I’m new to the whole ‘Before…’ trilogy. I understand that I’m probably the one in a million who hadn’t seen any of the parts, but it is a truth I can’t hide from. Back in 2004, when the internet was abuzz of talk over ‘Before Sunset’ and critics were raving Julie Delpy’s performance and the Oscars were nominating its screenplay I was under a rock. Well, to be completely honest, I wasn’t under a rock as much as I was too lazy to want to watch ‘Before Sunrise’ and there was no way I was going to watch a sequel without watching the first film. So this year I finally buckled. With all the critical praise for ‘Before Midnight’ I knew that I was going to eventually HAVE to see this movie, and so I Netflix’d ‘Before Sunrise’ and ‘Before Sunset’ and had myself a ‘Before…’ marathon. Yes, I got up early this morning and watched the first two films and then got in my car and sat in a theater and indulged in the conclusion to this romantic trifecta (or is it?).
In all honesty, I’m still semi-processing the whole thing, but I really don’t think one can talk about one film, especially ‘Before Midnight’, without at least addressing the others. The films are so interconnected despite being about so many varying themes and subjects. Quite honestly, other than the two main characters these films don’t really speak the same language and yet they feel so interconnected.
What I think is so great about this series is that, experienced as I did today (back to back to back), the films play out like a complete relationship. You have the initial meeting in 1994 on a train through Europe. These two people, Jesse and Celine, meet rather spontaneously, share a meaningful ‘chat’ and then decide to spend an entire day and night roaming Vienna and getting to know one another. Then you have their chance ‘re-encounter’ ten years later in 2004. Much like the infamous ‘Love Story’ (better known by its 1957 remake, ‘An Affair to Remember’) one of these lovers missed their six month rendezvous, which caused them to be separated for ten years before they are reunited when Jesse is on a book tour through Europe and happens to stop over in France, where Celine is from. In the latest film you have this pair, now nine years into a serious relationship complete with twin girls and Jesse’s son from his previous relationship. The glowing romance is stripped away and the reality of love and life has set in. In the beautiful way in which Linklater and company have shot these films, we get to see these snapshots of a relationship in such a full and complete way, and while separately some work stronger than others, together they create a beautiful whole.
They take you from fairytale love affair to realistic adventure to tragic reality, all parts of which contrast and complement in ways unexpected.
I don’t know if this speaks to the cynic in me, but I feel as though ‘Before Midnight’ truly stands out as the most impressive of the trilogy. It felt the most honest and earthy, and while ‘Before Sunset’ certainly felt more organic and natural, there is something emotionally stirring about ‘Before Midnight’ that I just can’t shake. It is the only film in the trilogy that reduced me to tears (several times) and since I’m one who reacts more favorably to having my emotions played with, it is only natural that this conclusion be the film I appreciate the most.
More so than any of the others, ‘Before Midnight’ feels very mature. With ‘Before Sunrise’ it felt like an indie variation of the classic romantic comedy. It used big words and long sentences and political, sexual and controversial subtext to set it apart and make it ‘relevant’ and yet recycled clichéd themes and situations in order to remain part of that world. It felt very fairytale like, which is something I enjoyed and yet also felt somewhat disconnected to. ‘Before Sunset’ moved us forward somewhat with a more honest interpretation of this kindled love, and taking these characters from the initial meeting to only their second time together (yet with so much extra worldly baggage on their shoulders) it made their connection feel more secure, more rooted and honest. Their verbal exchanges, while equally as long, diverse and weighted, felt easier to digest and felt more comfortable on their tongues. They were older, wiser and more trustworthy. But, with this third outing, Linklater takes us out of the fairytale and into the real world. He draws from a darker place and gives us a real look at a fractured relationship and plays to the idea that NO relationship is free from complication. Whereas the first two films romanticized the whole experience (even the disagreements were charming), ‘Before Midnight’ confronts us with a more savage underlining of subtext.
I was not expecting this at all, but it was a welcome surprise.
Some may baulk at this assessment, but for me this was Linkater at his most Bergmanesque. It was reminiscent of what Woody Allen attempted to do with films like ‘Husbands and Wives’ or ‘Interiors’ and yet this actually feels more connected to Bergman’s world than either or those films. I kept calling to mind ‘Scenes from a Marriage’, which is one of my favorite films of all time. The conversational quality of the whole exercise is so enthralling; one can’t help but be completely swept up in it all. What makes this film so efficient and so affecting is that is couples the same ease of language and chemistry that was honed and perfected over the course of the series and adds that needed edge of tension that makes this film feel more enlightened, more important.
Both Jesse and Celine are flawed individuals. Unlike Allen’s ‘Husbands and Wives’, this never felt like a one-sided conversation. Even moments where it could be perceived as such (especially when Celine becomes overly agitated and defensive) are diffused by the nature of the film. This is a mere conversation; a heated one, but a conversation and so the natural recoil of affection and plunge in defensiveness is expected. The way these two circle the subject of their relationship is so effortless.
Yes, if one were to try and point a finger than the dinner table scene which featured a scenario straight out of ‘Tyler Perry’s Why Did I Get Married’ felt a tad forced and obvious and could have been stripped from the film itself, and yet it all felt so natural given the moment in the film. It felt like part of a whole, but still I was glad to see it end.
This trilogy works best when its sole focus in on the two leads. They play off of one another so beautifully that one can’t stop looking at them. While I was initially put off by Hawke in the first film, he completely won me over in ‘Before Sunset’, and while he is extremely effective in ‘Before Midnight’, it is Julie Delpy who completely owns this particular film. Her progression of character and ease of performance are a rarity in cinema and something to marvel over.
So, as a whole I must say that I really like this trilogy. I don’t love it, although these are films that I really MUST watch again and I have a feeling that over time I’ll become more and more effected by them as separate entities (since right now I’m having a hard time viewing them on their own and not as part of a larger whole), and then again they are films that I could easily begin to pick apart and criticize. I think that the singular nature of the film itself lends itself to that kind of reaction. By confining your focus to singular conversations, you are leaving yourself open to varying opinions on those conversations and viewpoints and thus you are going to stir passion, either for or against your film. I could listen to these films all day long, and in fact I’m almost tempted to keep ‘Before Sunrise’ and ‘Before Sunset’ on loop while I’m at work this week just to soak in every word.
As a whole, I’d rate this trilogy an A-, mostly on the strength of the final chapter. Individually (and this fluctuates by the minute), I’d give ‘Before Sunrise’ a B-, ‘Before Sunset’ a B+ and ‘Before Midnight’ an A, verging on an A+, but I’m hesitant to call this a masterpiece just yet.
As for Oscar potential, I firmly feel that ‘Before Midnight’ is snagging three nominations; Best Picture, Lead Actress and Adapted Screenplay. I don’t think it has much of a chance in any of the other categories. The editing is nearly non-existent and the cinematography, while strong, isn’t showy enough to snag #1 votes. Linklater could get in with the directing branch if passion for the film continues and later in the year releases fail to impress, but the field looks strong and his easy work, while commendable and certainly award worthy, won’t hold up against flashier work by more respected auteurs.