From the moment it was announced that Ethan Hawke, Julie Delpy and director/writer Richard Linklater would reunite to create Before Midnight, the third film following an American and a Parisian who meet on a train and change each other’s lives forever, it was inevitable my partner and I would be scheduling an in-home double feature to watch the first two films. It had been years since either of us had seen Before Sunrise and Before Sunset, and we had never watched them together. So, in anticipation of seeing the just-released new installment, we settled in last night to catch up with our old friends Jessie and Celine — and I must say, I found myself just as in love with them as ever, and dying to reconnect with them via Before Midnight in a movie theater soon.
(I’m clearly not the only one — the new movie did bang-up business in its first weekend of limited release.)
How thrilling to experience again the magic of that fateful first evening in Vienna, where the two fresh-faced kids roamed the streets, sharing their views on life and love. And then, just a few minutes later after the credits stopped rolling, to flash forward nine years, where those imagined lives and loves have started to take a bit of a toll on their romanticism and idealism, but the connection they share is rekindled with even greater depth. I’ve been disappointed in the past after re-watching movies I had great affection for; that was not at all true in this case. If anything, with the added perspective I’ve gained in the years since I last viewed them, the films felt deeper, truer and even more significant.
The context of knowing that Before Sunrise and Before Sunset are now part of a trilogy can’t help but inform the viewing experience. As Jessie tries to convince Celine to get off the train with him in Vienna in the first movie, he tells her that she doesn’t want to look back on this moment when she is settled and married and unhappy and wonder what could have been. That we know that these two characters will, in fact, end up married — to each other — lends the moment, and the rest of the film, unexpected poignancy. The fact that the beautifully ambiguous ending of Before Sunrise is colored by knowing they will reunite in Before Sunset, or that Jessie will not be returning to his wife at the end of Before Sunset, doesn’t make either journey less profound — if anything, it adds layers that couldn’t have possible existed in a first viewing of either film.
Though I don’t feel a day over 23, I am now older than the two characters in both of the first two films. (How did that happen?) When Before Sunrise came out, I saw myself in the way they dreamt about their lives and how they viewed their place in the world; now, I see that perspective as achingly beautiful but slightly naive. Though I am glad my young adulthood is far behind me, I am inspired by the characters’ hopefulness and willingness to give themselves over to connection and experience. 32-year old Jessie and Celine, meanwhile, have experienced more of life’s triumphs and disappointments, but there is real beauty in the fact that they still see each other, despite years apart and many things unknown, as a beacon of possibility. There is a maturity in their approach to each other in the second film that is just as moving to me as their impetuousness was in the first.
I was also struck by how magnificently structured these films are. It’s easy to take for granted the craftsmanship at work, since there is not much action, just a lot of walking and talking. But the way Hawke, Delpy and Linklater chart the rhythms of each moment and the overall arc of Jessie and Celine’s limited time together is truly astounding — there is so much nuance, so much naturalism, and so much depth at work, it’s completely absorbing. I could spend days describing how I fell — again — for Hawke’s sexy insecurity, or Delpy’s exotic neuroticism. The way he looks at her. The way she almost touches his hair in the car on the way back to her apartment, mimicking his near-touch of her hair in the first film. The beautifully awkward moment with the palm reader, or the tough conversation over the pinball game, or the life-changing Nina Simone impression…
Yes, I could could go on for days. Instead, I will luxuriate in the experience of revisiting their first two meetings, and look forward to catching up with them again in Before Midnight soon. Who knows what the next stage of their relationship has in store? I can’t wait to find out.
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