Trilogy Review: Before Sunrise, Sunset & Midnight

I’ve seen Before Sunrise and Before Sunset before, and I found the first one certainly compelling.
But I didn’t realise it was a trilogy now and Joel, a fan of Cinema Cocoa, suggested I review them after guessing my film related picture question correctly over Facebook and Twitter!

What I didn’t realise, was how much of a downward spiral this trilogy really is…

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Before Sunrise (1995)

A simple film about simple things, yet there is a magnetism about the reality of it all.

When an arguing German couple force Celine to move seats during a train trip across Europe, she winds up sitting beside Jesse, a visiting American. From that moment on they have an impromptu trip through the streets of Vienna for less than twelve hours, talking about life, society and especially love.

I’ve seen 1995’s Before Sunrise before, years ago, and I remember enjoying it then. But a few people noticed my disdain for director Richard Linklater’s recent venture Boyhood, and figured I wouldn’t care for this either.
Sorry to disappoint, but Before Sunrise is a delicate, quiet but very endearing romantic drama experience that resonates fondly with me.

Starring Ethan Hawke and Julie Delpy (as the only characters given names!) the film was initially written by Linklater, but his two stars would write their own parts, while the director did bring in confidant Kim Krizan to write alongside. Looking back at it, some of this script must be personal for Linklater; one of the first conversations between Jesse and Celine is about Jesse’s desire to make a movie following people’s everyday lives. Celine laughs and mocks his idea has “really boring”.

It is fair to say that “nothing happens” in the film. Our characters walk and talk and meet random people who come and go, influencing the ongoing conversation. But the film’s magic lies in these two’s chemistry. It is infectiously interesting. Celine is an honest and emotionally shrewd French girl, while Jesse is a cynic with good moral standings. The conversations these two have are familiar; everyone has had these talks with a friend or partner, and incredibly this film captures it naturally. There’s no conveniences, no wild accusations or forced plot developments, its just two people learning about each other and slowly enjoying themselves more and more through good natured talking.

Something today’s society feels woefully lacking…

Before Sunrise is a hopeful and endearing film. It only has one job to do: to make these characters relatable. While that might be a subjective goal, I felt it did this and more. There has rarely been such honest onscreen chemistry in movies.

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Before Sunset (2004)

Nine years later, Jesse and Celine run into each other and the flame is spluttering.

Nine years after they parted each other in Vienna, Jesse and Celine never met up as they planned only six months later, but during his book signing in Paris Celine finds Jesse and they have just a few hours together before he leaves again.

Ethan Hawke, Julie Delpy return as does writer/director Richard Linklater and co-writer Kim Krizan, for a surprisingly bitter and distraught reunion of these characters. Naturally, nearly a decade will change people a great deal, and we are seeing Celine and Jesse struggling with their failing to carry out their romantic promise to each other. So things are going to be tough for them and for us listening to their conversations.

After all, Before Sunrise was about their conversations and how relatable they are.

But the sequel feels less spontaneous than its predecessor; it feels more deliberate in its motivations. Our characters conversations are limited to frustrations and hard times, Celine’s grandmother passing, superpowers in the world failing to help third world countries, their own personal lives taking a dive after Vienna… It is a lot more relentless, and feels more like a soundboard for the writers’ social views than what these two characters want to talk about.

At least, that’s the initial conversations. The film builds slowly and does ramp up to very bittersweet interactions. Hawke and Delpy really carry strong emotions when the real questions and the real feelings are brought up; really moving and heart-wrenching arguments. The film is only an eighty minute experience and only the last half is especially gripping or emotionally investing. There are some nice moments here and there, such as a nearly wordless ascent up a stairwell, and a shot on a boat with Celine walking alone while Jesse speaks on a phone off camera.

It is a very short, very effective follow up to these character’s emotions. But I did feel it gets too bogged down in impersonal conversations that aren’t as relatable as its predecessor.

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Before Midnight (2013)

I never felt Before Sunrise needed to be a trilogy, turns out it definitely does not. What an enforced, gut-busting, awful and depressing experience this was.

Jesse and Celine are now together, unmarried but with two kids of their own, and while Jesse struggles balancing their European life (in Greece this time) and his son still in the USA… Celine is apparently psychotic.

This film lasts one hour and forty five minutes, but honestly all you will take away from it is the freight train of a fight our couple (still played by Ethan Hawke and Julie Delpy) have at the end. Oh no, spoilers. Such a tragedy I give away what happens in this contrived, nasty experience, removing the necessity for you to watch it. Their fight lasts thirty five minutes!

Thirty-five minutes! Of watching two people argue and fight. Sign me up.

Now I know. Some people will say this is remarkable film making as it is “true to life”, that life isn’t always happy and whimsical, that Before Midnight is challenging and avant-garde. Hell, I will admit that Hawke and Delpy act their absolute best out of these performances, extremely human and in a lot of ways relatable… But the material they have to work with, the total lack of affection for nearly the entire run time, it is crushing.

Near the films start we get some semblance of what brought these two together; a fixed shot of the two driving in sunny Greece with their kids in the back seats asleep. We get the usual banter and stresses we’ve experienced in the first two films, only from the perspective of parents now.
Then there’s a scene at a dinner table, where a lot of the previous films’ types of conversations are taken up by other people. As if Jesse and Celine aren’t able to talk about it themselves… in fact as the film progresses it quickly becomes clear all Jesse and Celine want to talk about is how angry and insulted they are to be together.

Awesome.

I really do like to sit down, wile away a couple of hours watching two people who once embodied blissful passion and hope (a global sense of hope, no less) come crashing down with a torrent of angry cynicism, rampant hypocrisy and downright forced and contrived frustrations that make these lovely people appear psychotic. Especially Celine. A woman who, in the past, lived in constant fear of never having someone truly love her and forever living alone, now has a man who travels half way across the world for her, abandons his son to do so… and yet she rails on him for thirty minutes about how she feels mistreated and betrayed! Mistreated because what… he’s a man? Because he’s trying to keep his son? Because he literally speaks hypotheticals yet she jumps down his throat at every, single, turn? Seriously Jesse, this isn’t worth it!

This film single-handedly crushes Before Sunrise’s wonderful optimism. Is love born from spontaneity and happenstance doomed to fail? Is acting with passion and fire expected to collapse when things really don’t match up?
It isn’t even committed to it in a sociopolitical subtext either, like a lot of the second film’s conversations were. It isn’t like this modern, new millennium life is ruining their love, no, it is just fits and bursts of random aggression.

Sure, the film ends with a tiny edge of hope, but it is literally twenty seconds immediately after a thirty five minute gloves-off fight. Don’t kid yourself; this relationship is dead.

Unless Richard Linklater just writes more contrivances to continue this escalating soapbox.

Just watch Before Sunrise and then lead your own life from that hopeful vantage point. There’s no need to bog yourself down with this depressing reality check.

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Additional Marshmallows: Why two stars? Like I said, the performances are real and human performances, it is just the writing that’s painfully forced. The film is beautifully shot, too.

Additional, additional Marshmallows: Did Celine really just interrupt Jesse while he was expressing his feelings, to point out some random goats? Seriously?

Additional, additional, additional Marshmallows: What young boy in his right mind would say that an incredibly bland airport reception area was “awesome”?

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4 thoughts on “Trilogy Review: Before Sunrise, Sunset & Midnight

    1. Honestly, I haven’t seen many of them! I need to see Dazed and Confused and others. So I would have to say, given I don’t seem to like his recent works, Before Sunrise is probably my favourite so far!

      Do you have a favourite?

      Liked by 1 person

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