I’d like to believe that everyone has works of art that strike them in their soul. Hit them right in the feels, if you will. If you’re shaking your head in disagreement, clearly you haven’t listened to “She Used to be Mine” from the “Waitress” soundtrack.
Engaging with art is an intimate experience in and of itself. If you read a book, watch a film or binge a TV show, you spend hours upon hours with the characters, dissecting their lives. You know them. You unconsciously (or consciously) compare your lives, trying to find a speck of relatability. Or maybe you engage with them to escape your own life, if only for a short period of time.
Richard Linklater’s (“Boyhood”) “Before” trilogy is the type of art that strikes me right in the heart. The films have permanently altered my understanding of love and intimacy — I can’t remember the first time I watched them, yet somehow they’ve stuck with me years later. Three films were made about two people who walk and talk in European cities — and the trilogy sold.
The first film of the trilogy, “Before Sunrise,” follows Jesse (Ethan Hawke, “Dead Poets Society”) and Céline (Julie Delpy, “Two Days in Paris”), two strangers who spend one magical night together in Vienna after Jesse, an American traveling around Europe, convinces Céline, a Parisian student, to get off the train with him there. They form an inexplicably strong connection over the course of one night. But real life awaits them as Jesse’s flight for the U.S. leaves in the morning and Céline has to get back to Paris, so they vow to reunite in six months.
Their story is relatively simple: boy meets girl, they form a connection, fall in love and then part ways. It’s all wrapped up in a nice 105-minute run time. Except their story doesn’t end there.
“Before Sunset” takes place nine years later, when Céline and Jesse reunite at Jesse’s book signing in Paris. With only an hour until Jesse must leave for the airport, the two play catch-up, delving into their complicated (and dissatisfied) lives.
Hawke once said, “The first film is about what could be. The second is about what should have been. ‘Before Midnight’ is about what it is.”
The first film is my favorite, the second is the best one and the third is the most painful to watch.
“Before Midnight” picks up nine years after the events of “Before Sunset,” and 18 years after “Before Sunrise.” In this final installation, Céline and Jesse have finally gotten together. Throughout the film, they’re on vacation in Greece with their twin girls, and the two spend the majority of the film arguing — perhaps it’s the most realistic aspect of the trilogy. The arguments span across all of the real and gritty aspects of their lives together — parenthood, careers — and starkly contrast the dreamy romance the previous two films built. There is no more romanticization of what could have been; instead, they see the tribulations of finally committing to each other.
The “Before” trilogy is about conversation, being present and, of course, intimacy. Although it isn’t explicitly stated, it’s the only word I would use to describe Céline and Jesse’s time together: intimate. But the films are more than the physical attraction Céline and Jesse share for each other. What lies at the heart of the films is seemingly simple: human connection. In “Before Sunrise,” Céline says, “You know, I believe if there’s any kind of God it wouldn’t be in any of us, not you or me but just this little space in between. If there’s any kind of magic in this world it must be in the attempt of understanding someone, sharing something. I know, it’s almost impossible to succeed, but who cares really? The answer must be in the attempt.”
During one scene in “Before Sunrise,” a palm reader approaches Céline and Jesse, and tells her, “You need to resign yourself to the awkwardness of life. Only if you find peace within yourself will you find true connection with others.” Every time I hear it, it resonates with me deeply. I’m a really emotional person. I blame my astrological sign — Crybaby Cancer over here — more than anything. But I hate being touched. Please don’t try to hug me, I promise it’ll just be awkward. I find it so difficult to get close to people and to form connections. The “attempt” is excruciating. I rarely say the words “I love you” to those closest to me. I imagine myself to be cold, distant and, worst of all, a bitch. I love my independence, and most of the time, I enjoy being alone. Maybe I’m just another melodramatic child of divorce, but the mere idea of intimacy scares the shit out of me.
The “Before” trilogy helps me to conceptualize love and intimacy, but at the same time, I fear that I will never have anything close to what Céline and Jesse have. In “Before Sunset,” Céline says to Jesse, “I guess when you’re young, you just believe there’ll be many people with whom you’ll connect with. Later in life, you realize it only happens a few times.”
In the digital age, connection has never been easier — or harder. Everything about the “Before” trilogy should be a little off-putting. The idea of a stranger asking me to get off the train with them in a foreign country sounds terrifying … But here I am rooting for Céline and Jesse to get together and stay together all throughout the films. Maybe I’m nostalgic for a simpler time (1995) when Tinder didn’t exist and hookup culture didn’t ravage college campuses.
When it comes to physical intimacy, I’ve seen (and read) it all. Despite my own lack of a love life, I’m a self-proclaimed romance expert due to my extensive romcom and romance novel knowledge. I mean, I started reading Wattpad and Nicholas Sparks books at the ripe age of 12, and my love for the romance genre has only grown since then. What can I say, Emily Henry is my queen. Romance novels take up a lot of space on my bookshelf and in my head. Like the films in the “Before” trilogy, they’re comforting and a source of escapism.
There’s something about two people, walking around and making conversation that is so fascinating to me. The picturesque filming locations only enhance my fascination. These films have very little plot to them but a lot of dialogue — it’s what makes the films memorable and enjoyable. But mostly, it’s the little things that make up these films. It’s the fact that Céline and Jesse talk about everything and nothing. It’s when Jesse goes to wipe the hair out of Céline’s face in the first film, or when Céline attempts to do the same in the second film. It’s the way they continue to gravitate toward each other, years later.
Céline and Jesse’s relationship is certainly idealistic, at least in the first two films. In “Before Sunrise,” Jesse even admits to feeling like he’s in a “dream world” — the “real” world doesn’t exist in the time the two spend together. The characters are so self-aware, it’s almost ironic. Even in the trilogy’s design, “Before Midnight” is the first film to have relevant side characters with names and their own stories — the trilogy is unmistakably Céline and Jesse’s story through and through.
The “Before” trilogy isn’t the “Most Realistic Story About Love” and it’s not the “Greatest Trilogy of All Time,” but it may have one of the dreamiest, shimmering love stories of all time. And I, for one, am grateful for it.
Books Beat Editor Ava Seaman can be reached at email@example.com.