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« Random Thoughts on Upcoming "Best Supporting Actress"Race| Main| Kidman in Cannes.Part 4.»
Thursday
May 23 2013

Those Who Have Gone "Before"

Hi all,it'sTim,here on the eve of what is,by far,my most-anticipated summer release of 2013.Not,shockingly,The Hangover,Part III.Not evenEpic.No,like most right-thinking people,2013 for me is all aboutBefore Midnight,the third film in one of cinema's most unlikely series,in which we revisit lovers Celine (Julie Delpy) and Jesse (Ethan Hawke) every nine years to see what they've been up to.The first time we met them inBefore Sunrise,they met by accident on a train into Vienna,then inBefore Sunsetthey had an afternoon to walk around Paris,and in this third entry- I have no idea,I'm on completely spoiler lockdown with this film,to the level where I won't even look at the poster.But I'm willing to guarantee that whatever they're up to,it's going to have some very deep resonance and profound truth to speak about the lifespan of romantic relationships.

For the benefit of anyone who hasn't had the chance to see the earlier movies yet –pleasechange that as soon as possible,I beg you – or to get series veterans riled up for its imminent return (like that's even necessary),I wanted to share five reasons that,for me,the first twoBefore…movies are some of the finest romantic dramas in the history of cinema.[more...]

The characters are real,and precise.
Unless you're paying attention to the cover of Jesse's book in one scene ofSunset,neither of these characters have a last name,which is almost always fiction-code for "they are Everyperson stand-ins for the human experience",and typically means that they'll be a bit foggy in the expression.Nothing could be less true of either Celine or Jesse,both of whom are built with a basketful of specific character traits,whether it's their fully fleshed-out back stories and current activities (e.g.Celine's fond relationship with her grandmother and political engagement),or behavior that happens so naturally it doesn't even seem like acting (e.g.Jesse's habit of backtracking with a giggle every time he says something that Celine disapproves of),or even something as simple as patterns of speaking (e.g.the idiosyncratic use of "officially"in both films).And,obviously enough,it's because they're so exact and specific that they're so appealing and easy to relate to;any time a writer wants to create a blank,universal situation,all they really do is make character who seem vague;because Jesse and Celine are so impeccable in every detail,it's easier to think of their situation as applicable to real people and not just a concept.

The characters aren't idealized.
This is maybe contained within the last point,but important enough to pull it out on its own.If there's one problem with modern romantic movies that makes all of them a bit tedious,it's that the protagonists are too squeaky-clean,with their flaws depicted as charming quirks that anybody wouldloveto be around,not irritations that a lover has to learn to understand and overlook.Celine and Jesse are,by and large,awfully pleasant and easy to like,but neither of them is a cardboard saint.Jesse is a bit preening and cocksure inSunrise,after the fashion of every crisply-dressed jackass you wanted to punch in a bar,and he's openly romanticizing the idea of cheating on his wife inSunset.In both movies,Celine is intensely married to her opinions and takes obvious,if subdued delight in declaring those opinions loudly and forcefully enough that she makes her partner feel self-conscious and uncomfortable.They're both prone to self-deception,and it's pretty clear that they're both a bit self-righteous.None of this is meant to make us dislike them,but it's certainly enough to raise the question of whether they'd be a bit frustrating in real life.Of course they would,and it's by allowing the romantic leads to have some dark shading that the films can suggest even more that they're pretty realistic.

The films have a tremendous sense of place.
To a great degree,Sunriseis about knocking around Vienna,poking into corners and sightseeing,and doing it with somebody you have fun spending time with.And just as much,Sunsetis aboutnotpaying any attention to the sights of Paris as you're walking around with somebody that you need,desperately,to reconnect with.So the relationship each film has to the city it takes place is very different,yet both of them succeed in capturing something very important about the feeling and texture of that city: without ever once having to rely on postcard-friendly shots of buildings and landscapes,the films act as the best possible advertisements for the cities by depicting them as alive and moving,full of little details that add to the texture and depth of the films whether the protagonists are engaging with the city,or ignoring it.

The craftsmanship is deliberate and precise without being overwhelming.
Richard Linklater has had his ups and downs as a director,but theBeforefilms are pretty clearly his masterpieces.Not because you can see him working for it,though.In fact,the guiding hand behind the movies is so quiet as to be completely invisible,particularly inSunset,which is made up almost entirely of two-shots facing the characters.This simplicity isn't the same as carelessness,though;what Linklater's camera does here is to strip out everything that would be a distraction from the characters and the actors.It's not the same as "getting out of the way",as we sometimes dismissively say of direction that bows down in favor of letting the actors go on in bland long takes (think of any of Woody Allen's sub-par films);it'sclearingthe way,using some awfully complex and ambitious tracking shots (inSunset),or very carefully-framed shots (in both films) not to draw attention to the cinematography,but to draw attention to the characters.It's invisible filmmaking without which the films wouldn't have nearly the impact they do,for the randomness of just filming actors is nothing like the deliberate care of foregrounding the actors without being showy.

The movies leave us wanting more.
The ending ofSunrise,with Celine and Jesse romantically committing the kind of abject stupidity that could only be mistaken for wisdom by the young and intellectual.The exhilarating ellipsis asSunsetdraws to a close with its legendary "Baby,you are gonna miss that plane"/ "I know".The films have so far performed the most dramatic kind of balancing act of convincing us of the emotions in the central relationship,and then refraining from paying that relationship off as most films would.Instead of being frustrating,this ends up being the most exciting and involving part of all,creating the sense that the characters have lives going on beyond the edges of the movie,and that makes our novennial reunions with these characters all the more inviting.I don't know ifBefore Midnightwill have a similar note of deliberate incompleteness in its closing moments,but based on the films so far,I expect to be just as invested in the lives of Celine and Jesse in 2022 as I am here in 2013.

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Reader Comments (15)

Yeah.The only other film I can really say equals my excitement for this is The World's End.

May 23,2013 | Unregistered CommenterVolvagia

What a lovely read!I can't wait to revisit these characters - and happy the reviews are strong.

May 23,2013 | Unregistered CommenterMike in Canada

I have never recovered from seeing "Before Sunrise,"and the morning after scene in the alleyway where Jesse says to Celine,"Let me take your picture."And she closes her eyes,and he puts his hands on her shoulders,and he......just stares at her.Drinks her in.Memorizes her.Makes love to her one more time,just with his eyes.Ensures he'll never forget her.Adores her.

There are no words.There is a snatch of music,and the morning light,and looking at the person whom you know has just divided your entire life into "Before"and "After."

Unquestionably,Ethan Hawke's most supreme moment as an actor,just as that final little song-and-dance to Nina Simone in "Before Sunset"is Julie Delpy's pinnacle scene.But for me,almost no film moment is as perfectly romantic as that "picture taking"bit from the original.

May 23,2013 | Unregistered CommenterDback

Can we have part 4 of Nicole Kidman please..U guys are lacking behind her three new outfits now

May 24,2013 | Unregistered CommenterAmy Adams

Tim - loved reading this and I HAVE seen the third film already and can testify that it has all five of these precisely carved elements again.I have more specific feelings on it but I want to wait till more people have seen it to share.I am still SO pissed that I skimmed the very beginning of one review and immediately knew too much and these films are the best kind of "so what's been going on with you?"meetups with old friends (that you happen to be in love with like an invisible third piece of a romantic triangle)

May 24,2013 | Registered CommenterNATHANIEL R

"Baby,you're going to miss that plane,""I know."I threw the friggin remote at the TV.I was so invested,so adoring of those wonderful characters.I just couldn't deal with the ending until I realized how perfect it was.Whenever I watch that ending it sends shivers down my spine.I really hope that Midnight lives up to it.

May 24,2013 | Unregistered CommenterJontruism

Ugh,I can't wait for this!!!This is like my Star Wars.

May 24,2013 | Unregistered CommenterSad man

Can.Not.Wait!

May 24,2013 | Unregistered CommenterMareko

Can't wait to see this.I worked on the taxi scene from Before Sunset in my acting class and so I had to study and read the script a few times and it is just a masterpiece,full of nuance and both characters are so fully realized.Great write up Tim.

May 24,2013 | Unregistered Commenterrami (ramification)

Before Sunset,which I actually saw first,is the epitome of more-than-meets-the-eye cinema for me.Watching it,I was frustrated and maybe even slightly bored,but after letting it marinate in my mind for even just one night,I could tell I had misjudged it.Now it stands as one of my favorite films,something that every now and then will pop into my thoughts and refuse to leave until I've watched it again.It's so rich in its simplicity and careful,purposeful craft.In its way,it is a perfect film.I am still incredibly nervous about Midnight,despite all the stellar reviews,because of that brilliant,perfect ending (seriously,"Baby,you are gonna miss that plane.""I know."is right up there with "I think this is the beginning of a beautiful friendship"and "Nobody's perfect"in the pantheon of great closing lines),but I love that indie cinema has a marquee trilogy to call its own,that fans can get all passionate and nervous and excited about.So this is what all those Hangover and Fast & Furious fans must be feeling this week!

May 24,2013 | Unregistered Commenterdenny

Glad to see I'm not alone in being SO ANXIOUS for this to be openright now.Which it is,I guess,in New York and LA,but that does me no good at all.Very glad to hear Nathaniel's report.

May 24,2013 | Unregistered CommenterTim

I should say just to temper expectations that I think BEFORE SUNSET is the peak and masterwork within the trilogy but the other two films are great bookends for it.

May 24,2013 | Registered CommenterNATHANIEL R

Lovely write-up,Tim.Like you and everyone else here,I'm so excited to see Midnight.I think your observation about how the film creates these two fully realized characters in very specific settings also applies to time.I love how the passage of time,of who the characters have grown into from Sunrise to Sunset makes such perfect sense.This feeling is enhanced for me because I'm roughly the same age as the characters.Even though their specific circumstances were very different from mine,I identified very strongly with Celine when watching Sunrise as a young 20-something and then Sunset as an early 30-something.In fact,it was so strong that my connection with Sunrise had lessened a bit over the years.Not because the film didn't age well,but because I got older,and I could see Celine and Jesse through new eyes.I can't wait to catch up with them and experience a day in their lives again.

May 24,2013 | Unregistered CommenterSusanP

I have never been as nervous about watching a film as I was when I sat down to see Before Midnight.It did not disappoint.

May 24,2013 | Unregistered CommenterBrianZ

Just saw it and UGH just wish I could talk to someone nonstop about it.I'm in love with the series again,more than ever.I wonder if a German word exists to describe the simultaneous feelings of incredible tenderness,poignant sadness,and joy.

May 25,2013 | Unregistered Commentercaroline

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