HOUSE OF THE RISING SUN: RICHARD LINKLATER’S ‘BEFORE SUNRISE’ 20 YEARS LATER

Dir: Richard Linklater

Castle Rock Entertainment, USA, 1995

Starring: Ethan Hawke, Julie Delpy

What do we think about when we think about Richard Linklater? More often than not, the discussion revolves around the passage of time. His films often explore the changing attitudes and perspectives of characters over lengthy observations, recreating and dissecting specific or notable eras. In his most explicit temporal exercise, Boyhood (2014), Linklater employed an episodic, chronological device, in the form of annual visits to an individual, in order to trace the development of a boy as he grows from child to young adult. The stunning consideration of time, rhythm and flow, exposed viewers previously unfamiliar with Linklater’s work to his favoured theme, and those who chose to further explore his filmography, a catalogue stretching back to 1988, would soon discover the trilogy of films that first hinted at his persistent obsession with the passage time.

The Before trilogy, consisting of Before Sunrise (1995), Before Sunset (2004) and Before Midnight (2013), traces a romantic connection between two people over the course of 20 years, one day per film. Beginning in 1995 with Before Sunrise, we are introduced to Jesse & Celine (two of Linklater’s most enduring and detailed characters) as they meet for the first time on a train to Vienna. They proceed to spend the night walking through the city, discussing everything from the value of palm readers to simple observations of the environment. The film ends the following morning as they part, a contained tale in which scenes unfold in near real time with little temporal manipulation to disrupt the organic flow of the narrative. Nine years later, Before Sunset reunites the characters, this time in Paris, now with nine years of collected wisdom and developments to discuss; gifting them another day to ponder the forces that have brought them together once again. Before Midnight, the most recent addition to the series, revisits the couple, who are now parents, on holiday in Greece and proceeds to scrutinise the relationship, examining the previously unexplored strains and conflicts that come with long term companionship.

before-sunrise-1

It would be somewhat redundant to rank or list the films in order of preference, mainly due to the fact that each film has developed into a self contained story, each with their own defining merits and attitudes towards romance. From their first moment together, a brief, shared moment of eye contact across a train carriage, there is a cynicism and pessimism that begins to infiltrate the seemingly idyllic pairing. Stretched out over the course of three films, the introduction of conflict is gradual and glacial, one that seeps into the conversations beginning with quick fire, innocent bickering in Sunrise and culminating in a heated, malicious argument at the climax of Midnight. It becomes increasingly difficult to define the films as ‘romantic’ as time progresses and the couple become more accustomed to each other. There are certainly moments and elements of the romantic in Midnight, but the latter film defines romance and love very differently to the tranquil honeymoon period depicted in Sunrise.

The key theme throughout the Before Trilogy is change. Linklater investigates what changes in the lives of the protagonists, but more so, what changes in their systems of belief and the expression of their ideas. Jesse matures and finally undertakes some sort of responsibility as a family man, though loses the idealistic charm of his youth, whereas Celine arguably transitions into a more selfish entity than the first outing suggested. As the duo grows together, the audience grows with them. We are spectators to the most crucial and definitive moments in their relationship and, as a result, form a bond with them, an organic connection between film and audience that may well go down as the crowning achievement in Linklater’s body of work. The characters change their opinions regarding love, the world, and each other, whilst the audience changes their opinions of the characters, the ways in which they interact, and the manner in which they consider the profound, seemingly omnipotent force that connected them all those years ago.

Ethan Hawke and Julie Delpy have both contributed exponentially to the development of their respective characters, co-writing the films with Linklater in order to donate a personal insight and project a consistent spirit on to the ever changing canvases of Jesse & Celine. In a sense, the characters are curated diaries of two real people; it is difficult to imagine a scenario in which Hawke and Delpy have not instilled their own personal thoughts into the scripts and performances – thoughts concerning love, growing older and their predictions for each other’s characters. The actors, along with Linklater as their editor, curator and creator, have crafted remarkably natural figures that mutate and change and bloom as they reveal more facets and dimensions to their audience. Their developments are rarely predictable and their fears, hopes and reasoning processes remain genuinely interesting and perceptive.

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It remains a testament to Linklater’s skill, as both a director and writer, that these films function as standalone observations equally as well as when bound to each other. The first, an optimistic, charming portrayal of young love, still stands strong as one of the more intelligent romantic films of the 1990’s, and one of the high water marks for the American Independent cinema of the era. Before Sunset is the adult drama, discarding the hopeful attitude of the first film to instead focus on disillusionment, and themes including adultery and the negativities of sentimentality. Before Midnight is a little more difficult to define as an individual film, returning to notions introduced in both of its predecessors and expanding on new ideas simultaneously. Perhaps, as time progresses, we will be able to view it from a distance, to better understand its place in the filmic landscape of the decade.

Twenty years removed from our first meeting with Jesse & Celine, they remain somewhat familiar but vastly different. Their lives, like ours, have been reshaped by forces under and above our control, in some cases for better, in others for worse. They have adjusted to the changing times and developments in society, and demonstrated a longevity that film characters rarely do over a series of sequels and revisits. When we think about Richard Linklater we think about time, but for many, we will simply think about the trilogy of films that considers the true nature of romance. These films will forever speak to the generation of viewers that aged alongside the protagonists, those who have experienced many of the trials and tribulations that Linklater’s films depict, but equally to those separated from the eras in which they exist. The true achievement of these films is to remain universally important. They are not restrained by time but instead traverse it freely. Though the aesthetics, the cities and the people may change, the notions and ideas that they explore do not, they remain important and essential to this day, and the days ahead.

  • Kristofer Thomas

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