before sunrise sunset and midnight review

Before Sunrise Sunset and Midnight Review

Quick update – at the halfway point if the year it looks as though IndieWire, and a number of other significant movie blogs, have “Before Midnight” and “Upstream Color” running 1 and 2 for the year so far respectively. If you aren’t buying it – see this report here for more details. I recently wrote a review of the top 10 best dialogue movies of all time wherein I highlighted the movie Before Sunrise and Before Sunset its sequel. Ethan Hawke, Julie Delpy and Richard Linklater have brought us a third installment in this lighthearted, conversational drama entitled Before Midnight.

The Setup

The basic conceit of the movies is that a loud and obnoxious American guy meets a beautiful Parisian woman in Vienna on their way through. They both have a layover between trains and have until Sunrise together. Get it? Before Sunrise? Right. That’s your setup. And basically the course of all three movies is just a small swatch of time together for the two. Years leap by and the two are reunited again for another swatch of discussions, arguments and flirting.
But the heart and soul of these movies is 100% the dialogue – the discussion about life, the universe and everything. And it is these discussions that give the series their draw. And if you aren’t in the mood to watch two people talk for 100 minutes… then maybe you should rent Avatar instead, and call it good.

I remember riding on a train from Brindisi – the southern tip of Italy – all the way north through Switzerland on my way back to England while sitting in a cramped train in the hallway next to a German. There is nothing like shared discomfort that drives unity and the German, who’s name was Claus, introduced himself and we began to chat. I think we probably talked in that crowded train hallway for the better part of that day. That conversation happened twenty years ago now, and yet I will never forget that conversation. The conversation ranged from politics, to religion and war. It ran the gamut and back again.

In a sense, that is what the three Before Sunrise movies are all about. Conversations between cultures and differing points of view. Learning and trying to understand another perspective than your own. Americans particularly have a very difficult time with this concept – learning from other cultures. But believe it or not there are other perspectives in the world then that of the American Republican… Or even Democrat. In Germany there are hundreds of political parties. Hundreds. My particular favorite party is the “Beer Party”. I kid you not. But in America we have two. (Those of you arguing with me, and yelling at your monitor, saying that we have more than two are missing my point.) And those two parties are almost identical. (Now you guys are really yelling at your screens. But its true.) There really aren’t any sort of option when it comes to voting. I have BIG GOVERNMENT, or I have BIG GOVERNMENT. I have enormous military complex… or even bigger military complex. I have meddling America or mo’meddling America. But the movies aren’t political – they are just about hearing other perspectives and experiencing new things.

before sunrise

Before Sunrise

As I mentioned earlier the movies begin with Before Sunrise – and it finds our two impetuous heroes in Vienna. And it begins something like this – no exactly like this:
Jesse: Alright, I have an admittedly insane idea, but if I don’t ask you this it’s just, uh, you know, it’s gonna haunt me the rest of my life
Celine: What?
Jesse: Um… I want to keep talking to you, y’know. I have no idea what your situation is, but, uh, but I feel like we have some kind of, uh, connection. Right?
Celine: Yeah, me too.
Jesse: Yeah, right, well, great. So listen, so here’s the deal. This is what we should do. You should get off the train with me here in Vienna, and come check out the capital.
Celine: What?
Jesse: Come on. It’ll be fun. Come on.
Celine: What would we do?
Jesse: Umm, I don’t know. All I know is I have to catch an Austrian Airlines flight tomorrow morning at 9:30 and I don’t really have enough money for a hotel, so I was just going to walk around, and it would be a lot more fun if you came with me. And if I turn out to be some kind of psycho, you know, you just get on the next train.
Jesse: Alright, alright. Think of it like this: jump ahead, ten, twenty years, okay, and you’re married. Only your marriage doesn’t have that same energy that it used to have, y’know. You start to blame your husband. You start to think about all those guys you’ve met in your life and what might have happened if you’d picked up with one of them, right? Well, I’m one of those guys. That’s me y’know, so think of this as time travel, from then, to now, to find out what you’re missing out on. See, what this really could be is a gigantic favor to both you and your future husband to find out that you’re not missing out on anything. I’m just as big a loser as he is, totally unmotivated, totally boring, and, uh, you made the right choice, and you’re really happy.
Celine: Let me get my bag.

And just like that, 18 years later we have three movies and exactly 300 minutes of gorgeous writing and a view into the lives of Celine and Jessy. Before Sunrise takes the course of their meeting. Their “relationship” is never discussed because there isn’t one. And yet, we see it blossoming right before our eyes. At one point while atop the Wiener Riesenrad at sunset, Celine says, “You know what I want?” And Jesse says – “What’s that?” And Celine says, “To be kissed…” And our fictional relationship is off to the races.

The couple take in a number of different landmarks in Vienna. They meet a street poet who writes them a poem on the fly. Then while in a traditional Viennese Cafe the two have fake phone conversation played as each other’s friends. The word play throughout is gorgeous and the banter sort of reaches a crescendo while the movie heads towards the coming sunrise.

Celine: Maybe we should meet here in five years or something.
Jesse: All right, all right, five year- Five years! That’s a long time!
Celine: It’s awful! It’s like a sociological experiment!

Before Sunrise won a couple of film awards around the world, it was so different and so well done. Ethan and Julie had an undeniable chemistry on the screen and it was only strengthened by the gorgeous sites of Vienna and the even more gorgeous dialogue written by Richard Linklater and Kim Krizan.

Before Sunset

Before Sunset

Before Sunrise ends ambiguously. The plan was to meet in five years. Did they meet back up again? The social experiment left the relationship hanging in the balance… and so the first thing out of the gate for Before Sunset definitely was to answer the ambiguity. Which it does with brilliant aplomb.

Jessy is on a book tour – a book he wrote about meeting Celine in fact, and their time together. Celine read it and sought him out during the Parisian leg of his book tour for his new book. After extracting himself from a few obligations Jesse and Celine are back to their old tricks with great grace and panache. Wandering the streets of Paris and the canal – in some of the most beautiful setting of the world – the two begin to figure out what had transpired in the past decade.

Jesse: In the months leading up to my wedding, I was thinking about you all the time. I mean, even on my way there; I’m in the car, a buddy of mine is driving me downtown and I’m staring out the window, and I think I see you, not far from the church, right? Folding up an umbrella and walking into a deli on the corner of 13th and Broadway. And I thought I was going crazy, but now I think it probably was you.
Celine: I lived on 11th and Broadway.
Jesse: You see?

The locales of they visit include cafe’s, gardens and even a bateau mouche where they take in the sights of Paris from the canal. One of the other truly delightful aspects of the Before Series is the extremely long takes. There are times when Linklater let’s the camera roll for 5 to 10 minutes. A single camera leads the couple as they walk. It never wavers as the two just continue their conversation, absent of interruption and breaks. I would even go so far as to say that Before Sunrise, Before Sunset and Before Midnight are the closest thing to a play caught on film ever. Ethan Hawke’s Tape, may come close (see that particular debate here.) But I think these movies best Tape in that particular category mainly because Linklater does such a good job letting the dialogue run and carry the story.

For Before Sunrise Linklater made the choice to change up the writing. This time instead of writing solely with Kim Krizan’s help, he included Julie Delpy and Ethan Hawke in the writing efforts. They spent time shuttling script ideas back and forth in email. Julie Delpy joked that writing these enormous blocks of text for her character seemed like a great idea at the time, but when it came time to memorize the script she thought better! But Roger Ebert agreed that the inclusion was a good choice for Linklater: “Before Sunrise was a remarkable celebration of teh fascination of good dialogue. But Before Sunset is better, perhaps because the characters are older and wiser, perhaps because they have more to lose (or win), and perhaps because Hawke and Delpy wrote the dialogue themselves.”

I personally agree that of the three Before Sunset is the best. Before Sunrise established the characters and gave us the beginnings of their relationship. But it wasn’t until Before Sunset that we really see the story take off. The characters have grown in the previous ten years. They have moved on, though they hadn’t actually moved on. We see that Celine and Jessy are still in love with one another even if circumstances make this Love impractical.

Jesse: [describing how she looks different] Skinnier, I think. A little thinner.
Celine: Did you think I was fat before?
Jesse: [laughing] No!
Celine: Yeah, you thought I was a fatty. No, you thought I was a fatty! Yeah, you, you wrote a book about a fat French girl!
Jesse: No, listen…
Celine: [laughing] Oh, no…
Jesse: Seriously, all right, you look beautiful.

Critically, Before Sunset was nominated for a pile of awards. Linklater, Hawke, Delpy and Krizan were nominated for Best Writing (adapted screenplay) for the 2004 Academy Awards. At the Boston Society of Film Critics Awards it won 2nd Place for Best Film. And many other international award ceremonies that year heralded Before Sunset as a truly fantastic movie.

before midnight

Before Midnight

Just a couple of weeks ago we were presented with the final (?) movie in the series featuring Celine and Jessy. In order to avoid spoiling the latest installment in the series I will avoid detailing out their relationship status or the details surrounding the previous years of their relationship.

But this particular installment is a bit of a departure from the previous two in that a lot of the natural tension embedded in the previous two movies has been dissipated somewhat. Do with that what you will. But it does have implications to the wordplay and the involvement between the two characters on the screen.

Back in June of 1994 our two characters were on a train travelling from Budapest. Celine, the 23 year old Sorbonne student, is sitting nearby Jesse. Jesse had just come to Europe to meet up with his girlfriend that spent the entire time avoiding Jesse. By the end of the visit Jesse was now her ex-boyfriend and Jesse had 2 weeks to kill in Europe. Jesse is reading the Kinski novel “All I Need is Love” and Celine is reading a collection of romantic short stories by George Bataille. And just like that the conversation exploded to life.

Now though, the pair are dodging the responsibilities of life and the chaos of managing children and the details surrounding their conjoined time in Greece. (If you want to know exactly what happens, I will tell you… but I’m trying my best here to keep those of you in the dark, in the dark.) The fertile soil of Before Sunrise is not here in Before Midnight. So they just aren’t the same movies at all. But I would say that Before Midnight is a much TRUER movie than Before Sunrise was… if not Before Sunset. The writing is still spot on, witty and prescient. The settings in Greece are gorgeous if not quite as impressive because of the countryside views. It definitely fits as a cohesive member of the trilogy. But it suffers by being weighed down by the responsibility of life that the other two didn’t seem to be burdened with.

But isn’t that how life goes? Even the most romantic of relationships gets burdened with the matters of life if given 15 years to percolate. Couples, even the most romantic of us, argue and complain about each other’s weaknesses. But the definition of a strong relationship is defined by the individual’s ability to overlook the weaknesses and give him or her the benefit of the doubt. The magic of the conversation is still here. The witty quick responses and the european centric vantage is definitely still here. But as far as an entertainment goes, watching my own life on the screen is a strange experience to call entertainment. And while it was entertaining, and I did enjoy it – don’t get me wrong – it wasn’t exactly the pixie dust filled brilliance of the previous two. And yet, if you saw the first two, missing out on the third isn’t even an option. Not by a long shot. Not knowing is impossible.

The Trilogy

I personally think that Linklater should repackage the three as an intercut (Quentin Tarantino style) single movie. Flashbacks, flash forwards and a tension filled 300 minutes of nirvana and sell it as one movie. Ok, maybe not. But they really are one move, not three. It just took us almost 20 years to get to see the completion of the drama play out before our eyes. (18 years? I’m not great at math.) But if you are a dialogue hound like I am, this series is a must see. Delpy is fantastic and sharp. Hawke plays the dimwitted literati to a T. And Linklater has captured the love of Jessy and Celine over the years in just a stunning fashion. Kudos to the three of you for bringing such a marvelous set of movies into our lives.


And now – as a special extra treat – here is a reminder from Celine and Jessy to not talk on your cell phones or text during their movie. You are welcome:

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3 Responses

  1. Senta

    Senta: I am going to change things a little and do something different. I talked my sister, Saoirse, into coming on here with me because I did not want to do this alone. She is far more knowledgeable and passionate about this series than I am, I must also admit that it bothered me that no one had commented on this excellent series.
    So why not be the first? What better person to help me, than Saoirse, who is a true fan. Case in point, she has all the DVDs, in a family that rarely buys DVDs. I like the series but sometimes it was too realistic and I felt out of my depth. Nonetheless, I liked two of the movies, which equals a trilogy at this point.

    Saoirse: Introductions are in order. I am Senta’s big sister, the one she is always involving in the background of her comments. FYI, I have been trying to teach her brevity in her critiques, to no avail it seems. It is why she has cajoled me into joining her so that she can hopefully avoid writing another “novel.” Firstly, I cannot believe that no one has commented on this critique. My, my, are there no fans of this movie series? Perhaps it is too experimental for most. Linklater recently made a somewhat avant-garde movie called “Boyhood.” It was shot over a period of several years wherein the child stars literally grew up on film. I saw it, and it was fine. Whether it was worth the trouble is debatable. I think time will prove it nothing more than a curiosity. The “Before” series however, is in a league of its own. Experimental from its inception, it runs on a dare – can a movie completely lacking in plot, remain interesting based on conversation alone? My short answer is yes. All you need is two charismatic actors, a corral of fine writers, a scenic location, and a decent cinematographer. Mix together and shake, and you have a really wonderful cocktail of emotional ambiance and cerebral gymnastics. The first movie “Before Sunrise” was a valentine to young love everywhere. I was seventeen when I randomly saw it on the telly at a friend’s house. We had missed the first half of the show, which already left us in the dark as to what was going on. Throw in the adverts every ten minutes, and it was not exactly a top cinema experience. I had to see the whole movie, so I bought the DVD on the way home! I had no regrets. I watched it at least a dozen times in the space of a week.

    Senta: I have to interrupt because I remember this. She was ga-ga over this movie. Every time I walked into her room, it was on her computer.

    Saoirse: Anyone have a little sister? She is in my room constantly.

    Senta: Blah, blah. I have erased her comment about three times now and she keeps putting it back. :D Anyway, she tried to explain it to me because it was an experimental film shot entirely on location, no studios, with a handheld camera, with no plot. It was literally just two people getting to know each other. Watching it with my sister helped me to appreciate it because…nothing happens in this movie except for two people eventually falling in like.

    Saoirse: It has only been a few years since I saw the first movie in the series, but I think now that I am older, I feel less that it was made for young people. Ethan Hawke and Julie Delphy were probably both hot young actors of their day; and there is no denying the bait they set for their generation, but watching it now, and being closer to the ages of the people in the actual movie, I see it less as a valentine to young people and more of a valentine to an older generation. The script itself crackles with a very mature hand. These two young people are not the young people you see in most movies today, nor were they representative of the youth in 1995. These two are hyper aware, hyper astute and hyper witty, even if at times they appear goofy. That is good scripting. If you look at the movie this way, older people would have been more attracted to this movie than college kids. This movie came out twenty-two years ago. My father was around Ethan/Jesse’s age, and when he saw this movie, he thought both characters were way too mature. He felt no one talks this way except in movies. However fast forward, and he has reversed his stance. Watching the movie again through my eyes, he realizes the movie was never made for the young men of his time; it was made for him now. That is an odd thing for a father to say but it set me to thinking. If Linklater always knew his series would go on from that first movie, then he always knew these people were going to grow old on screen, and with each passing movie, the nostalgia would only grow; but nostalgia for whom? He was thirty-five when he scripted and filmed “Before Sunrise.” He was already well past the age of his lead male character. He was not writing this for college kids; he was writing it for himself. And although the movie is well-made, beautifully scripted and shot, it was never really for kids my age at uni. My sister loves the scripting but does not always get the nuance that rifts this whole movie…but she probably will ten, fifteen years from now. And so will I.

    Senta: …Wow. That was…deep. :) So what you are saying is that I will not truly understand this movie until I am older? Slam! I get this movie. It is about falling in love, meeting that special someone and how tricky that can be.

    Saoirse: Oi, you missed my whole point, child. Listen. Closely. Sure you will get the movie’s point, you are a smart girl. But you will not feel it until you are older. This movie was nostalgic from the moment it was made, and you are too young to feel nostalgia.

    Senta: …Smarty-pants. :p So…maybe you are right. I will ask da this question.

    Saoirse: Already did, already answered. You have to understand the series as a whole. Once Linklater made “Before Sunset,” he changed the whole feeling of the first. It imbeds itself into you differently. They are much older in the second film. Ethan Hawke looks absolutely gaunt. I swear it looked like he had cancer or something. Thankfully, he filled back out in “Before Midnight.” The third film to me is the weakest, but again, father said, it is because of my age. How can I understand Part Three at my age? This is a series people his age will get, not young people. I can see his point but I still did not care for the third installment as much. The ending was too pat. They resolved a harrowing argument which takes up the last third of the movie with little more than hurried scripting, supplying nothing more than a band-aid to stop a hemorrhage.

    Senta: I did not like that one at all for just that reason. The argument took waaaaay too long, and what was the whole thing with Delphy sitting around naked from the waist up. It was very uncomfortable.

    Saoirse: I read somewhere that Linklater was trying to show husbands and wives as they are, that being half naked is no longer a shy thing, but also what it showed was their closeness. They are having an argument that carries a lot of weight. This is a serious make or break moment, where the marriage seems to teeter on an edge, yet Julie’s character is not covering up.

    Senta: Ooh-la-la, perhaps it means that she really does love him. They are being quite harsh with each other and there is a point where you think the marriage is over but she never covers up because despite what is being said, she remains naked and vulnerable. She trusts him not to hurt her.

    Saoirse: Maybe. I think you might be reading more into this than what is being shown, but it is a fair point. You could very well be right. I am sure her nudity is something about vulnerability. It is still a messed up scene. I liked how the movie started with the scenic vistas, the general ambient mood set by the people, the dinner and the conversation. The last act however…I will have to wait fifteen years until I am married with kids. Da is right, we really cannot grasp the depth of what this series is conveying at our age. We can understand the simple dynamics but whether it will make sense to us, or move us deeply, really is based on life experience. Our parents rarely fight, but if they do, da is such a charismatic peacemaker, he makes it impossible for maman’s Gallic temper to hold out. That Irish charm, you know.

    Senta: Yeah, he is good at that. :) You cannot stay mad at him for long. He knows how to make you laugh at your own petulance. So unfair, especially when you want to stay mad at him. Is that a female thing? I liked the first movie the best, the second movie the second and the third, barely at all, but I will concede my age plays against me. I cannot feel grownup problems. You are right. I can only understand them cinematically, but I will not be able to appreciate it with my heart. Although da said he did not like the third movie either! :D He said the same thing we said, that it started out good, but the last part of the movie got too real and too uncomfortable. Do you think that was actually deliberate scripting, to make us uncomfortable and uncertain of the outcome? It is an earth-shattering argument after all.

    Saoirse: At this point, I am scared to say. If that was Linklater’s point, then he succeeded too well. Just because a director meant to do something does not make it a good move. It will be interesting to see what the next installment brings. Closing thoughts?

    Senta: …Ask me in fifteen years. :)

    Saoirse: I will.

    • Taylor Holmes

      This is possibly the greatest thing ever.

      Ever. A reply won’t even do it justice. I hear by give the two of you an open invitation to post a blog as a guest contributor on any movie, any topic, any time. Just email me your content and I’ll slap some photos on it and away you go.

      Open invitation. Senta, you basically did a fullon interview post. This should be it’s own thing! hahaha.


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