It difficult for a film trilogy where each film gives the same level of satisfaction to its fans. If you were to plot on a graph each trilogy in terms of critical reception, you would find reoccurring charts as there seems to always be that one film that let the series down. Sure, you have trilogies like The Lord of the Rings or Sergio Leone’s spaghetti western trilogy that some can argue deliver everything to fans, but usually, fans of the series have a favourite film they can identify. I thought that this was just a natural part of a trilogy, you would always have your preferred choice in a series, but one trilogy defies that logic to me, and that trilogy is Richard Linklater’s masterful Before Trilogy.
Consisting of Before Sunrise (1995), Before Sunset (2004) and Before Midnight (2013), The Before Trilogy is a romantic comedy series that follows the relationship between Jesse (Ethan Hawke) and Céline (Julie Delpy) from when they meet on a train heading to Vienna, to a chance encounter in Paris, to dealing with married life on a holiday in Greece.
In life, there is no soundtrack. When we fall in love, it is not as plain sailing and star crossed as many romantic films make it out to be. It is hard, stressful, but in the end, extremely rewarding. Romance films are exceptionally good at bringing out the emotions we feel when we’re in love in an overdramatized way, they also make the genre exciting to work in, however, we all know that this is not like real relationships. The Before Trilogy is not like ordinary rom coms because the focus of these films is to show you Jesse and Céline in the moment and all the enjoyment and hardships it brings. In other words, show you want relationships are really like.
These films take the romantic comedy genre and throw the rules out of the window by letting the audience be like a fly on the wall observing two people falling in love. You go through all the emotions that you would associate with being in a relationship just by watching these two characters interact, it is sweet, romantic, and at times, awkward but in a good way. Let’s take a cliché from a typical rom-com such as the first intimate encounter and see how the Before Trilogy uses it. What would normally happen in a typical rom-com? Maybe characters staring into each other’s eyes while music plays in the background before being suddenly interrupted? Well, the first intimate encounter for Jesse and Céline is in Before Sunrise where they listen to a record in a listening booth. This scene is one of my many favourites throughout the series because it is awkward for the characters and it’s awkward for us to watch. The two are very close together, having not been in each other’s company for too long, they can’t make eye contact with each other out of embarrassment and the scene itself is one long take so we never miss a moment of their intimacy.
Ethan Hawke and Julie Delpy have the best natural chemistry of any rom-com couple in any film, that in turn is the result of fantastically written dialogue. Any film where it has heaps of dialogue can get tedious to watch after a while because we have to take in a lot of spoken information that isn’t often supported by visual information, but The Before Trilogy throughout all three films have such interesting conversations about love, relationships and life in general. The conversations just seamlessly flow making these films, that have little to no action, feel so alive because it feels very spontaneous, it also follows the formula of how real conversations are structured. For filmmakers, these films are a fantastic study in dialogue done correctly and how to make it a valuable driving force.
So much is talked about how the main two characters and their dialogue is the concrete that holds these films together, but I believe there is a lot that can be said about the locations of these films. What I’ve noticed in each film is the locations take on the role of providing meaningful symbolism and metaphors that build upon Jesse and Céline’s romantic attachment to each other as well as them as individuals. Take the palm reader and homeless poet in Before Sunrise, they act as clever ways to enhance the spontaneity of young love. In Before Sunset, a tourist boat that travelers often avoid becomes the site of an insightful conversation about the prices to pay when it comes to relationships.
One thing you might have noticed about the years of release for each film I listed before, is that there is always a nine-year gap. This is quite infamous detail amongst the people who like me love this trilogy and it can be torturous at times. Allow me to explain, each film ends on some form of ambiguity, there is a question(s) that needs to be answered and having to wait nine years to find out the answer plays on the mind every time you’re reminded of these films. These questions always relate to what stage of love Jesse and Céline are at so it is encouragement for the audience to keep watching and find out what happens next.
It’s only two more years until 2022 when supposedly, the next installment of this series will be released and I’m already theorizing about these characters’ lives and where they’re at now. Trilogies that fall under the mark comes down to how well the other films complement each other, not many can pull this off because there is always a standout film. With The Before Trilogy, the films go hand in hand and are just as wonderful as each other. It’s like we’re seeing an entire timeline of these two people and although we’ve only had three films, it’s like we’ve been well acquainted with Jesse and Céline for so much longer.
I’ve still let to try Jesse’s pick-up method of asking to get off the train with you, but I’ll report back if it actually works.