In honor of the November 7 release of Paste Movies Editor Michael Dunaway’s documentary 21 Years: Richard Linklater (in which Paste is the media partner), we’re going through the indie master’s entire oeuvre in order, film by amazing film.
When we talk about trilogies today, we tend to have a very specific visual in mind; we’re thinking of superhero rumpuses, decrepit horror series, action extravaganzas a few entries past being merely long in the tooth. We don’t usually think about talky love ballads that balance romance with aimless philosophical dissertations. In fairness, we didn’t have the same associations with the word “trilogy” back in 1995 that we do now, but that was a decade and change before Marvel started taking over Hollywood and franchising became the new model for big studio success. They were more innocent days, but they’re days long gone, and we can only look back on them fondly as combating companies scramble to erect the next generation of comic book tentpoles at a multiplex near you.
Thank goodness, then, for Before Sunrise, the first chapter in what wound up becoming perhaps the most unexpected trilogy in movie history. Here marks the start of a modern cinematic landmark, a trifecta of pictures that ultimately follow in the footsteps of people like Michael Apted and François Truffaut. It’s the start of a nearly twenty-year-long narrative in the making, and nobody saw it coming save for Richard Linklater, Ethan Hawke and Julie Delpy. Clever, clever. Even after the film’s release, the three collaborators were scheming up the film’s sequel, Before Sunset, though at the time Linklater himself imagined something bigger and grander than what he wound up releasing in 2004, a film with an expanded budget and multiple shooting locations that on paper sounds nothing like his follow-up wound up looking.
We’re better off for that, if not because Before Sunset is stellar as a stripped down version of itself, then because Linklater’s original proposal would have looked nothing at all like Before Sunrise. We’re done with the tale of Jesse and Celine (well, for now at least), but looking in the rearview, it’s amazing to think how something so simple could spark such a longstanding collaboration between a filmmaker and his actors. It’s an initial investment in both the characters and in their creators’ joint commitment to explore every nook and cranny of human relationships, the anxieties that come with growing up, the romanticism of youth. The primary topic here, however, is love, discussed at length over an ambling, street level visual tour through Vienna.
Like all of the subjects Jesse and Celine flit back and forth from throughout the film, all talk of love is filtered through the inexperience of the young; these are people who are only just into their 20s, and have yet to learn the ropes of being out in the world on their own. Much of what they discuss is brought up parallel to personal anecdotes. They’ve scarcely made a dent in their new lives as emerging adults, and thus have fewer ways to engage other than by speaking through the lives of their friends, families and acquaintances. They’re not ignorant, of course, and they’re almost self aware to a fault—if you’ve ever found Jesse’s existential angst taxing, he’s at least capable of acknowledging it—but they’re looking at life and all its glory, laid out before them. These are not people who have lived long enough to have regrets. Instead, they’re afraid of regret. They rail against it, striking a sharp contrast to where Linklater takes their stories nine and eighteen years later.
Perhaps unsurprisingly, Before Sunrise predicts Jesse’s and Celine’s respective futures with impressive accuracy. Today, we don’t need to ask what these characters might say to their younger selves if given the chance. They’ve already said it, but Before Sunrise proves that all of the foresight and better intentions in the world can’t always steer us away from suffering. Jesse might have thought long and hard about his desire to be both a good husband and a good father, as we learn in Before Sunset, none of that ruminating helps him steer his marriage away from catastrophe. The blueprint for his life, and Celine’s, is interwoven within the DNA of Before Sunrise. Maybe nobody supposed that Linklater would go back to this particular well in 2004, especially given that he’d just knocked out his greatest commercial success with 2003’s School of Rock, but listening to the leads discuss their hopes, dreams and fears, maybe we should have.
Before Sunrise is the kind of film that proves you don’t need much more than the basics to create special effects. Before Sunrise glimmers with its own brand of movie magic; it reminds its audience how rich and valuable something as mundane as an aimless conversation about life, the universe and everything can truly be. This, too, is a lesson well tread in the annals of cinema (see: Annie Hall), but Linklater’s flare for orchestrating fluid conversation between actors, accented by his trademark slacker discourse, puts his personal stamp on the tradition. The film’s central, sustained duologue is at once heady and down to earth, funny and tragic, moving and heartbreaking, and it ends ambiguously with two trains going in different directions. We’re only left with a wish of pure fantasy, capstoning a movie of pure realism. It’s a perfectly bittersweet climax to a near perfect movie.
21 Years: Richard Linklater is produced by Tara Wood, Michael Dunaway and Melanie Miller, directed by Dunaway with co-director Tara Wood, and will be released theatrically and on demand through Gravitas Ventures. You can see the trailer and pre-order the film here, and get more info (including links to preview clips) here.
Boston-based critic Andy Crump has been writing about film for the web since 2009, and has been contributing to Paste Magazine since 2013. He also writes for Screen Rant and Movie Mezzanine. You can follow him on Twitter. Currently, he has given up on shaving.