The Before Trilogy directed by Richard Linklater remains one of the most critically acclaimed and well-received romantic drama franchises in American film history, and for good reason. The pairing of wunderkind Ethan Hawke as Jesse and the ever charming Julie Delpy as Céline created a chemistry that felt all too real and magnetic for audiences to turn away. Released over a period of 18 years, the Before trilogy takes an in-depth look into the relationship of Jesse and Céline as they try to circumvent their own identities and life expectations. But what do the films actually say about love and life?
Before Sunrise is the first film in the series where the main characters meet randomly on a train traveling from Budapest to Vienna. Jesse is an American college student who has been traveling in Europe for the summer after being dumped while visiting his long-distance girlfriend in Spain. Céline is French, on her way back to Paris after visiting relatives. After their chance encounter, the two develop an instant connection and decide to spend the day together in Vienna until Jesse leaves on his flight to the U.S. the following day. From the start they know their relationship is confined by their circumstances, that the following day they will each return to their separate lives occurring thousands of miles and an ocean apart. This understanding allows the characters to explore the impermanence of relationships and their expectations of romantic partners.
Despite Jesse’s recent break up, his attraction to Céline inspired enough courage to approach the woman. Hurt and still grieving, their conversations reveal a romantic dreamer somehow mixed in with the cynicism of a much older man. Jesse is a believer and a doubter simultaenously. Céline on the other hand appears much more of a romantic, taking people at their word and not necessarily questioning motivations of the people around her. At the same time, she shows a very realistic understanding of romantic relationships and their inability to meet all of one’s needs.
From the first scene the characters display their doubts of romance. An older couple on the train is arguing and Céline explains that as couples age, men begin to lose their ability to hear higher pitched sounds and women their ability to hear lower pitched sounds, and therefore the mutual ability to hear each other. She says this is “nature’s way of allowing couples to grow old without killing each other.” As the day goes on they discuss failed attempts they’ve made to stay in touch with past lovers, the only happy couples they know are the ones who lie to each other, and Céline’s grandmother’s advice to not put too much stake in romantic relationships, but to focus on friendship and work as those have brought her the most happiness in life.
Despite this cynicism (or realism, depending on your perspective), they still make a mutual agreement to spend the day together, making the most of what it is. The definitive constraint on their time together is part of what makes this possible. At one point Jesse asks, “Why do people think relationships are supposed to last forever anyway?” They have no expectations of the other, except to enjoy the moment. In theory, this makes it easier to not want something else, where otherwise, the expectation of lasting forever can often prevent us from enjoying what is in front of us right now. The thought of “what if it doesn’t last?” can at times cause us more pain than the actual end of a relationship and may even, in part, lead to that end. Jesse and Celine, however, know it won’t last but are able to appreciate what it is despite that. Pop culture often creates a binary of either break-up or happily forever, but many different types of evolving relationships often exist, such as the friendship between Jason Mamoa, Lenny Kravitz, and their baby mama Lisa Bonet. Although the characters spend the entire film talking about the idea of a transient relationship, at the end they are still tempted by the idea of more with each other. They make a pact to meet up at the same station in Vienna six months later.
The second film in the series, Before Sunset, picks up 9 years after Before Sunrise, showing that Jesse and Céline did not end up together. Jesse went to the station and waited, but Céline did not come due to the death of her aunt. Jesse, heartbroken and distraught, would eventually write his encounter with Céline into a book, which brings her back into his life when his book tour ended up in Paris. Now a married father, it is quite apparent that Jesse is unhappy, but Céline seems fine. She tells Jesse, “for me it’s better I don’t romanticize things as much anymore. I was suffering so much all the time. I still have lots of dreams, but they’re not in regard to my love life. It doesn’t make me sad. It’s just the way it is.” Jesse, despite his marriage to another is more pressing about believing he could be happy and in love with another. He tells Céline, “I want a great life. I want her to have a great life, she deserves that. But we’re just living in the pretense of a marriage, how people are supposed to live.” Jesse does not have any negative feelings toward his current wedding partner, but he knows that his emotional connection with Céline is a driving factor in his wants, needs, and his sense of where he can find happiness. If Before Sunrise is a youthful tale of possibilities, Before Sunset is the narrowing sense of opportunities and risk.
Both Céline and Jesse have made decisions for their lives that have not prioritized romantic love or relationships. Jesse made the decision to start a family, but is not happy in his marriage. It seems that he saw a life for himself and wanted to make that happen, even if the particulars were not perfect, and it is here we see the limitations of a traditional nuclear family structure and the idea that raising a family is predicated on having a happy marriage. Jesse has chosen to sacrifice happiness in romantic relationships in order to raise a child and now he doubts that decision. Céline, on the other hand, has chosen to prioritize her career over a marriage or a family. Though she doesn’t at first seem to regret this decision, we see her doubt begin to bubble up toward the end of the film. She says to Jesse, “I’m so miserable in my love life, in my relationship, I always act as… like…you know, I’m detached, but I’m… I’m dying inside. I’m dying because I’m so numb. I don’t feel pain, or excitement.” It’s clear that despite attempting to appear that her dissatisfaction with romantic relationships has not impeded her life, she is just as unhappy as Jesse.
Both of their experiences show how as a society our understanding of love, romance, and family limits us in finding happiness. There is an overwhelming idea that at some point we must sacrifice something. We must choose which life we want, and let go of the versions of ourselves that do not fit into that life. But Jesse and Céline show us that this sacrifice is painful, and as viewers we imagine what could be possible for them if they did not have to choose? But at the end of the day, at least in this reality, they do and they choose each other.
The third film in the series is Before Midnight, which jumps another nine years ahead and shows Céline and Jesse married with twin girls, vacationing in Greece at a writers’ retreat for Jesse. Jesse is experiencing absentee father guilt navigating a negative dynamic with his ex-wife in America, while Céline plans on taking her volunteer work into a more political and lucrative direction which Jesse worries will take time away from her family. Despite his idealized mindset and wishing Céline would make time for herself, it becomes obvious that Céline has played the part of caretaker and matriarchal figure that is the glue keeping Jesse’s life together as his writing career remains his major focus day to day.
Céline feels underappreciated and insulted by Jesse’s dancing around the idea of relocating the family to America to be closer to his son. The romantic feeling of fate seems to have worn away with time as the couple speak to each other in dismissive, matter of fact, and paternal tones throughout the film. Céline has grown tired of Jesse centering his career in their relationship while Jesse feels he is owed by Céline because he gave up his life in America and a close relationship with his son so she could have France. The driving question of Before Midnight is “was it worth it?”
After a tense argument in which Céline wants to know if Jesse has been unfaithful he offers her a passionate non-answer of, “I am giving you my whole life ok? I got nothing larger to give, I’m not giving it to anybody else. If you’re looking for permission to disqualify me, I’m not gonna give it to you. Ok? I love you. And I’m not in conflict about it.” To Jesse, a moment of physical indiscretion does not erase the life sacrifices he has made to be with Céline. If further pressed, I would wager Jesse would argue that moment helped him realize how he was happy with his choice of Céline as a life partner. He tells her that, “I don’t want to live a boring life, where two people own each other, where two people are institutionalized in a box that others created because that is a bunch of stifling bullshit,” but still has boxed her in unintentionally. Her feelings of resentment towards the laundry, dinner, repeat caretaker lifestyle has waned on her sense of identity and purpose which Jesse seems completely oblivious to in his own self-driven agenda to be closer to his son.
In this moment in time, Jesse and Céline are working hard to raise their children, do work that feels meaningful to them, and find enjoyment in life. But what’s missing is the “spark” that existed between them in the two previous films. Throughout the fight, it’s evident that to Céline, their relationship has embodied everything she’s been mentioning since the first film when she was questioning whether Jesse knew any happy couples. At a point she says to Jesse that she doesn’t love him anymore and walks out. He eventually follows her, attempting to make amends. He says, “If you want true love, then this is it. This is real life. It’s not perfect but it’s real. And if you can’t see it, then you’re blind, all right, and I give up.”
The third film grapples with the reality of relationships.In Before Midnight Celine states, “I mean, we always think we’re evolving, but maybe we can’t change that much.” On their first night together in 1995, Jesse believed that, “Love is complex. Yes I had told someone I loved them before, and did I mean it? Yes. But was a totally unselfish giving thing? Ehh…” From the very beginning, Jesse’s idea of love remains selfless and accepting of the person his heart chooses, while for Céline love is also a selfless act but can lead to sacrificing her own personhood. If we juxtapose the moment when she asks Jesse, “Isn’t everything we do in life a way to be loved a little more?” in Before Sunrise, with their culminating conversations that take place on that night in Greece in the final film, we see that their mindsets on love and life have not really changed at all, even if they hoped they would.
The Before trilogy explores traditional social outlooks on romance as we progress and age into adulthood and potentially parenthood. The barely young adults of Before Sunrise try to appear to downplay how much emotional energy you should invest in a romantic encounter, but still make the time to experience something out of a “why not?” mentality. Before Sunset highlights the early 30s “what if?” and questioning if you made the right choice in your romantic history, wondering if there is still time to make a change. Before Midnight demonstrates the “what now?” as the weight of one’s choices and life decisions such as parenthood come into play when navigating to who and what you are responsible. All three stories of Jesse and Céline’s relationship portray love and affection between the two, but each time they must also grapple with the social pressures associated with that time in their life.
The excitement and thrill we feel at the beginning of a relationship will not last, and it becomes a question of what is left beneath that surface level connection, the substance of our beings. It is a question of if we are able to show up for one another, to listen, to learn from mistakes in ways that make sense for both individuals in a relationship. We hope, and sometimes assume, that the answer to these questions will always be a “yes,” but the most important thing in any relationship is that we continue to ask ourselves and each other those questions.