Criterion Corner: The Before Trilogy - Reviewed

A few years ago, a friend of mine introduced me to “Before Sunrise” and “Before Sunset” in anticipation of the then upcoming third installment, “Before Midnight.” I hadn’t seen a lot of director Richard Linklater’s work at the time, but I remember being blown away at how he was able to create such rich characters in Jessie (Ethan Hawke) and Celine (Julie Delpy) through an arguably simple premise: Jessie and Celine meet on a train and decide to spend the night walking the streets of Vienna. For that one night, time seems to stop, and these two characters live in their own world, falling in love, and coming to terms with the fact that when sunrise finally arrives, time will return to normal, and they’ll likely never see one another again.

In one of the special features on the newly released Criterion Collection edition of The Before Trilogy entitled, “The Space in Between,” Linklater talks about how his goal with that first film was to create on film the experience of meeting someone you genuinely connect with, almost like a soul mate. I think it’s safe to say that for anyone who, like myself, adores this trilogy, Linklater more than succeeds. It helps that Linklater, Hawke, and Delpy all contributed to the scripts for each film, and that Linklater allowed both actors to truly inhabit their roles. Jessie and Celine feel like real people with real flaws and real emotions. Both of them are complicated individuals who find a connection in one another making them one of cinema’s most treasured and believable onscreen couples.

I had only seen the trilogy once before my re-watch for this review and if you’d asked me a year ago to pick out a favorite, I’d have said the second film, “Before Sunset.” Now, however, I find myself appreciating each one equally, albeit for vastly different reasons. I can’t remember where I heard it, but someone once described the trilogy as follows: “Before Sunrise” is about what could be; “Before Sunset” is about what could have been; “Before Midnight” is about what is. I agree wholeheartedly.

This time around I found myself even more charmed by “Before Sunrise” for many reasons, not the least of which is its amazing ambiguous ending. Jessie and Celine decide that they’ll return to the train station in six months before tearfully saying goodbye. We don’t learn whether or not either of them kept their word until “Before Sunset,” but it’s well worth the nine-year wait between both films. I also think my appreciation for “Sunrise” stems from where I’m at in my life. I’m approaching 30, I’m newly single after a five-year relationship, and I’m somewhere in between where Jessie & Celine are at the end of “Sunrise” and the beginning of “Sunset.”

That being said, I’ve also experienced the harsh realities of “Before Midnight,” which shows, very accurately, how no matter how in love a couple is, long-term relationships are challenging and, at times, messy. In other words, I think one’s love of the trilogy and their favorite selections from it depend on where they’re at in their own lives, which is one of the lasting appeals of these movies. Over roughly twenty years, Jessie and Celine change because Hawke and Delpy have changed.

Time has a way of doing that. “Before Midnight” focuses on how much they’ve both evolved and/or devolved since that chance encounter on a train all those years ago. It’s tough to watch at times, because the first two movies can be seen as a fantasy (again, what could be and what could have been). “Midnight” shows us the good and the bad and makes no apologies for the latter.

I should also mention that the Criterion Collection has, as always, released a gorgeous box set of these films. All three are stunning to look at and the special features are all worth diving into. Two that I think are worth mentioning are “3X2: A Conversation,” and “Linklater // On Cinema & Time.” The former is included on the “Sunrise” disc and features writers Dave Johnson and Rob Stone having a conversation/debate about the meaning of all three movies. I thought it sounded like it would be a slog from its description on the Blu-ray, but it couldn’t be more interesting. It really allows the viewer to appreciate the films in a whole new way. The second feature I mentioned is included on “Sunset” and is basically a short film with clips of Linklater’s films edited together to show the influence of time in all of his work. Essentially, events across all of time don’t occur in linear fashion, rather, they’re simultaneous. It’s a nine-minute short that opened my eyes to how truly talented a filmmaker Linklater is.

His skills as a director, along with Hawke and Delpy’s screenwriting and acting abilities, make these films as wonderful as they are. It is still unknown if there will be a fourth film in the series and whether or not we can look forward to future entries every nine years or so, but it doesn’t really matter. If they decide to do more, I think Linklater, Hawke, and Delpy have all more than proven that they know what they’re doing.

If it stays a trilogy, my interpretation of “Midnight’s” ending is more hopeful than other friends with whom I’ve spoken, but it is, for my money, a perfect conclusion. If it’s been awhile since you revisited these films, I cannot recommend this set enough. If you’ve never seen the trilogy, now is the time to dive in.

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-Matt Giles