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Richard Linklater's 'Before' Trilogy is As Good As Cinema Gets

By Petr Knava | Film | September 20, 2016 | Comments ()

By Petr Knava | Film | September 20, 2016 |


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Aside from spending a fair amount of time on this site tormenting people with my word-vomit, one of the other ways I like to while away the hours of my free time is with a bit of drink-… drawing. The trouble is I never get anything finished, and I rarely get anything started. The reason for the latter is simple enough: I’m a lazy, commitment-phobic bastard. The reason for the former is slightly more nuanced. I’ve heard it referred to as ‘fear of the blank page’ — that strange neurosis that jams the frequencies in the part of your brain responsible for getting shit even started for fear that the finished product may be so damming in its imperfection that a null result would have been in fact preferable. Curiously this fear is far easier to conquer than it is to bring the task to completion. Case in point, this scribbled portrait of Lemmy found in a sketchbook of mine:

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It’s been in that state for months. I’ll probably never finish it. But you see that slash of hair coming from Lemmy’s hat on the right hand side? That was the first mark of the pen. Careless and unrefined. That is how I spoiled the blank page and allowed myself to even begin to do any work. The pristine canvas was no more. I wasn’t hewing David out of the featureless marble; the marble was already shaped, I would just improve it. Some work at least could now be done.

There’s a reason I lead with such a colossal preamble: when I decided to write a little bit about just how good I think the Before trilogy is, and how much it means to me, the fear of the blank page was so goddamn overwhelming that I spent nigh on two months in a constant cycle of — ‘Right, time to tackle this shit’ -> *sits down, looks at title, runs away from computer to get drunk* -> ‘Goddamn it, man! You’re writing about something you love! Should come as easy as raising a pint!’ -> *sits down, looks at title, runs away from computer to get really drunk* — etc. etc. etc. It’s only then I realised that a drunken preamble could spoil the blank page, and thus allow matters to proceed. And so here we are.

The long and short of it is: It’s my sincere opinion that, when taken together, Richard Linklater’s Before series — consisting of, so far(!), 1995’s Before Sunrise, 2004’s Before Sunset, and 2013’s Before Midnight — constitutes one of the greatest achievements in the history of American cinema. Citizen Kane; Casablanca; Godfather: Parts I&II — I have zero reservations about casting it as one of equals among such a starry firmament. This is, of course, a lofty and fundamentally subjective position to take, but as the good doctor Hunter S. Thompson would say: ‘With the possible exception of things like box scores, race results, and stock market tabulations, there is no such thing as Objective Journalism. The phrase itself is a pompous contradiction in terms.’

So damn it all to hell, in short. I’m about to gush all over this motherfucker.

(And obviously spoilers, of sorts, abound).

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Before Sunrise is, for those who don’t know, the story of an American man — Jesse, played by Ethan Hawke, and a French woman — Céline, played by Julie Delpy — who meet, by chance, on a train travelling through Europe. They strike up a conversation and, sensing a spark, decide to spend one night wandering aimlessly through Vienna before Jesse’s flight the next morning. Enjoying each other’s company in a Situationist-style dérive, they talk at length about philosophy, love, politics, and anything else that comes to mind. As the night progresses they become increasingly aware of not only their mutual, growing attraction, but also of the near-miraculous nature of their meeting and connection, which in itself becomes a recurring or underlying theme of their talks. Despite this interpersonal electricity, they agree that it would be childish and naïve for two people who live a world apart to even pretend that they could stay in touch and meet again, let alone then make things work. Somewhat hesitantly, and not entirely convincingly, they decide that the best course of action is to make the most of their only night together, and then enjoy the bittersweet memories later in life.

As dawn all-too-quickly breaks the next morning, however, Jesse and Céline find that despite their best intentions a deep and incredibly meaningful connection has been formed. In a frantic minute before Céline’s train leaves they confess that they absolutely must meet again. Hastily they agree: In six months’ time, at the very same train station where they say farewell, they will meet again, at 6pm. At the time of the film’s release, it was left entirely up to the audience to decide whether or not they believed that Jesse and Céline would indeed reunite; whether only one of the two would show up; or indeed whether their words and good intentions would be scattered by the winds of distance and routine and neither would show.

As is often the case with the best pieces of art, Before Sunrise was born out of real experience, and if we were to follow the thread from fictionalised narrative back to the real-life occurrence that spawned it, we would arrive back in the waning weeks of 1989, and to a young Richard Linklater just fresh off shooting his breakthrough debut, Slacker — a meandering, humanist, and assured debut. The native Texan was travelling home from New York, dedicating one night en route to visiting his sister in Philadelphia. That is where he met, by complete chance, a woman named Amy Lehrhaupt. Their paths crossed in a toy shop, and they ended up spending a wonderful night, in Linklater’s own words, ‘walking around, flirting, doing things you would never do now.’ Inspired by this fleeting but poignant moment, Linklater felt compelled to somehow capture the feeling of such a small and yet huge experience, and he began to formulate an idea for a movie. Ideas bouncing back and forth in his head, he soon realised that as virtually the entire screenplay would consist of just a dialogue between a man and a woman, it would be vital to have a female voice along as a co-writer (thus putting him leagues ahead of many, many screenwriters working today, over twenty years later). He approached Kim Krizan, who had had minor roles in his previous two movies. Linklater has since said that Krizan was a natural choice as he, ‘loved the way her mind worked - a constant stream of confident and intelligent ideas.’ Together they worked up the script for a movie that remains a small miracle to behold. Before Sunrise is an effervescent and joyful exploration of youth, love, and hope. It lets play out that most simple and fundamental of stories: Person meets person. In this case, girl meets boy. And though the exact natures and backgrounds of these people does mean that the demographic of humanity represented is quite a specific one — white, straight, cis, middle class — I think that the way their story is presented allows it to communicate, at its core, something very fundamental and universal about human nature.

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When we first meet Jesse and Céline they are just two kids adrift in a foreign land. Gently nudged together by chance and guided along by their openness to new experiences, they are romantic creatures — albeit ones also already smart enough to know that the world doesn’t always facilitate your dreams and desires. They are neither ciphers, nor narrative tools, but as fully developed humans as it is possible to see onscreen. Yet despite this they remain nonetheless, in the very real sense, literary constructs. As such, do they ‘represent’ anything? As reductive as it would feel to narrow it down to one thing that Jesse and Céline might represent in Before Sunrise, if it had to be done then the answer would be found in observing how they move and talk. With their every word and movement they reveal the sun-kissed, fragrant immediacy of the present moment, as well as the infinite horizons that seem to stretch out before them. These are the twin pillars of youth. Jesse and Céline are its avatars. Intellectually restless; hungry for new knowledge; for shared experience and a connection; for a second set of eyes to observe what you observe and to talk of it, to describe it, to assess it and grant it meaning — the kind of all-consuming impulse to live that seems to fade, or at least change irrevocably as you age. Jesse and Céline are emblematic of so much of what makes youth such a roiling, vital time.

The discursive, tangential, and confessional dialogue that makes up the vast majority of Before Sunrise — and the series as a whole — is some of the very best in cinema. Meticulously constructed, but coming across like a first-take improvised conversation, it is an impeccable script, and it is to the eternal credit to the young actors that they deliver it so adroitly and naturally, seeming to live it from the inside out. In a movie like this it would seem like a particularly crass and reductive task to single out an individual line as favourite — like plucking out a thread from a great tapestry — but having re-watched this series again recently, I feel the need to shout from the rooftops my adoration about one line in particular, sanctity be damned. Jesse, talking of his childhood and his nice-if-indifferent parents who eventually got divorced:

I remember my mother, she told me right in front of my father that he didn’t really wanna have me. That he was really pissed off when he found out that she was pregnant with me. You know, that I was this big mistake. And I think that really shaped the way I think. I always saw the world as this place where I really wasn’t meant to be. [: Céline: That’s so sad.] Well, I mean, I eventually kind of took pride in it. You know, like my life was my own doing. Or something. You know, like I was crashing the big party.

Okay, I lied. There’s another one. Céline:

I believe if there’s any kind of God it wouldn’t be in any of us, not you or me but just this little space in between. If there’s any kind of magic in this world it must be in the attempt of understanding someone sharing something. I know, it’s almost impossible to succeed but who cares really? The answer must be in the attempt.

Here’s the thing, though, see: I quoted one, and immediately felt the need to quote another, and now I have to fight the urge to quote more. The tapestry is of a piece. It exists to be experienced in its totality.

As if the admiration for the two young leads’ delivery of the script wasn’t enough, Julie Delpy revealed just this year that Ethan Hawke and she, ‘basically re-wrote all of it. There was an original screenplay, but it wasn’t very romantic, believe it or not. It was just a lot of talking, rather than romance. Richard hired us because he knew we were writing and he wanted us to bring that romance to the film. We brought those romantic ideas.’

If Before Sunrise has another central theme apart from youth, it would be the conflict between romanticism and realism, and the blurring of the edges between the two so often contrasted ideas. Nine years after the first movie, Richard Linklater and his two collaborators would return with Before Sunset to explore this fully.

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Julie Delpy, Ethan Hawke, and Richard Linklater workshopping Before Sunset

The idea for a sequel germinated organically and gradually between the three principal architects. Delpy and Hawke appeared as Céline and Jesse in a short segment in Linklater’s rotoscoped existential meander, Waking Life. The experience of returning into these characters’ skins really drove it home for the actors that they were still out there somewhere, alive. Cognizant of the huge risks involved in returning to this narrative, the trio nonetheless got to work, with Delpy and Hawke this time onboard as writers from the get-go. Time after time the two have recounted how so often one would write lines for the other’s character. I find this to be an extremely revealing detail. Céline and Jesse grow as Delpy and Hawke do; the latter pair knowing both of the former inside out, and more and more as the years go on. The most cutting barbs or insightful, playful insults would often be written by the actor on the receiving end.

Nevertheless, despite this rock solid foundation, the move to make a sequel was a huge leap of faith, as all three were more than aware. The risk of not delivering was greater than simply putting out a sub-par film. The blunder would reach back in time and taint what came before. It was a stroke of genius to end the first movie like it did. It enmeshed itself with the viewer’s brain, organically merging with the imagination therein. When the sequel finally came out, I remember sitting down to watch it, cold sweat practically beading on my skin. The movie opened in Paris, Céline’s hometown, and here was Jesse, nine years after we left him going for a flight in Vienna. Here he was, a successful author on a book tour, fielding questions from adoring journalists in the famous ‘Shakespeare And Co.’ book shop. Against our best intentions our hearts started to quiver with anticipation: Is Céline with him? If not, where is she? Did he turn up at the train station in Vienna six months after leaving Céline? Did she? It turns out the book he is promoting is exactly about that night, albeit slightly fictionalised. The journalists have the same questions we do. Jesse’s evasive, and the journalists, acting as audience surrogates have split beliefs about whether or not the two characters in his book met again. Brief flashback shots from Vienna pepper the scene and tug at our heart strings like nothing else.

And then my personal contender for the most powerful sequence of shots in the entire series. In some ways they are the nexus of the entire story. Gesticulating emphatically while talking to the crowd, Jesse briefly glances to his right, and there…

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I start to well up a little bit just seeing that.

The two take a walk; once again their time is limited as Jesse has a plane to catch. They immediately reconnect, and so do we with them. All trepidation at returning to these people evanesces in the bright Parisian daylight, and we are overjoyed at being in their company again, hungry for news as much as they are. It turns out that Céline lives in Paris, and Jesse wrote his book partly on the off-chance that he could somehow meet her again. And slowly the truth comes out: Jesse did return to the train station in Vienna, and while Céline did not, it was only her grandmother’s death that prevented her from doing so. The two, now older and living in a different age to when they met, rue their youthful foolishness in not exchanging any contact information. They bring themselves up to speed on their respective lives: Jesse is married and has a young son; Céline is an advocate for the environment and has a boyfriend. Both express much that they are thankful for and happy with in their lives, but also enough that they are dissatisfied with. What is so immaculately put across here is how these are absolutely the same people we met a decade ago; they have just been through enough that their edges have been sanded down or roughened, or otherwise altered. Their cores remain the same, and Delpy and Hawke could not be better at portraying two people coming together again, years after a fateful juncture. Life went one way, but it could have just as easily gone the other way. Like its protagonists now, Before Sunset is a more bittersweet story than the one that came before — tinged with realism and coloured by compromise and experience. Before long Céline and Jesse find themselves in Céline’s flat, Céline playing guitar and singing and Jesse gazing at her adoringly. He has a plane to catch. She tells him he’s gonna miss it, and the screen fades to black in one of the greatest endings in cinema. Before Sunset displays colossal confidence in ending in much the same way as Sunrise: on an emotional cliffhanger.

It’s also a movie that continues the breathtaking technical achievements of its predecessor. It’s an interesting thing to note that in one way, movies built around dialogue are a close relative of action movies, in that they both thrive with the use of the long take. Movies like The Raid and Ong-Bak, as well as Jackie Chan’s entire pre-Hollywood back catalogue, make great use of long takes to allow the audience to really appreciate the choreography and get a sense of the space between the main players. Great dialogue works much like a great fight: You should always have a good sense of where each participant is in relation to each other — in dialogue this means the physical space, as well as the emotional; with the two being often intertwined via body language etc. — and you should be able to witness the changing rhythm and progress of the interaction. In the Before series, Richard Linklater and his DP Lee Daniel (and Christos Voudoris for the third movie) do the long take better than almost anyone, with Céline and Jesse bantering back and forth, moods and topics shifting just like in real life, their physicality telling just as much of a story as their words. Before Sunset has the longest in the series thus far. Eleven minutes. That’s just a staggering amount of work, almost impossible to pull off, but oh so necessary in bringing us into the emotional space between Céline and Jesse. Their life now established as basically independent of the screen, it became almost a moral imperative that a third movie would at some point — ideally after another nine years — come out.

Sure enough, in late 2011, Ethan Hawke near enough gave a cast iron guarantee when he said that he, Delpy, and Linklater were feeling the need to revisit the characters again. There is a sad note to the proceedings here, however. In 2010, Richard Linklater found out that Amy Lehrhaupt, the woman with whom he had spent one magical night with in Philadelphia and since had no contact with, and who had inspired Before Sunrise all those years ago, had died in a motorcycle accident prior to the movie even reaching the cinema. For a filmmaker so sensitive and so dedicated to the often bittersweet nature of the passage of time and mortality, it is difficult to imagine just how much this would have affected Linklater.

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Before Midnight, released in 2013, is our most recent dip into this remarkable cinematic project. The movie opens — how else? — with a conversation. Céline and Jesse are driving through Greece, twin daughters in the back seat, and a deluge of information brings us up to speed as to where we find them. Jesse is still a successful novelist, still slightly immature, but caring as always. His son lives in Chicago with his ex-wife, and he worries about his connection with him. Céline is on the cusp of taking a job for the French government, and she is just as insightful and quick-witted as ever. Age has lined their faces and subtly morphed their voices. The two effervescent and eloquent kids we met in Vienna all those years ago are still in there — their presence clear in the bursts of imaginative chatter breaking up the pragmatic discussions and itineraries — but time has irreversibly marked them.

The third movie in the series is perhaps the most distinct of the lot. Though it is once again composed primarily of dialogue filmed in luscious long takes, it breaks things up a little bit by a) introducing more characters for a substantial portion of the narrative, and b) having our couple engage in an honest-to-god, serious fight.

The remarkable thing about Before Midnight is that it makes these two innovations work so incredibly well in service of further developing Céline and Jesse’s ever-evolving relationship. They are not put in there just to self-consciously vary up the form. Each one knows the other almost better than they know themselves, and having more people for an extended conversation around a dinner table really allows this to be apparent, without seeming forced. Their interaction with each other mutates slightly, as it does with all couples, from when talking alone to when others are around. It is clear that they are still very much in love, but there is an almost brutal realism to Before Midnight. Never once does it offer any easy answers. The fight that breaks out in a hotel room that their friends have paid for them for one night is a natural consequence of these people’s needs, wants, hopes, and fears — as well as the friction that will build up occasionally between any two individuals, no matter how in love or in tune. Jesse, geographically unbound as a novelist, worries about his relationship with his son and would like the whole family to uproot and move to Chicago. Céline sees this as a selfish move and refuses to be baggage without a chance of forging her own life. The two delve deep into the nature of their relationship, and they do not shy away from getting ugly. Knowing another person this well means having a devastating arsenal, ready to be deployed for maximum damage. The whole scene is written, staged, and performed with bewildering skill. It is harder to watch than most horror movies or pulse-pounding suspense scenes. It understands that a well done conversation between two well-developed characters can be the most gripping thing in the world.

At the height of the argument Céline leaves the room, leaving Jesse sat there. She goes to sit out in the hotel’s outdoor restaurant. Jesse eventually joins her. Feeling the need for reconciliation he jokes about being a time-traveling version of himself from the future, bringing a letter saying how, despite what it may seem like now, this night is one of the best of their lives. On the surface Céline is not amused, but Jesse does not falter. They sit together, awkward silences alternating with a frank assessment of where they are. Is this what they had hoped for? Did they picture this? Is the imperfect nature of it all a sign that at least it is real? Céline eventually joins in with Jesse’s joke and it appears that reconciliation is in the cards, but we cannot really be sure. The end. Impossibly, the trick is employed again. We are left hanging, the outcome left up to our interpretation, and acting as a litmus test for what we believe to be true about these people and about life.

Jesse and Céline are glorious cinematic creations with whom I have been completely in love for a good percentage of my life. That is only possible because they appear to exist outside of the barriers of their narrative. It is a hallmark of well-written, naturalistic characters that it feels like when we observe them in a story, we are just being privileged to zoom in on only a particular slice of their time, before and after which there is far more that we do not see. Richard Linklater and his two co-writers and stars have, over the past twenty years, performed a sort of miraculous redefinition of the concept of cinematic characterisation. Not only can we imagine Jesse and Céline existing outside of the confines of one movie, they essentially prove again and again that they basically do. They exist in the space between their creators’ imagination and the flux of our hopes and dreams. By returning to Jesse and Céline nine years after Before Sunrise; and nine years again after that — all the while managing their growth so believably — it has almost completely demolished the notion of the two being fictional creations at all. For all intents and purposes they may as well be good friends of ours, who live their lives, ups and downs, independently of us, and who we get to see once a decade. There is a sublime evolution to them. The kind that, were you to observe in real life, would appear unremarkable. But it is precisely and paradoxically its verisimilitude that makes it special. As Sartre said, in the telling of its story, even a most banal life becomes spectacular. I can’t think of a story I’d want to hear more of than the shared life of Jesse and Céline.

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Petr Knava
lives in London and plays music





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