In 1995 Ethan Hawke and Julie Delpy first dazzled audiences with their subtle, wordy, and delightfully uneventful on-screen love story in Richard Linklater’s film BEFORE SUNRISE. In 2005 the pair would return once again as Jesse and Celine in BEFORE SUNSET. This time, they earned a co-writing credit as well as an acting credit. Finally in 2013, after almost 20 years, the third film BEFORE MIDNIGHT would be released, completing the trilogy for good. With this final installment, the unintentional Before trilogy has been established as one of the most moving, mature, and intelligent movie trilogies since Krzysztof Kieslowski’s Three Colors Series.
Directed by Richard Linklater, The Before Series is a brilliantly told 3 part story about connection and our endless search for it. In the first film, a young heartbroken American named Jesse has a chance meeting on a train with a Parisien student named Celine. The pair quickly develop a charming repartee. However, their time seems cut short when the train arrives in Vienna and Jesse must get off to catch a plane home the next day. In a moment of reckless inspiration, Jesse convinces Celine to get off the train with him and what ensues as the night unfolds is best described as enchanting. Though all three of these films are heavily dialogue-based and relatively uneventful, the audience is never bored. With incredibly charming and idiosyncratic performances from Ethan Hawke and Julie Delpy, shots that feel simple yet intimate, and an endearing script, these films are easy to watch, incredibly romantic, and heartbreakingly profound pieces of art.
After finishing his first two features, SLACKER (1991) and DAZED AND CONFUSED (1993), which both contained a large ensemble cast, Richard Linklater was eager to try his hand at something smaller, yet he didn’t know what. One night while he was visiting his sister in Philadelphia, he stopped by a toy store. In the store he started talking and flirting with this woman and eventually asked her out. They proceeded to spend the whole night together, walking and talking. At one point, he told her “I want to make a film about this. Just this feeling.” This was the inspiration for the first film. He elaborated on this to the New York Times in January of this year “That’s really all it was trying to ever capture- that rush of meeting someone and that undercurrent of flirtation and romance.”Linklater also told the New York Times that for casting he was “looking for two creative partners. [Linklater] wasn’t looking for just two pretty faces.”
With this goal in mind, he began the casting process and very early on, he found Julie Delpy. She was already a star in France with an impressive resume, including her work in the Three Colors Series, but had yet to break into the American film industry. After he’d chosen her to play the role of Celine, he started looking for Jesse and eventually called Ethan Hawke in for an audition after seeing him in a play. Ethan Hawke was a very popular actor at the time, starring in major hits like REALITY BITES (1994).
Although Julie Delpy herself first told the director that the script was too boring because of how dialogue heavy it was, many people believe that the trilogy’s script is its strongest quality. It is at once intensely personal and philosophical. While every word and overlap was scripted, the dialogue feels natural and improvised. To achieve this for the first film, Kim Krizan and Richard Linklater wrote together for 11 days. What they came up with was referred to more as a “template” for the film rather than a strict script. Throughout the filming process, they continually edited the script and collaborated with the actors to achieve the spontaneous feeling. This process repeated itself for the other two films, this time with more writing by the stars. Because of this process, watching all three films together is quite a powerful experience. As the creators got older and wiser to the nuance of true love and romance, their stories started to reflect that wisdom more and more, creating a very sophisticated portrait of love and relationships.
Another extraordinary element in the making of these films is the camera work. Using long shots (most over ten minutes) and very simple shots, Lee Daniel and later Christos Voudoris, create the same feeling of immediacy that you get from a film that takes place in real time. The unique use of long takes make the audience feel as though they are walking around with the characters and the choice of a smooth camera rather than a shaky handheld one adds to the romantic ease of the films and the smooth dialogue of the characters. This feeling of a real-time story is Linklater’s specialty. With projects like BOYHOOD (2014) and DAZED AND CONFUSED, there is the same sense of urgency that is present in this series. In fact, if he were to make a mastercut of all three movies, it might feel shockingly similar to BOYHOOD in the way that the actors age in real time as the story progresses.
Despite its major success now, the series didn’t start out with a lot of support from the audience. The first two only grossed around 5.9 million dollars domestically and another 17.2 million internationally. Though the first film premiered at the Sundance Film Festival, it did not win any awards there. It did however earn some other international and domestic awards including several nominations and a win for directing at the Berlin International Film Festival. The second film garnered a nomination at the Oscars and the Independent Spirit Awards for its screenplay and was nominated by many Film Critics Associations around the world. The final film earned 21 awards and 59 nominations around the world, including a nomination for best screenplay at the Oscars and for best actress at the Golden Globes. I think we can all agree that this series deserved more. Linklater is a very talented writer/director and this duet cast is a phenomenal creative and collaborative effort in every one of these films.
Because of films like these and of course, BOYHOOD, Linklater has to be one of the most interesting contemporary indie director’s working today. The way he takes ordinary life and seemingly banal conversations and makes them interesting is phenomenal. He looks for the spaces in between the big moments in our lives. He doesn’t write complex or inventive stories but rather makes ordinary stories complex and inventive. In this way, he engages us with our own lives and our own realities. In addition, much of his work and especially this series, is intensely present. There is an emphasis on the immediacy of life and of human connection. One of Celine’s lines in BEFORE SUNRISE perfectly sums up Linklater’s unique attitude towards directing:
“You know I believe if there’s any kind of god, it wouldn’t be in any one 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,”
When thinking about why these films have remained relevant and profound throughout these past 25 years, I was reminded of a scene in the first film. The couple is walking along the river when they meet a street poet. He asks them for a word and insists that with that word, he can write a poem for them: “If you like it, I mean if you like my poem, and if you feel it adds something to your life in any way, then you can pay me whatever you feel like.” The couple agrees and soon hears the poet recite a beautiful ballad about connection and love. This trilogy feels to me like that poem. It feels spontaneous and perhaps a little silly at times but it is a beautiful ballad that will, without a doubt, add something to your life.