10 Years Later, Before Midnight’s Musings on Time and Non-Idealized Love Still Resonate

Movies Features Richard Linklater
10 Years Later, Before Midnight’s Musings on Time and Non-Idealized Love Still Resonate

It’s difficult to think of a director more patient than Richard Linklater, a man who filmed Boyhood over 12 years so he could capture the contours of growing up in a way that digital aging and prosthetics arguably fail to represent. At the heart of this patience is a fascination with the ways people change (or often stay the same), our tendency to wonder what could have been, and a desire to evoke what it feels like for years to pass. But if Boyhood represents a continuous time-lapse of this vision, the entries in the decade-spanning Before trilogy are individual pages plucked from a scrapbook, the lengthy gaps between accentuating each sizable jump forward.

Released in 1995, Before Sunrise depicts a grounded romance between two twenty-somethings who meet on a Vienna-bound train, their long, sweet and meandering conversations spanning the film’s runtime. It was followed by two sequels that both debuted nine years apart, with each entry emphasizing how their relationship evolved over these gaps. The final installment, Before Midnight, which turns 10 this month, follows Jesse (Ethan Hawke) and Celine (Julie Delpy) after they’ve been together for some time. While the first flick is a meet-cute defined by a glowing sense of possibility and yearning, the third is a level-headed treatise on the difficulty of maintaining bonds and how shared history can lead to heavy baggage.

But while each movie represents a different stage in this romance, they are all defined by a fascination with the mundane. Jesse offers the raison d’être for this style of filmmaking when he describes a cable-access TV program he wants to make with his friends: “I have this idea for a show that lasts 24 hours a day for a year straight. What you do is you get 365 people from cities all over the world to do these 24-hour documents in real time. Capturing life as it’s lived.” 

When Celine understandably pushes back that this would likely be too boring for most people to watch, Jesse responds, “Why is it that a dog sleeping in the sun is so beautiful, but a guy standing at a bank machine, trying to take some money out, looks like a complete moron?” 

From this perspective, and in the view of the trilogy itself, there is value in presenting the ins and outs of day-to-day life, in enacting the type of drama that many people experience—in this case, to “capture what it’s like to really meet somebody.” The second movie makes this even more explicit, with Jesse having written a best-selling novel about the first film’s events. “If I look at my own life, I have to admit that I’ve never been around a bunch of guns or violence, you know, not really. No political intrigue or helicopter crashes, right? But my life, from my own point of view, has been full of drama,” he explains to an interviewer. 

While plenty of stories attempt to present life as it’s lived, the Before trilogy’s naturalism evokes an authenticity that cuts through the usual artifice of fiction and communicates the weight of these people’s feelings for each other. Celine and Jesse’s lengthy discussions are presented via long takes and two shots which keep the couple together in the frame, their proximity in the compositions highlighting their increasing familiarity and comfort. Their talks are rambling, jumping between fragments of ideas in a way that matches the trajectory of real conversations. They stammer, stumble into points they don’t entirely mean, and seem to genuinely work through their thoughts. Hawke and Delpy’s performances sell this spontaneity, and when they look away or pause, we can visualize the gears turning behind their eyes as they steer the chat in a new direction. It also helps that their burgeoning relationship is supported by a genuine sense of warmth and connection.

And it’s not only a matter of on-screen chemistry, but the way the dialogue—co-written by Linklater, Hawke and Delpy in the later entries—strikes a balance between stylization and cinéma verité. It captures how a conversation feels, even if their musings on religion, love, gender roles and art are likely more eloquent than most actual discussions. And from a storytelling perspective, underneath the outwardly aimless ramblings, characterization and points of conflict emerge. We learn a great deal about these people from cursory comments, like how we eventually find that Jesse is recovering from a breakup, and his cynical retorts to questions about romance are a defense mechanism. All three flicks in the trilogy introduce these kinds of potential roadblocks for the continuation of this relationship, either in the form of mental hang-ups or prior obligations, creating an underlying tension that this may be the end of their bond. Linklater has since admitted that the idea for this narrative came from a similar fling he had in his twenties, which fizzled out, and the possibility for that same outcome hangs over each of these pictures.

While Before Sunrise is largely about communicating the euphoria of an unforgettable encounter, there is an underlying preoccupation with time that implies this connection may be fleeting. Throughout, Jesse and Celine remark on how the physical distance between them (one lives in Europe and the other in America) and their divergent paths mean they will likely never see each other again after this night. Jesse and Celine describe an alienation from the present and that their experiences can feel like the wistful memories of a future self or the daydreams of a kid imagining adulthood. 

At another juncture, Celine comments on an ad for a Seurat exhibit, mentioning how she loves the transitory quality of his pointillist art because it captures how the present is constantly melting away. Jesse shares this fascination, and as the sun finally rises, he quotes W. H. Auden’s As I Walked Out One Evening: “But all the clocks in the city. Began to whirr and chime: ‘O let not Time deceive you, You cannot conquer Time.” 

The pair continuously struggle to savor what they’re experiencing, emphasizing the bittersweetness of this potentially brief relationship. This preoccupation with the passage of time is present throughout the rest of the trilogy and is most evident in the real-life gaps between each film, the different cameras, shifting backdrops and changing people accentuating each leap forward.

This contrast is perhaps most noticeable in Before Midnight. When we’re reunited with Jesse and Celine, their circumstances are entirely different than when we last saw them. Unlike their breathless first meeting or chance second encounter, they are finally together and have children. While much of the picture still unfolds via long, discursive conversations, they are rarely the same kind of one-on-one talks we’re familiar with. For the first half, the pair are always either chatting with someone else or in the presence of others, like their daughters or friends. Instead of the close-cropped two shots that traditionally frame the couple, we witness larger group discussions, which often share the same naturalistic leanings of the previous movies but lack the same intimacy. When the two do get a chance to speak, it’s about the accumulating baggage of their shared lives, such as how Jesse is at odds with his ex-wife, who has custody of their son, or how Celine wants to take a new government job which Jesse appears to disapprove of. We feel the weight of their past decisions as their discourse shifts from lighthearted, philosophical musings to the procedures of daily life. 

At first, despite the many domestic concerns that have crept into the picture, it still seems like their relationship is fundamentally sound. After their friends offer to watch their kids for the night, they walk together to their hotel. The framing of this sequence is virtually identical to that of the previous two movies, the pair navigating cobbled streets and dusty walkways as the camera rarely cuts from their faces. They chat about a wide array of subjects in the ways they used to and reminisce about their mutual past. 

But when they reach their room, things finally take a turn. Earlier, Jesse mentioned that he wanted to be closer to his son, which would only be possible if he moved from their current Parisian home back to Chicago. As the two discuss something only tangentially related, they suddenly fly into an argument, the prospect of this potential move tearing at the seams of their partnership. The grounded dialogue these stories are known for is suddenly directed towards an unpleasant conflict full of name-calling and long-simmering grievances, the rawness of these performances making for uncomfortable viewing. Instead of the quiet, contemplative two shots that show the pair in harmony, this sequence is a series of shot-reverse-shots that rarely depict them in the same frame, visualizing their schism. The argument ends when Celine says she no longer loves Jesse and leaves the room. 

At this point, it appears the film is arguing that however deeply two people once cared for each other, time’s passage can lead to innumerable minor annoyances that eventually create a fundamental rift. However, Jesse still has one last plea, and after pretending to be a time traveler sent from Celine’s future, he argues that underneath it all, he’s still the same person she met all those years ago. He says they shouldn’t be “blinded by all the little bullshit of life” and that “this is love, it’s not perfect, but it’s real.” Then as Celine finally humors his hypothetical time travel scenario, gentle strings begin to play. The camera retreats and eventually fades out. Like the preceding two movies, the state of their relationship is left ambiguous. But despite this uncertainty, it becomes clear that the narrative’s thesis is that genuine love is often rough, calloused and flawed, something that will always be imperfect, no matter how magnetic its first meeting was.

While rewatching any film years later inevitably comes with new observations and perceptions, the Before trilogy’s obsession with time invites a particularly resonant degree of reflection. In the decade since I’ve last seen these movies, I’ve gone from being closer in age and experience to the Jesse and Celine of the first picture to them in the second, their comments on the weight of adulthood and the accelerating pace of life carrying a truth that I didn’t understand on my first watch.

But despite this, Jesse’s final argument is a counterpoint to these melancholic musings on the relentless march forward, a reminder that many of these hard-to-swallow changes can be more superficial than they seem. Although their relationship isn’t exactly the same as it was all those years ago, at the heart of Before Midnight is the hope that enough remains the same that these embers can be rekindled. Across the Before trilogy is a common pathos, a genuine interest in people which asserts that the mundane happenings of day-to-day life are worth rendering on the silver screen. It may transition from grainy film stock to a crisper digital look, and the fashion, technology and backdrops may shift, but underneath it all are familiar images of two people who care deeply for each other, their bond rendered with the kind of specificity that reaches through the frame and conjures feelings of true connection. In a film and television landscape increasingly defined by digital de-aging and other desperate attempts to recreate the past, it’s special to revisit a trilogy that embraces time’s passage.

Elijah Gonzalez is a former games intern for Paste Magazine. In addition to playing the latest indies and AAAs, he also loves film, anime, lit, and creating large lists of media he’ll probably never actually get to. You can follow him on Twitter @eli_gonzalez11.

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