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 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.
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
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.
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 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.
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.
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: