“Let me get my bag”: Time traveling with Richard Linklater’s “Before” trilogy


I used to think it was pretty special that I got to age along with the Richard Linklater’s “Before” series. When “Before Sunrise” came out I was 26, when “Before Sunset” came out I was 35, and when “Before Midnight” came out I was 44. Tracking, more or less, with the aging of the characters, getting a surprise visit from them every 9 years.

It was special for watching the movies, but also for those nine-year gaps in between. Linklater’s preoccupation, from “Boyhood” to “Dazed and Confused” to “Slacker” has always been about time, how it shapes us and how we shape it in memory.  These nearly-decade long intermissions gave me the chance to age, too, and track my own trek into middle age along with Celine and Jesse.

But the occasion of the release of all three films in a boxed set from the Criterion Collection has me rethinking that specialness a little. Because, as valid as it is to see the films over an 18-year span, seeing them all together reveals new things to the viewer, reveals them not just as an ongoing project but a single, unified work of art.

For all the seemingly offhanded walk-and-talk of each film’s structure, seeing them together reveals how the films tend to rhyme with each other. Just to take one example, Celine is making tea in the flirty late scene of “Sunset,” then making it angrily (yes, Julie Delpy makes angry tea-steeping possible) during the bruising argument in “Midnight.”

The films almost seem to loop into a Moebius strip together – the couple fighting on the train at the beginning of “Sunrise” could be Jesse and Celine at the end of “Midnight,” and the romantic young couple at dinner in “Midnight” could be Jesse and Celine at “Sunrise.” (As for the older couple at the same dinner, perhaps we’ll see them in Jesse and Celine in a future film?) One critic boldly contends that the films are not sequential, but all happening simultaneously. I’m starting to see what he means.

But, on the other hand, the films do chart the distinct passing of time – they’re even bookended by Jesse’s wooing of Celine by pretending to be a time traveler. But, eventually, a timeline must be chosen. If “Sunrise” is about a young world where all possibilities are open to the lovers, “Sunset” is about the time when one possibility must be chosen. And then “Midnight” is about living with the consequences of that choice.

The bonus features and interviews on the Criterion trilogy really helped me flesh out some of this thinking. A conversation between film scholars Dave Johnson and Rob Stone, who have both written books on Linklater, is delightful, as they bring to bear different philosophers and Linklater’s ode to both American and European cinema. The only thing that would make the lively conversation even better is if the duo were walking in a major European city as they talked.

Extensive interviews with LInklater, Delpy and Ethan Hawke reveal the process about the films, in particular the extensive, even exhaustive rehearsal time in which the trio essentially wrote the entire film together before they put one foot on a cobblestone street. Linklater reveals that “Sunrise” is based on a day he spent with a woman in Pittsburgh when he was there with his first film in the late ‘80s. He always wondered what happened to her, but didn’t find out until decades later that she died young, before “Sunrise” even came out. The possibility she represented lived on in his mind, like another timeline, long after she was gone.

Seeing the films together allows me to take a more philosophical view of them then I had when “Midnight” first came out. At the time, I so identified with the characters, and was so wounded, personally, by the argument scene in “Midnight” that I questioned whether I should have even seen the film. Would it have been better to leave things in Celine’s Paris apartment at the end of “Sunset,” dangling on that moment of possibility, that choice not yet taken?

But then that wish is sort of a wish for time travel, the ability to unknow the present and go back to live in the past. In the same way, whenever there’s talk of a fourth film (it seems like a definite possibility, although Hawke says it would have to be viewed as the start of a new trilogy – the “After” films perhaps?) I get nervous.  And I recognize that nervousness from my own life, that middle-aged fear of growing old, that things will only get worse from here. That time won’t be kind.

Despite my trepidation, though, when 2022 comes around, it won’t seem like the future anymore. It’ll be my present once again. And I’m sure I’ll want to know how Jesse and Celine are handling it, too.

2 thoughts on ““Let me get my bag”: Time traveling with Richard Linklater’s “Before” trilogy

  1. Hi Rob Thomas – Dave Johnson and I got a kick out of your review, so many thanks. That was our idea too – to have our conversation while walking around a European cinema, but the Criterion budget didn’t stretch. Great blog!

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