The Before Trilogy

by Glenn Erickson Feb 28, 2017

Who would have thought that a ’90s ‘slacker’ independent filmmaker would make such a strong romantic statement? Well, it’s not all romance in the old sense. In what must be a project of love, Richard Linklater examines the ongoing love life of Jesse & Céline, in three movies spread across eighteen years. The conversations flow as freely as do the cameras roaming through European back streets. Thanks to the commitment of Julie Delpy and Ethan Hawke, the in-depth relationship seems real.

The ‘Before’ Trilogy
The Criterion Collection 856
1995, 2004, 2013 / Color / 1:85 widescreen / 101, 80, 109 min. / available through The Criterion Collection / Street Date February 28, 2017 / 79.96
Starring: Ethan Hawke, Julie Delpy
Cinematography: Lee Daniel; Lee Daniel; Christos Voudouris
Film Editor: Sandra Adair (3)
Original Music: Fred Frith; none; Graham Reynolds
Written by Richard Linklater, Kim Krizan; Richard Linklater, Julie Delpy, Ethan Hawke, Kim Krizan; Richard Linklater, Julie Delpy, Ethan Hawke, Kim Krizan.
Produced by Anne Walker-McBay; Anne Walker-McBay; Christos V. Konstantakopoulos, Richard Linklater, Sara Woodhatch.
Directed by
Richard Linklater

Is any romance left in this world?  Filmmaker Richard Linklater was lucky to have the career continuity and the freedom to develop projects over time. Time is the key component of two of his most popular film projects, and each required uncommon commitment from his collaborators. The shooting schedule of 2015’s Boyhood stretched long enough to follow a child named Mason from birth through childhood, until he leaves for college. Actor Ethan Hawke returned to shoot with the boy for that entire time period. Time also figures in Linklater’s The ‘Before’ Trilogy. The director’s first films (Slacker, Dazed and Confused) took place in highly compressed ‘real time.’ Linklater retained that feeling of unbroken time for his first film in the trilogy, the story of two young people who meet on a train and fall in love.

Although 1990s students able to afford travel in Europe can no longer be called unsophisticated, Linklater tries to keep things as simple as possible. How do young strangers meet and fall in love? Silent filmmaker Paul Fejos tackled the problem in Lonesome (1928) and MGM and Vincente Minnelli gave it a try with The Clock (1945). There are scores of other good examples, each with its own agenda. Director Linklater wrote the first film on his own, relying on the chemistry of his actors to carry the show forward. It eventually became three movies spread across eighteen years, chronicling the relationship almost to the onset of middle age. Lucky for Linklater, his stars appear to click with each other. They definitely clicked with the film-going public. Although such a small independent film wasn’t in vogue in 1994, the succeeding pictures each picked up a couple of Academy Award nominations.


Before Sunrise begins on a Vienna-bound train, with two students on different missions. Jesse (Ethan Hawke) is burning up vacation time bumming around European capitals on a Eurail pass, trying to stretch his money. He’s supposed to fly home to the U.S. from Vienna the next day. Céline (Julie Delpy) is returning From Prague to school in Paris.  From the start they both seem interested in each other, but are cautious enough to take things in stages. Jesse talks Céline into de-training in Vienna long enough to spend some time with him. As he has no money for a room anyway, he proposes that they walk all night together and see the city. It would be a good experiment, he thinks: when Céline is twenty years older and stuck in some permanent arrangement, she’ll be able to remember ‘the other guy’ she spent some time with on a lark, way back when.

Linklater’s no-stress walk ‘n’ talk movie is also a ‘you are there’ travelogue, and perfect romance material. Flitting between discussion topics, Jesse and Céline prove equally glib and expressive, alternating between random subjects and cautious attempts to learn about the other person. Each is eager to seem experienced and open-minded. They register a heightened awareness of their presumed different aims in life, their different nationalities. They encounter various adventures on the streets, including a fortuneteller and a poet-panhandler. When Jesse angles toward accelerating the relationship — he only has a few hours — Céline is obviously interested. They end up at the amusement park with the giant Ferris wheel, where things get serious. Without exchanging addresses or phone numbers, they agree to meet again, at the same place, six months later.

Before Sunrise must be a very long screenplay, even if its dialogues are improvised. Jesse and Céline rattle on about everything that tumbles out of their minds, like two kids in a college dorm pulling an all-nighter. Céline admits that she wanted to get off the train with Jesse even before he tried persuading her. As for Jesse, he does have some depth beyond the pursuit of a quick lay. People that have memories of youthful encounters like this ought to treasure them, and one reason we like this couple is that they seem to appreciate the opportunity from the start. The show charmed its audience with its slow walk ‘n’ talk scenes through streets, and cameraman Lee Daniel manages a beautiful look that also seems as spontaneous and unplanned as Jesse and Céline’s affair.

The acting is fine. Ethan Hawke is appropriately green and faux-humble as Jesse, a guy on the rebound from a relationship, who doesn’t know if he’s found a sure thing.  Julie Delpy’s Céline is charming, forthright and adventurous, a pretty amazing combination. Their skill and Linklater’s direction partly erase the distinction between acting and reality… these kids really look interested in each other.  Amusingly enough, after all the dialogue about facing reality and being sensible, they decide on a risky, idealistic romantic gesture: let’s meet again in six months, here, in the same place. If our love is meant to be, we’ll both come back. It’s the same setup from the soapy romance An Affair to Remember, the kind that usually ends up with somebody being run over by a bus.


Much to the delight of the fans of Jesse and Céline, the film bore a follow-up with Before Sunset (2004), a slightly smaller-scale but more focused sequel that finds our young lovers crossing paths again nine years later. The scattershot getting-to-know-you conversations that made the first film resemble My Dinner with Andre this time give way to a more focused dialogue about love and sex. Now in their thirties, things have changed for the two. Having become a popular novelist with a book about a certain romance in his past (3 guesses), Jesse is giving a book signing in Paris when Céline shows up out of the blue. The meet is tentative, as she’s not even sure he’ll want to step out to talk with her. They find out what happened to their proposed six-month rendezvous, and we learn how their lives have progressed in the interim. Jesse has lost his baby fat but Céline if anything looks more trim and perfect than she did in the earlier century. He’s wrapped up in his writing while she’s now an activist for green causes. It takes quite a while to establish where they do or don’t stand romantically, as their feelings come out in dribbles and odd admissions — such as Jesse’s actual marital status. The liberated Céline keeps sending signals that re-igniting the relationship is desirable (at least in my read of the situation). The problem is that Jesse is due to fly out in just a few hours… they barely have enough time for a stroll to the Seine, a tour boat ride and a quick trip back to her apartment, a Parisian fantasy with affable neighbors and a cat in the courtyard. They’re getting more involved, not less… even though Jesse is now technically unavailable. How are they going to resolve this?

Written with Hawke and Delpy as well as Linklater’s aide Kim Krizan, Before Sunset pays off on the first film’s promise. It also appears to play out in real time… eighty brief minutes. While strolling amiably down yet more drop-dead perfect old-world streets, the couple dance around what is an unavoidable question — they were nuts about each other nine years ago, so what’s the story now? Older but only a little wiser, they barely disguise their attraction: any guy with any experience knows that when a woman starts talking about sex, even to establish her casual credentials of independence, an amorous opportunity is afoot. What makes this different than a simple pickup is the shared affection we have for people we ‘met’ a full decade before. Again, it seems real. As the actors no longer have to pretend to be relative newcomers to the mating game, they’re even more convincing. Paris is gorgeous, the people are pleasant, and Jesse’s excuses keep moving them closer to Céline’s cozy flat. No, the conversations aren’t high-toned philosophy, but they do resemble human talk. It’s like the flirtatious passages in an Eric Rohmer picture, minus the guilt. The reignited romance is at the expense of a woman we don’t see, and Jesse’s characterization of his home life is not to be trusted. Yet this is how life works. Are you married? Do you ever worry that your spouse might meet a lover from their past?


The third film Before Midnight must take a much bigger leap, to a time when Jesse and Céline are hovering near or just past the 40-year mark. They have had enough time together to realize that their life-patterns are taking their final forms — one can’t just flit one way or another anymore, as they now have real responsibilities that can’t be ignored. At first the show seems a departure from formula. The real-time experiment of the second film gives way to what seem conventional scenes with conventional cutting. They’re now married, with two young daughters of their own; Jesse has a son that lives with his ex-wife back in Chicago. They’re presently in Greece, as the guests of a famous author who likes Jesse’s three novels. A ride from the airport in a Rav4 (good choice, there) gives Jesse and Céline a chance to hash out their marital and child issues, that include resentments about each other’s role in the family. A pleasant dinner session with the writer and friends brings out their professional differences:  in the last nine years Jesse has had the space to be creative, while Céline has dropped her art craft and music to raise her girls. Then comes an outburst-confrontation that brings out all those resentments en voz alta, with sex mixed up in the middle. Neither partner is the type to hold back what’s on their mind. Their escalating antipathies burst the romantic bubble with a heavy dose of anger. When one’s life isn’t perfect, the first one to feel the pain is your spouse. Marriage is rough and when accusations and resentments get thrown about, even a relationship as free as this one shows its weaknesses.

Fans of the Before movies do what romantic moviegoers usually do, which is compare themselves to the idealized people on screen. This movie makes us think about the role of ‘open conversation’ in a long- term relationship. It’s important that partners get their feelings out, but there’s a fine line between honesty and seizing an opportunity to hurl petty abuse. Jesse and Céline get pretty rough, close to saying words that cannot be taken back. Some fans would rather the relationship have remained in the mode of starry-eyed flirtation games, but this final section gives the series needed weight. Neither spouse is really an ideal, as he is a self-satisfied author and she is too quick to protest that motherhood has squashed her potential As a great woman of green activism. The adult Jesse & Céline must hash out their differences, compromise and forgive.

What’s also nice is the way Before Midnight reveals that our couple shares the same relationship themes that plagued their parents and grandparents. They both look to their partners to resolve their selfish problems. Jesse fixates on his rotten treatment of his first family, but proposes to make amends at the expense of Céline’s personal desires. When push comes to shove Céline is most troubled by growing older and not feeling as spry or attractive as she once did. That makes sense, as she’s somewhat heavier all over while the unkempt Jesse looks a little lean but still rugged and vital. All of these problems are presented as specific to this couple and not some kind of universal condition, yet there’s plenty to identify with. Life disappointments and high expectations for kids are certainly identifiable themes. Jesse and Céline feel close to us now, if only because we’ve advanced eighteen years along with them.

Linklater’s Boyhood is such a remarkable experiment, studying real people over such a long period of time, that we hope that the Before series will come back for fourth installment — ‘Before Menopause?’ ‘Before ARP?’ Of course, that must depend on where Julie Delpy and Ethan Hawke are in nine years. I feel like I started with Hawke nine years before the first movie, when he was a pre-teen in Joe Dante’s Explorers (1985).

The Criterion Collection’s Blu-ray of The ‘Before’ Trilogy is a complete inside job, in that the filmmaker is a major contributor to the special edition. Richard Linklater’s pictures have been enjoying excellent special editions through Criterion for years now, and all three discs are packed with key-source content old and new. Linklater, Delpy and Hawke team for commentaries and discussions, and are also seen in two new featurette-docus, one of them produced on location in Greece. Dennis Lim contributes a video essay as well. A full list is just below.

Reviewed by Glenn Erickson

The ‘Before’ Trilogy
Blu-ray rates:
Movie: Excellent
Video: Excellent
Sound: Excellent
Supplements: New discussion featuring Linklater and actors Julie Delpy and Ethan Hawke, moderated by critic Kent Jones; Behind-the-scenes footage and interviews from the productions of Before Sunrise and Before Sunset; Audio commentary on Before Midnight by Delpy, Linklater, and Hawke; Richard Linklater: Dream Is Destiny, a feature-length 2016 documentary by Louis Black and Karen Bernstein; After Before, a new documentary by Athina Rachel Tsangari about the making of Before Midnight in Greece; New conversation between scholars Dave Johnson and Rob Stone about Linklater’s work; Episode of the radio program Fresh Air featuring host Terry Gross, Linklater, Delpy, and Hawke; Linklater // On Cinema & Time, a 2016 video essay. Insert essay on the trilogy by critic Dennis Lim.
Deaf and Hearing-impaired Friendly? YES; Subtitles: English (feature only)
Packaging: Keep case
Reviewed: February 26, 2017

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About Glenn Erickson

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Glenn Erickson left a small town for UCLA film school, where his spooky student movie about a haunted window landed him a job on the CLOSE ENCOUNTERS effects crew. He’s a writer and a film editor experienced in features, TV commercials, Cannon movie trailers, special montages and disc docus. But he’s most proud of finding the lost ending for a famous film noir, that few people knew was missing. Glenn is grateful for Trailers From Hell’s generous offer of a guest reviewing haven for CineSavant.

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