls down.  When Celine reminds Jesse that if he doesn't go he will miss his plane, Jesse simply says that he knows, but makes no move to leave.

As Before Midnight opens, Jesse and Celine are forty and have twin daughters.  Since they have spent the past decade living together, habits and tendencies that they once found charming or cute about the other, are now nuisances.  The love between Jesse and Celine still exists, but it is buried beneath responsibilities, monotony, and some built-up resentment.  They are both flawed and occasionally unkind to one other.  Midnight is one of the most realistic films ever made about marriage, though Jesse and Celine never officially tied the knot. While most romantic films are about two people finding love, Linklater, Hawke and Delpy dared to make a film about a couple working to stay in love; watching them struggle is not always pretty or easy.

When Jesse and Celine have a painfully believable argument in their hotel room, the scene is like its own play within the film; their conversation fluctuates from one issue to the next as it often does in real life.  Celine eventually leaves the hotel room in a fit of anger and Jesse finds her to try and reconcile.  He claims that he is a time traveler from the future sent by Celine's eighty-two year old self in order to save her from getting sidetracked from what really matters by all the petty nonsense of everyday life.  He assures Celine that he is still the romantic guy she met on the train years ago and that if she wants true love and not just a fairy-tale, then this is it.

The reference to time travel in Midnight makes the perfect bookend to the series, as Sunrise opens with Jesse using it to convince Celine to get off the train with him in Vienna. He tells her to imagine her life fifteen or twenty years from now: She is married and since her relationship doesn't have quite the same energy as it used to, she begins to wonder about all the men from her past and whether she would have been better off with one of them.  "So think of this as time travel from then to now, to find out what you're missing out on."  Nearly twenty years later, Jesse is the partner Celine has grown tired and unsure of, and he reminds her that even though their relationship isn't perfect, there is nobody better-suited for her.

Like Linklater's Boyhood, the Before films appear so effortlessly simple that it is easy to overlook their brilliance.  Their dialogue feels so true to life that it seems improvised by its actors.  In reality, these films are written very precisely because Jesse and Celine's conversations have to simultaneously be dynamic enough to keep the viewer interested, yet believable enough to keep their conflicts from seeming staged or overly dramatic.

Watching these films feels like putting on a pair of comfy slippers and spending time with old friends.  Hopefully Linklater, Hawke and Delpy will decide to revisit Jesse and Celine in 2022.  Until then, I will be waiting.

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