I just finished watching the “Before” trilogy with my friend Tim who works for Sundance. For those unfamiliar it includes the films Before Sunrise, Before Sunset, and Before Midnight with Ethan Hawke and Julie Delpy. I had heard of these movies in passing but never given them much thought. I think I had read a review of Before Midnight since it just premiered at Sundance here in Utah last year, but from what little I heard of the films I knew that people liked them but they sounded, to be honest, not very interesting. I had been on a David Lynch and Stanley Kubrick kick, watching really “weird” movies.
But, let me just tell you as objective as is possible, these movies are incredible. They stick with you in the way a good novel does, they sink beneath your skin with their whimsy, depth, and beautiful dialogue. In fact, this piece is not so much of a review, as pure praise and a plea to go see these films.
The premise is quite simple. In fact very little plot at all flows through the first to the third film. Think of it as the opposite of Inception. Scenery and plot exist primarily as a vehicle for the romantic, wandering, and endearing dialogue between two human beings.
The first film introduces characters Jesse (Hawke) and Celine (Delpy) travelling on a train in Europe. Jesse is on the way to Vienna to catch a flight home to the U.S. after a break up and two subsequent weeks of train travel. Celine is on the way home from Budapest to Paris to continue school. The two strike up conversation and immediately sense a connection. Jesse—young, talkative, and audacious, asks Celine if she would want to accompany him around Vienna for the night until his flight takes off in the morning. She agrees and the two spend the rest of the night conversing around the streets of Vienna visiting café’s and bars.
Sound romantic? It did to me. It’s practically a fantasy of mine. Meet some girl on the train and spend a romantic night wandering around an old European city, yes please (except that I’m married and I love my wife, love you dear!). The only catch is that the two agree not to share any contact information when they say goodbye. They don’t want the awkward calls or letters that could follow and they accept the pragmatism of their situation (She lives in Paris, he in the U.S. and the chances of anything working are slim). They simply want to accept the night for what it is—not in a one-night-stand-debauchery sort of way—but simply for the fact that each enjoys the other’s company.
The second film (spoiler alert) picks up in Paris nine years later and the third film occurs eighteen years after their first encounter on the train. What’s remarkable is that the span between the characters happen in real time, meaning Before Sunrise came out in 1995 and Before Sunset came out in 2004, nine years in real time. So Hawk and Delpy are quite literally nine years older than their last encounter each time. The timing works as such that it feels remarkably honest and true to life, functioning as a near documentary. Before Sunset unfolds also literally in real time, existing in eighty-minute time between when Jesse meets Celine again and then has to depart for his flight.
All films exist solely in the world of dialogue. If you’re skeptic about this, that’s okay, these characters and brilliant performances by both Hawke and Delpy will win you over. Each film with such a simple premise is able to tap into something beyond itself. They’re more than love stories or commentary on relationships and marriage. Providing both a healthy dose of realism and romanticism, the Before trilogy goes beyond sentimentality or intellect, tapping into an other worldly sense of humanity you thought had disappeared.