Richard Linklater’s “Before Trilogy” – consisting of “Before Sunrise” (1995), “Before Sunset” (2004), and “Before Midnight” (2013) – is quickly becoming one of the cherished trilogies in all of film history. Collectively, the films tell the story of Jesse (Ethan Hawke) and Celine (Julie Delpy), two star-crossed lovers who, after a pair of chance encounters, build a life together over the course of almost two decades. The trilogy is an intense musing on the nature of life and love, chronicling not only the relationship between Jesse and Celine as they age from young adults to middle-aged parents, but also studying how certain settings and times affected their relationship and society in general.
Using Linklater’s signature “dialogue first, plot second” style, these three films are essentially nothing more than a series of conversations that take place between two different people in three different periods of their lives. And yet despite this lack of traditional narrative, the films combine to tell a cohesive story thanks to the use of other elements to illustrate how the characters have changed over time.
For example, perhaps the most prominent feature of the Before films is that each of them takes place in a different European city, settings which contribute to much more than just the aesthetics of their respective films. “Before Sunrise” takes place in Vienna, which, being the hub of culture and art that it is, is a vibrant city that attracts young people to its hip and exciting landscape. The city is full of life, and it is the perfect setting to convey the excitement of Jesse and Celine’s supposed one-night stand. Paris is the setting for “Before Sunset,” which is a more refined and romantic city than Vienna. Love and romance flourish in every corner of the city, from the bookshop where Jesse is holding his signing to the café and water taxi where he and Celine reconnect to the quaint apartment building in which their lives together begin. And Greece, with its ancient ruins and political and economic turmoil, could not have been a better environment for “Before Midnight,” since it explores the dynamics of a relationship that very well may have run its course. The constant threat of revolution in the country manifests itself through the turbulence in Jesse and Celine’s relationship, which has, in Celine’s words, turned into a “ticking time-bomb.” Using historical and cultural context, Linklater utilizes the settings of the films extremely well to help tell his story, each city giving a unique and unmistakable undertone to its respective film.
Just as important as where the films take place, though, is when they take place, which reflect the social and political landscapes of their respective times. The world changes tremendously during the eighteen years during which the story of the Before Trilogy takes place, and Jesse and Celine both adjust to perpetually shifting cultural tides, which has massive consequences on their relationship.
“Before Sunrise” undoubtedly contains a tone of hopefulness and optimism that is not just the result of the young lovers’ naïvety. In the mid-1990s, the world’s major economies were booming, the energy crisis was over, the civilized world was in a state of relative peace following the Persian Gulf War. Looking back at the films and other cultural offerings of the time, it’s obvious that this feeling of optimism was widespread, and “Before Sunrise” is no exception. Jesse is a natural cynic to an extent, of course (while Celine tends to lean toward the romantic side), but it’s a cynicism without bitterness or anger; by and large, life in 1994 is pretty good, and Jesse and Celine both know it.
By the time the couple meets again in Paris nine years later, however, the world has completely changed: 9/11 and the War on Terror have had a colossal effect on the way Jesse and Celine perceive the world and the people in it in “Before Sunset.” In a way, the events of the previous decade have caused their attitudes to flip-flop: Jesse, who was the cynical one in the first film, chooses to latch onto the good that he sees in the world with a cautious optimism, while Celine has become utterly disenchanted with the world, becoming angrily bitter as she does everything she can to be the change that she wants to see in society. Perhaps this is the result of the differences in how the American and French media presented the events of 9/11 and its aftermath, or maybe it’s simply how Jesse and Celine each naturally responded to the situation. Either way, it’s a definite shift in their personalities that likely would not have occurred had it not been for these pivotal events in world history.
In fact, in “Before Midnight,” these shifts have festered and grown, aided by the fact that the world has only become more politically and economically unstable since the events of “Before Sunrise” almost ten years earlier. The wars in the Middle East have become bottomless pits of money spent and lives lost, while the Western world’s biggest economies have simultaneously collapsed. Violent revolution has become a constant presence throughout the Middle East and northern Africa, and even European countries like Italy and Greece (where, not coincidentally, the events of “Before Midnight” take place) appear as though they could erupt in violence in any second. The world is almost the complete opposite of what it was when Jesse and Celine met in Vienna back in 1994; hope and optimism have been replaced with frustration and despair, and these cultural attitudes are paralleled in their relationship. Celine is burnt out and exhausted as she struggles with the realization that her job as an environmental activist is heeding zero progress, and she, at least in part, internalizes those frustrations and uses them as a metaphor for her stagnant dynamic with Jesse. Jesse, for his part, seems to have given up all interest in the world and its affairs, happy to just sit back and let whatever happens happen, an apathetic attitude that he in turn has adopted in other aspects of his life, as well. In these ways, Jesse and Celine’s respective personal reactions toward a world that has become turbulent and, in some ways, oppressive have partially led to the collapse of their relationship, which could be interpreted as a metaphor for the collapse of economies and governments across the globe.
The biggest question to take from all of this is whether or not Linklater, Hawke, and Delpy intended for the Before Trilogy to be a metaphor for the shifting political, economic, and cultural tides of the world, or if it was simply a natural and inevitable result of the structure of the series. They have maintained for years that there was no set plan in place for the films; in fact, there was no clear intention to make a sequel to “Before Sunrise” at all back in 1994, nor, of course, could the trio of writers have foreseen what the world would be like in ten years as they were making each film, which lends itself to the latter explanation. It seems as though the shifting dynamics of collective culture simply guided the films all on their own, making the Before Trilogy just as much a sociological and anthropological endeavor as it is a study on the dynamics on relationships and aging.
Whether intentional or not, the fact remains that the Before Trilogy says a lot more about the world over the past two decades than initially meets the eye. If, in nine years, another installment in the series is to come, there’s no way to even begin to guess how the events of the next decade will shape Jesse and Celine’s ever-evolving relationship. It’s this cultural depth that has, in part, made the trilogy an instant classic and one of the most critically-acclaimed series of films ever.
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