Sunday, December 15, 2013

Before Sunrise, Before Sunset and Before Midnight: A Love Story Told in 18 Years

Warning: this review contains spoilers.

Most romantic stories only take a couple of hours to reach a happy resolution and rarely does the viewer get a chance to revisit the characters a few years later. This is not the case of Celine and Jesse, the protagonists of the nineties cult film Before Sunrise.  At a time where most romantic films follow a predictable formula and many viewers may feel manipulated with plot elements they’ve seen again and again: airport tension (analyzed in detail here), contrivances and misunderstandings, the trilogy of Before Sunrise, Before Sunset and Before Midnight is absolutely refreshing.

What’s different about this trilogy is that each of these films take place in the course of one day. All three movies use dialogue (and the passage of time) to move the story forward, they all have beautiful European scenery and the characters must make a decision by the end of each film. What’s also unique is that each film in this trilogy is produced at a nine year interval. Therefore, the characters have grown (in many cases with the audience) and their lives have entered different stages of life with their subsequent problems. I’ve never seen a trilogy that more realistically portrays life and love as these films have done.

But let’s start from the beginning, in this case: Before Sunrise (1995). Some call this a cult film. Well, I’m here to confess that I’m a member of this cult! I’m convinced that one of the reasons this story had such an impact on me was because I was at the same stage in life as these two main characters. Therefore, it was easy for me to identify with them. I mentioned in a recent post how much I admire simple stories (because it’s the opposite of what I write). Well, it doesn’t get any simpler than Before Sunrise.

Celine and Jesse falling in love in 1995

Celine (Julie Delpy) and Jesse (Ethan Hawke) are two passengers on a train to Paris. Jesse, an American, strikes a conversation with Celine, a French girl who is returning home from a trip to Budapest. The couple become quickly engaged in their talk and obviously attracted to one another. Jesse convinces Celine to get off the train with him in Vienna, where he’s supposed to catch a plane the next day to the US, arguing that in twenty years, when she’s stuck in a dull marriage, she would be wondering what would have happened if she’d picked another guy. Well, Jesse argues, this is her chance to realize that he himself (aka, “another guy”) is not that different from her future husband. Amused, Celine agrees. They spend an entire day and night walking and talking around the streets of Vienna, both knowing that they will have to say goodbye by sunrise, when Jesse has to get on his plane. Now, I know that I had mentioned “airport tension” as a cliché in fiction. However, this is real airport tension as opposed to the sudden (and very overdone) decision of one of the characters in any random romantic comedy to move to another town causing the love interest to realize he/she is about to lose the love of his/her life forever.

In Before Sunrise, the deadline is established from the very beginning and being that the story itself—their conversations and actions—are treated very realistically, we know that it’s unlikely that the film will have a fairy tale ending (though the audience may be hoping for one!)

There is, really, no plot other than how a couple falls in love and what they are going to do about it come the end of the day. But being in my early twenties at the time the film came out, I must have been its perfect target audience. For me, their conversations were absolutely engaging and reflected some of my own thoughts and concerns about relationships and life in general. The film’s ending is open ended and it takes us nine years to know what really happened.

Fast forward to Before Sunset (2004) where we encounter Jesse in Paris. He’s become a successful author and is having a booksigning of his first novel, which was inspired by his fortuitous encounter with Celine in 1995. Well, who lives in Paris? None other than Celine, who has read the book and goes to the bookstore to meet Jesse. The couple resumes where they left of nine years prior. Although they’ve both reached different stages of their lives—he’s married and has a son, and she’s an independent professional—the attraction between them remains the same and not just on a physical level. Much like in 1995, they still have a lot to say as they walk along the streets of Paris, clarifying to the viewer what really happened after the open ending of Before Sunrise. The question here remains the same, will Jesse take his plane back to his wife and kid by sunset? Again, watching the couple’s banter is most entertaining, especially because the issues they now discuss are not the same as when they were twenty-something idealists who thought they could change the world.

Things are not so sunny and cheerful when Celine and Jesse meet again in 2004

This year I had the pleasure of watching the third installment of this love story, Before Midnight (2013). Again, the characters here mimicked my own stage in life with preteen children and marital quarrels. Yet, there was still a little bit of the magic of previous films in the way Celine teases Jesse as they walk along the Greek countryside during a family vacation. But there is a deadline here too—something has set off a possible breakup and a decision is about to be made before midnight. During the day, we’re exposed to the realities of their lives beyond the romanticism of the previous films and their breakup seems like a realistic possibility as the bumps in their marriage are slowly revealed.

Perhaps the most admirable trait of these films is the character consistency. Although it’s obvious that both Celine and Jesse have grown, their personalities remain the same (and so does their banter). I have often been disappointed with sequels or soap operas where the characters become unrecognizable by the end, but I was happy to see that this wasn’t the case here. Another strength of the trilogy is the dialogue. Unlike many romantic comedies where the dialogue is sometimes contrived and serves the plot (ex: artificial fights and misunderstandings) the dialogue here is actually engaging. I find it interesting that both Ethan Hawke (a writer in addition to being an actor) and French actress Julie Delpy co-wrote the second and third films with director Richard Linklater. Well, who would know those characters better than the actors performing them?

Will Jesse and Celine make it?

Now for the films’ down side. I don’t think the sequels would appeal to viewers who haven’t watched the first one. Whereas Before Sunrise can be a stand alone film, I don’t think the other two could do the same. (Correct me if I’m wrong!) It seems to me it would be similar to watching a soap opera or drama series halfway through. The other thing is that these films seem to have a small, niche audience. I’ve often wondered if the first film would have the same appeal to me now as it did when I was in my early twenties.

For those who have watched one or all the trilogy, do you think the audience’s age affects the perception and appreciation of these films? Did you mind their open-endings? Would you like to see Celine and Jesse again in nine years?

Ethan Hawke, Julie Delpy and director Richard Linklater writing Before Sunset.

18 comments:

  1. I have never seen the movies but must admit I'm curious about them. A love story film serial - a bit suprising that no one seems to have thought of it before. It's interesting, too, to see in the context of Ethan Hawke's career path since DPS. He's made quite a decent living in the cult films and indies.

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    1. Forgive my ignorance, but what is DPS?

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    2. Oh, yes. I had forgotten he was in that film!

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  2. I haven't seen the last one, but, man, I love these movies. The dialogue is so spot on and I appreciate the open endings. I'm going to get the last one tonight and watch it.

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    1. Please come back and tell me what you think! I've been dying to talk about it with other fans!

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  3. How terribly unique. I've never seen anything like this, and I might have to go burn a few hours...when the kids are busy, that is. =)

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    1. "I might have to go burn a few hours...when the kids are busy, that is. =)"

      I fully support that idea! Let me know what you think of them.

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  4. These films seem very familiar. I must have seen the first one. It's a refreshing change for a romance, relying on dialogue to move the story along. I don't think they would appeal to a wide audience though. And you'd need to see them in order.

    Great discussion.

    Happy Christmas !

    Denise

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    1. Merry Christmas to you too! (And continue to enjoy your trip!)

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  5. I am a fan as well, for similar reasons: it felt like a more glamorous version of my own life there on the screen. I'd even completed a European traveling tour not too long before the movie released, with some time in Paris, though unfortunately no Ethan Hawke was there for me. I haven't seen the third installment yet but I am really looking forward to it ... and yes! I definitely want to keep seeing these movies come out every decade or so.

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    1. Funny. I also went to Europe around that time (I saw the movie a few years after it was produced) so the whole train-traveling/meeting new people experience appealed to me. I read that they decided to set the film in Vienna because when people travel they're more open to new experiences and doing crazy things, like spending the entire day with a stranger in an unknown city!

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  6. I've seen the first two films and wasn't aware there was a third one until now. I love the first two! The storytelling is unique and I like how the audience gets to see this relationship at different times. I wasn't quite as old as you when the first one was out (I was still in high school), but I saw it a few years later and was fascinated by the simplicity of the storyline and how it all happens in one night. Those are hard stories to write!

    Maybe we should have a viewing party! :)

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    1. "Maybe we should have a viewing party! :)"

      Great idea! I would definitely watch it again!

      I have to say, Sister Mary, that I was surprised that you liked these films. I didn't think you liked anything remotely romantic! ;)

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    2. What?? I like some romance as long as it's good! (Sorry that Love Story doesn't make the cut :) )And, I must say, these are pretty good films for that kind of thing...

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    3. I don't know if I'll ever get over your Love Story hatred, ha!

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  7. I'm glad I dug up this post under all the posts that have come up on the dashboard since then because I loved reading it. Partly because it was so well-written and partly because I know you and your journey through story. I also loved Crystal's comment in response. :)

    In answer to one of your questions, I think it would be great if Celine and Jesse came together again in nine years. It seems the fan base and the journey they've taken so far warrants it. I've never seen any of the films but knowing that they've left such a positive collective impression on an intellect I admire as much as yours is a huge point in their favor.

    Linklater directed Dazed and Confused. Did you watch that one? (Random question but I thought of it when I read that portion of your post.)

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    1. I've never seen Dazed and Confused, but now that I know it's the same director, I want to see it!

      Let me know if you ever watch Before Sunrise, but honestly, I'm more saddened that you never saw the Story of Us with me. :'(

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